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  • Liz Ullery Swenson

A Queer Reading of Psalm 31

The myriad of voices and perspectives represented by the original Psalm writers invites the opportunity to re-contextualize the psalms to represent the experiences and voices of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, etc. (LGBTQ+) community. Each time we pray the psalms, we are applying them to our own lived experiences and interpreting it through our own lens. A queer reading of Ps 31 interprets the it within the context of the LGBTQ+ lived experience. It does not change the original Psalm, but adds depth to the understanding of the motives behind the prayer. In the book The Queer Bible Commentary, author S. Tamar Kamionkowski, invites the reader to enter into the Psalms through the voices from the margnilized .

“A great number of the psalms represent the voices of the oppressed and the marginalized. Both through individual suffering and through ancient Israel’s national experience of exile and displacement; the psalms present a rich record of the perspective of the ‘Other’. The psalms explore what it feels like to be ostracized and abandoned by friends and family. The psalms represent the experiences of depression and spiritual emptiness. The psalms give expression to the feeling of being abandoned by God.”[1]

These experiences of being ostracized, depressed and abandoned by God are familiar to many in the LGBTQ+ community. The opportunity to see their lived experience represented in the sacred Biblical text can be an empowering experience.

Psalm 31 is a prayer for help with an irregular literary structure that seems to conclude with v, 8 and then start all over again with v. 9.[2] As Beth Tanner, the author of the commentary on this psalm in NICOT, challenges, “instead of assuming that those that kept and edited this psalm did not see its lack of logical order, could it be that the psalm only looks confused to a post-Enlightenment Western audience? Is there something we can learn from this psalm?” She goes on, “our lives do not unfold in logical order. Things happen that we do not expect, and faith and doubt are part of that cycle.”[3]

This double-prayer or repeating format is fitting for a queer reading of the psalm because the process of coming out is initially two-fold. The person must go through the internal work of coming out to and embracing their own identity first, and then must come out to their family and larger community. The process of coming out is then repeated every time the person meets someone new or engages in a new community and so the prayer may be repeated each time the person must do the vulnerable work of coming out. In that sense, it is a cyclical prayer for many seasons.

1-8 — First prayer for help in coming out to self 1-6 — Pleas to God for support 7-8 — Expression of trust and praise 9-24 — Second prayer for help in coming out to community 9-13 — Pleas to God for safety 14-18 — Expression of trust in God 19-24 — Praise[4]

1-6 The psalmist is crying out for God to listen, to take them seriously and to offer security and safety. In Beth LaNeel Nanner’s translation the words “refuge” (vv. 1, 2, 4), “rock” (vv. 2), and “fortified/fortification” (vv. 2, 3) are repeated illustrating that the psalmist is in need of strength and solid ground. In v. 5 the psalmist entrusts, or commits her spirit, her life, into God’s hands for protection and safekeeping. For many in the LGBTQ+ community who have been the victims of spiritual violence the idea of putting their life and spirit in God’s hands can be challenging but v. 6 in The Messageversion could speak powerfully to their experience, “I hate all this silly religion, but you, God, I trust.”[5] Having a personal trust in God, separate from those who would construe God as disapproving is powerfully important for an LGBTQ+ person’s spirituality. By reclaiming a spiritual identity and relationship with God they are better able to withstand the “bad theology” because they know that God loves and cares for them, regardless of what anyone says. They are able to affirm and be grounded in the fact that they are indeed made in God’s image.

7-8 In vv. 7 and 8 the psalmist rejoices in God’s hesed, articulated in NICOT to be “both who the Lord is and what the Lord does.”[6] It is the essence of who God is that has resulted in the psalmist being heard and seen by God and spared from being delivered “into the hand of the enemy.”[7] (v. 8) In this queer reading, the first prayer for help articulates the coming out to self process and so the enemy might be suicide or self-harm. A Center for Disease Control study in 2011 found that lesbian, gay or bisexual youth are 4-times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. For transgender youth, nearly half have seriously thought about taking their lives, and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.[8] Here, God has seen the psalmist by reminding them they are made in God’s image, an affirmation that asserts the value and worthiness of the psalmist. Having been spared from the enemy of self-inflicted harm, the psalmist can appreciate standing on the solid ground of self worth and value they so fervently prayed for.

9-13 Starting with v. 9 the psalmist is deep in the throws of despair again. Having come out to herself and affirmed her own identity, the queer psalmist comes out to her family and larger community which has caused great anguish, fear and distress. She is a disgrace to her neighbors, the object of dread, people on the street flee (v. 11). She is considered dead by her friends and family, discarded like a smashed pot (v. 12). She has become the topic of gossip as the community talks behind her back and debates what to do with her (v. 13). These painful words resonate with anyone who has been rejected by family and friends upon coming out as LGBTQ+. Young people specifically face great risk by coming out or being “outed” to unsupportive parents and families. A 2012 study found that as many as 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ and seven in ten of LGBT homeless youth have experienced family rejection.[9] The risk is great and the prayers of homeless LGBTQ+ youth are very real.

14-18 The psalmist calls on God to intercede, it is through her trust that God is her God (v. 14), and on her side that she seeks God to protect and deliver her from her persecutors (v. 15) that she may know the warmth of God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love (v. 16). In v. 17 the psalmist again cries out to be saved from shame, an important verse in this reading since shame has been a preferred tactic used against LGBTQ+ people. The family and friends in vv. 11-13 that are throwing her out are doing so because they are ashamed of her. In v. 18 the psalmist calls for the “lying lips to be stilled” (NICOT) as they inflict violence and speak untruths in God’s name.

19-24 The psalmist returns to praise in the closing verses of this prayer. Similar to the praise offered in the first prayer for help in vv. 1-8, v. 20 celebrates the shelter and safety found in God, specifically safety from the human plots. Here we hope that the psalmist has found physical safety, but we are certain that her spiritual safety has certainly been found in God. The psalmist goes on to once again celebrate that her pleas have been heard and she is safe, for now. In vv. 23 and 24 she offers encouragement to others with the same experience. Encouraging them to “be strong”, and “take courage”, assuring them that it does indeed get better. Powerful words that have helped generations of LGTBQ+ people survive.

While this powerful psalm speaks to a unique experience of the LGBTQ+ community what is possibly more important is the opportunity to reclaim the Bible that has so often been used as a weapon of spiritual violence. In Our Tribe: Queer folks, God, Jesus and the Bible, Rev. Nancy Wilson, talks about “Biblephobia”, LGBTQ+ “people who open a Bible fearfully, as if it would physically hurt them to read it. …For gay and lesbian people who grew up thinking the Bible was a source of spiritual authority, the word of God, and the story of Jesus’ love, the experience of being verbally abused with a Bible was devastating.”[10] Having an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the Biblical narrative is an important step of healing in their spiritual journey. This re-contextualized Psalm provides assurance to LGBTQ+ people that God does not and will not abandon them. A powerful reminder to anyone’s faith journey.

[1] S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Psalms,” in Deryn Guest et al., eds., The Queer Bible Commentary (London: SCM Press, 2015), p. 320.

[2] DeClaissé-Walford, Nancy L., Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014). (Kindle Location 6477)

[3] NICOT (Kindle Locations 6594-6596)

[4] NICOT (Kindle Locations 6484-6488)

[5] Eugene Peterson. The Message. 2002.

[6] NICOT (Kindle Location 544)

[7] NICOT (Kindle Location 6511)

[8] The Trevor Project. “Facts About Suicide.”

[9] The Williams Institute. Identifying and Serving LGBTQ Youth. 2012.

[10] Nancy L. Wilson. Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. (113)

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