My refuge and my fortress? Psalm 91 and our culture of safeguarding

At Durham Cathedral, we believe that Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility.  In the context of recent Safeguarding Leadership Training, our Relationship and Development Manager, Matthew Mills, has been reflecting upon the message of Psalm 91.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge
and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’

Psalm 91:1-2

Psalm 91, some verses of which were used by the devil to tempt Jesus in the wilderness (vv. 11-12; cf. Mt 4:6), is a hymn of provocation and promise.

Taken at face value and understood only in its temporal ‘orientation’, it could be read as, at best, platitudinous or, at worst, disingenuous. What is the one who has been, or is being, harmed meant to make of the psalmist’s words: ‘he will deliver you’ (v. 3), ‘he will cover you’ (v. 4)? What is the value of an exhortation, ‘You will not fear the terror of the night’ (v. 5), when that is precisely what the victim of abuse most dreads; the soft tread of her abuser outside the bedroom door, coming for her under cover of darkness?

For the person of faith who is also a victim of abuse, the problem is even more acute, since the psalm could be read as offering an assurance of safety in exchange for faithfulness: ‘Because you have made the Lord your refuge … no evil shall befall you’ (v. 9). How is the victim of abuse meant to react to these words? Perhaps they should conclude that their faith is simply too weak to merit the protection of God, and so compound with feelings of guilt an existing sense of abandonment and uncleanness? Alternatively, perhaps they should ‘see the light’, as an anti-religionist might argue, and reject as ‘hollow’ the promises of a mythical god; ‘“he will command his angels”, seriously?’

Both of these may be reasonable responses, when the sentiments of the text – the psalmist’s ‘wishful thinking’? – are confronted with the reality of abuse in someone’s particular life. Both may be reasonable, but neither is good news for the Christian community, which looks to the scriptures for guidance and inspiration in its work of ‘safeguarding’.

A wide angle view of the Cloister at Durham Cathedral, showing the covered walkways surrounding a grass square
The Cloister of Durham Cathedral offers a place of stillness in the busy city of Durham.

Thus, the psalm may be described as a ‘provocation’ for victims, since it has the potential to elicit justifiably powerful feelings of anger with and towards God for, in the specifically temporal orientation of a victim’s life, apparently failing to live up to his own promises. The God who promises to ‘be with them in their trouble’ (v. 15) apparently disappears when the going gets tough. Other words from the psalms spring to mind as more likely to reflect and satisfy victims’ feelings, such as the opening lines of Psalm 13: ‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?’ (Ps 13:1).

Victims’ responses may, in turn, be described as a provocation for the church, since they pose a powerful challenge to familiar tropes of the Christian faith, especially the conception of God as a loving protector, and demand deep soul-searching. Questions confront us, some of which will be familiar to students of theodicy, and others of which will be more particular to situations of abuse and safeguarding: where is the God of faithfulness in the experience of abuse; why and how have Christian communities, which are meant to be faithful to God’s promises, failed to protect the vulnerable? The psalm is a provocation for self-accusation, and the church ought to feel ashamed.

Yet, this provocation concerns more than just shame, it is also an invitation to turn back to the text itself, to accuse the psalmist, to interrogate, to reflect, and to dig deeper. Assuming the persistence of a basic belief – a basic desire, at least, to believe – in the meaningfulness of biblical teaching and witness, the Christian community, thinking about safeguarding, must look again at the psalm and beyond its temporal orientation.

Read ‘eschatologically’, for example – in a way that seeks to reimagine the present in light of a future in which God restores, resolves, and saves – the psalm may be understood as containing a great promise of deliverance: ‘Those who love me, I will deliver … I will rescue them … With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.’ (vv. 14-16). In turn, read ‘Christologically’ – as a message of Jesus Christ, spoken not from the time of his earthly life but from eternity – the psalm could be taken to imply a faithful promise, or pledge, of solidarity from one who also suffered: ‘When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble … and honour them.’ (v. 15).

A white marble statue of a seated male figure, leaning his head on one hand in reflection. In the foreground is one of Durham Cathedral's huge carved pillars.
A moment of reflection, captured in a memorial within Durham Cathedral. How can scripture aid in reflecting on our safeguarding responsibilities?

By these lights – the eschatological and the Christological – Psalm 91 assumes a new identity, distinct from but not entirely independent of victims’ grief and the church’s guilt. It is a message of hope, of the knowledge that one day ‘all shall be well’ and that, in the meantime, there is deep love and solidarity between victims of abuse and the innocent, spotless victim Christ, wrongfully accused and convicted, insulted, violated, and brutally murdered. This message may not satisfy everyone, but surely it must mean something when one Victim says to another, ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20)?

Finally, the psalm must be read ‘ecclesiologically’; that is, as having something to communicate concerning the identity and mission of the church. Psalm 91 is a special text for the Christian community at Durham Cathedral, since it is one of those recited in the monastic office of Compline, the final act of common worship each day. It is a corporate prayer, which implies a collective responsibility. It is a provocation to act and a powerful reminder that, in the end, we are ‘the shelter of the Most High … the shade of the Almighty’ (v. 1) and, as such, that safeguarding is a present responsibility we share.

Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes,
you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Attributed to Teresa of Ávila (1515-82)

Durham Cathedral’s safeguarding policy, including information about how to contact us if you have a concern, can be found on the safeguarding page of our website.

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