Bede Griffiths was a Benedictine monk who in 1955 at the age of forty-nine moved from England to India and eventually settled at the Christian community in Shantivanam, South India where he sought to integrate Indian spirituality into his Christian monastic practice.

As a Benedictine monk, Griffiths would have been deeply familiar with the book of Psalms, regularly chanting them all in the cycle of monastic daily prayer.

By all accounts, Bede Griffiths was a gentle, compassionate, peace-loving man. Not surprisingly over his long years of monastic practice, he found himself increasingly struggling with some of the Psalms. In response, towards the end of his life, Griffiths developed his own personal edition of the Psalms which was published two years after he died.

In his introduction to the Psalms, Griffiths articulates the challenge with which these poems confront. He wrote:

Taken I their literal sense many of the Psalms express feelings of anger, hatred and revenge against one’s enemies which are entirely opposed to the teaching of the Gospel of love of one’s enemies, and the habit of labelling a whole class of one’s fellowmen as ‘enemies’, and ‘wicked’ and ‘sinners’ is intolerable for anyone who has been taught to ‘love one’s neighbours as oneself.’

What is perhaps even more unacceptable, the same sentiments of anger, hatred and revenge are attributed to God himself, and the Messiah in the famous Messianic Psalms (2 and 109) is depicted as a king who will conquer and destroy his enemies, trampling them under his feet. ‘He will rule them with a rod of iron’ and ‘break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel’. In this the Messiah is shown to be the very opposite of Jesus Christ who allowed his enemies to crush him and came not to destroy but to save.

Griffiths goes on to point out that these poems originated in a dramatically different cultural context from the culture in which most readers today find ourselves today:

We have to remember that ancient Israel grew up in a dualistic culture in which God was considered to be separate – the word ‘holy’ originally meant separate – from humanity and the created world. Human beings were separate from God and one another and from the surrounding world. Israel was a ‘holy’ nation separate from the other nations of the world. As a result Israel was surrounded by ‘enemies’, who were hostile to God and to the people of God. The good were separate from the ‘wicked’, the righteous from sinners, and the end was conceived to be the destruction of the ‘wicked’ and all the ‘enemies’ of Israel. The Messiah was to conquer their enemies and subdue them under his feet.

Griffiths solution to these problems with The Book of Psalms was to suggest that,

It has become urgent… to revise the Psalter, so that all branding of others as ‘enemies’, ‘wicked’ and ‘sinners’ deserving no mercy or pity should be removed. 

So, Bede Griffith’s Psalter contains only 95 of the 150 Psalms in the Hebrew canon. Those deemed unacceptable have simply been purged from his collection. And, of the 95 remaining Psalms, many of them have been significantly edited. This act of censorship was justified in Griffith’s mind because he argued,

When one considers the incalculable harm which has resulted from the Psalmist’s habit of mind in the Church as seen in the Inquisition, the Crusades, the wars of religion and the persecution of ‘heretics’, it is clear that a revision of this kind is urgently needed.

I am certainly sympathetic with Griffith’s sensibility. I would rather not read of a God who instructs the poet to

Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
   and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
   and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
(Psalm 2:8,9)

I struggle with a God of whom it is said, 

The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
   you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
   the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
(Psalm 5:5,6)

I expect any serious reader of the Psalms will feel unsettled by a vision of a God who will make the poet’s enemies

like a fiery furnace when you appear.
The Lord will swallow them up in his wrath,
   and fire will consume them.
You will destroy their offspring from the earth,
   and their children from among humankind.
(Psalm 21:9, 10)

But, I am not sure I feel comfortable accommodating my delicate sensibilities by simply deleting portions of sacred text that I find difficult or even offensive. It seems to me that something may be lost when I excuse myself from the challenge the words of the Psalmist present. I worry that a spirituality that is forced to conform to my predilections will end up being a pale reflection of the robust journey of faith to which I feel summoned by the Spirit who breathes through the words of the Bible.

So, I will read the Psalms, try not to skip the hard parts and seek to find some kind of helpful way of dealing with those parts that feel “intolerable.”