Alton Sterling, a Son’s Tears, and Psalm 137: A Lament


By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept –Psalm 137:1

What does it look like to reach the breaking point of orthodoxy?  What does it look like to arrive at the place where the desire for reconciliation gives way to anger and resentment?  It looks like a fifteen-year-old boy weeping uncontrollably over the death of his father. His tears and our anger are not new. The Psalms knew of such breaking and lament:

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!  (Psalm 137:7–9)

What could motivate God’s people to utter such a despairing and uncomfortable prayer?  Quite simply, they had experienced a great trauma.  When the Babylonians rushed into Jerusalem and burned it to the ground, Israel stood helpless while their children were killed, their wives were assaulted, and husbands were murdered.  Now they longed for revenge.  They had reached the breaking point of orthodoxy.  With no other recourse, they  turned their anger and pain upward to God. They told God what they felt.  God’s people were tired, angry, and devoid of hope.  All that remained was the cry for justice or vengeance or some combination of the two.

I take from this that God’s people have the God given and bible sanctioned right to feel deep anger in the midst of a prolonged experience of injustice.  So yes black people are in a mood, and we have been in one for quite some time.  We are in a mood because folks demand eloquence, patience, and perspective in the face of calamity.  We are allowed some anger, but only if we bracket that anger with explanations and qualifications lest we be misunderstood.  But Psalm 137 is not bracketed anger. It is the cry of the broken. The pain evident in that Psalm flows forth in a manner that is unrelenting and without qualification.  Of course, God’s people had no desire to bash the heads of babies, but when emotions ran high, the responses did not always sound like what was acceptable to the powerful. For God’s sake let us weep for a while before being assaulted with calls for perspective and theological sophistication.

Nonetheless, the bible does not end with Psalm 137.  The people of God’s cry for vengeance was  answered, but it was not answered with bloodshed and hate. God, in his love, called us back from our brokenness and our anger. He is our healer. The answer that God gives (yes we go there even now) is nothing less that the cross.  The death of his Son for the reconciliation of the world is not less important today. It is vital.  So Christians, we either pick up our crosses, eventually if not today, or we burn the thing to the ground.  Either God has a word of hope for his people or we are doomed.

This is not escapism.  This is not heaven as a hustle. This is an active engagement for justice borne up by the blood of Jesus. It is our heritage despite those who would pretend otherwise. We have risen to the occasion before and must do so again. This heritage and his faithfulness unto death for his enemies allows us to avoid the chasm of despair on our right and the burden of hatred on our left.  It is the narrow path.  It is the path that disappoints just about everyone.  It disappoints our “woke” friends who want only Psalm 137 but not Mark 16:6:

And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.

It disappoints our Christian brothers and sisters who are deeply asleep and only want us to speak about the saving of souls, not the rescue of black bodies. So today, and for many days to come, we will again weep.  I place no restrictions on our mourning. But in the end, we will remember that our God, through a tremendous act of love, has overcome the world. In the end, despite ourselves, we continue to hope.





Published by Dr. Esau McCaulley

Esau McCaulley is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. His research and writing focuses on Pauline theology and the intersection of race, Christian identity, and the pursuit of social justice. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church in North America where he serves as Provincial Director for Leadership Development, which involves oversight of the recruitment and formation of clergy and lay leaders. He is one of the creators of Call and Response ministries, an organization committed to hosting conferences and creating resources for Black and Multi-Ethnic churches.

4 thoughts on “Alton Sterling, a Son’s Tears, and Psalm 137: A Lament

  1. Esau,
    Thank you for your words as I am currently feeling so much of Psalm 137. I am outraged that more Americans (specifically white Americans) are not posting on social media and marching in the streets abhorring the murders of innocent men. I want vengeance for the senseless murders that appear to be excused by our government. I cannot imagine the fear that must exist to be the parent or family of a black man in America. This injustice, racism, and hatred wound my soul and the hot tears of sorrow don’t seem to have an end. But, I will continue to hope, continue to pray, and remember that His act of perfect love has overcome the world. Thank you for reminding me of this.


  2. Esau, I don’t even know what to say but thank you for these insightful and provocative words for the church about so many families’ experiences. I am grateful for your prophetic voice, for your example of discipleship, fatherhood, scholar, husband. I am grateful for your words and your person.


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