Psalm 1 begins and ends in a way that puts a lot people off, particularly those who are less-than-compelled by fire and brimstone preaching: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread” (v 1) and “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous but the way of the wicked will perish” (v 6).
It sounds like the psalm advocates - not only name-calling - but also a clean drawing of lines between believers and non-believers or between liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and progressives. But the wicked are not merely people we don’t see eye-to-eye with. Rather what this psalm expresses through its vocabulary of “the wicked” is that evil exists in the world.
So this psalm is permeated by an acute awareness of evil, a sense of its proximity and inescapability. In fact, in the structure of the poem, evil surrounds “the righteous.” Talk of “the righteous” is another term that makes people nervous because we immediately connect it with self-righteousness.
Psalm 1 is trying to provide practical advice about how to be “good” even when it feels like evil is closing in you. Stay on the right path and resist the dark side. For those in Sing Sing prison, that is a lot harder than it looks.
The inmates at Sing Sing who are earning their masters of professional studiesthrough New York Theological Seminary are living out Psalm 1 in radical ways. Like the psalmist, the prisoners in the program know all too well about evil and its pervasiveness. And yet, they speak of taking responsibility for their crimes and committing to do the right thing when they get out of prison. One has to make a choice every day - every moment - about which path to take in life. For these inmates, each step must be measured according to questions of life and death. Will I take the path that leads to wholeness, life, and connection? Or the way that leads to destruction, insecurity, and death?
For those who have committed murder, the “way of the righteous” is not a well-worn one. The street they know better is “the path that sinners tread” (v 1). The temptation to stray over to the easier path - the one you don’t have to use a machete to beat back - is real. The prisoners committed to change know that choosing the right path, in a maze of bad signage, requires daily discipline as well asa GPS or at least a good map.
A map is necessary because human will is not enough to keep one on the path towards the good. This aspect of the journey requires stillness and calm. It requires cultivating an awareness of a different reality from the one immediately before us in the news, or in the case of the Sing Sing inmates, on the streets of their old neighborhoods.