Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me (Psalm 23:4)
The artwork above is by Watson Mere, circa 2018. “I will fear no evil.” What drew me to this painting is the shadows. It connects so well with Psalm 23 and “the valley of the shadow of death.” Indeed, the “shadow of death” is a tad on the nose in this painting.
Entire research articles have been written about how to translate this little word, which is “shadow of death” in some translations of this Psalm and “darkest” in others. It seems to be a combination of deep darkness, shadow, gloom, and death. The author of that etymological study I linked to concludes that “Given the nuances identified in this study, it is advisable to translate צַלְמָוֶת depending on the context with either ‘terrifying darkness’, ‘deadly darkness’ or ‘(utter) dark place’.”
And so back to the shadows in this painting – look at how the shadow of the guns creates a devil figure. To me, that imagery is an excellent visual depiction of the nuances of צַלְמָוֶת. Ominous shadows. Evil shadows. And that woman! She is facing those guns (and evil shadows) down!
I will fear no evil
Which brings me to the title of the work: “fear no evil.” Because there will be ominous shadows. And there will be evil. In this case the evil is coming from the nations (most prominently the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and Portugal – all countries that either colonized Africa or enslaved its people). The guns are trained on an African woman who stands facing them alone, without fear.
And this is where I initially thought “oh no – the painting is diverging from the scripture” because the other part is “for you are with me.” But then I looked again. Note the butterfly on her head wrap. She is not alone.
You are with me
Psalm 23 is in first person: “I will fear no evil. You are with me.”
And yeah, sure, the psalm is about God being with us. But Christianity is an incarnational theology. God is with us because God is in us. We are the body of Christ. And the way to overcome fear is to change that I to a we. We all have our own darkest valleys, but the journey is less scary when we’re not alone.
From me to we
We can be grateful for the people who walk with us, and this is good. We can bemoan the fact that we don’t have someone to walk with us, and this is worthy of mourning. But what if we stepped out of our individual perspectives? What if we turned our attention outward, at others who are facing their own ominous shadows, and started thinking about how we could make them feel less alone?
In Watson Mere’s painting, the evil is colonizers and slaveholders. The United States. White Supremacy. In this painting, my White self is not the one facing evil. If anything, I am the evil. Or at least, evil-adjacent. The perspective of the piece makes me feel like a bystander. An onlooker. Outside. Separate. There is no invitation into the scene, except to take the perspective of the woman. To take her place. To walk through her darkest valley. That is the invitation I found in the painting, anyway. What about you?