“Who will confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this free land?” asked Rev. T. Anthony Spearman during the North Carolina Council of Churches recent “Seminar on Race, Power, and Privilege.” The powerful sermon begins with a text from 2 Samuel 21: When her sons and five other men are subject to an extrajudicial execution and left without burial, Rizpah mounts a single-handed protest. She maintains a vigil for six months — “risking her own safety and sanity,” as Rev. Spearman describes it — until King David is finally moved to order proper burial for all seven men.
“Back around 9th Century BCE, [Rizpah] would have been my choice for mother of the year,” Rev. Spearman declares. “In all of antiquity there may of a certainty be none as devoted, radical or courageous.” He elaborates:
In her world, she had no authority. Hers was a voiceless life. She was devoid of power…a victim of what seems to be this nation’s cherished legacy, the hierarchy of human values that are known as …classicism, sexism, and racism.
Allan Aubrey Boesak says this mother does what she does — risks, resists, and reconciles an entire nation — all by her lonesome and silent self. She demonstrates how to truly beat a sword into a plowshare by doing justly, loving mercy and walking justly with her God.
…[Rizpah’s witness] is not dissimilar to that of Sybrina Fulton, Lesley [McSpadden] Brown, Samaria Rice..
From the beginning of the harvest til the rain fell down, her motherly heart was broken but her devotion was fully intact. For about six months R risks her safety and sanity to drive away the vultures of viciousness, the vultures of vulgarity, the vultures of victimization…. the jackals of injustice…
…although in anguish for the dead, her actions were on behalf of the living…only two of the young men were her sons, she fought on behalf of them all.
— from T. Anthony Spearman’s April 23 sermon (full sermon below)
Rev. Spearman notes that Rizpah’s story is not currently in Christianity’s common lectionary — it is also missing from annual Jewish reading cycles — and suggests its inclusion so that more people would be prompted to follow her example. Meanwhile, Rev. Spearman calls us:
Our times are in search of those with spirit of Rizpah, those who will rise up and do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God, those who will stand against the ones who keep making and upholding unjust laws.
Is there anyone willing to bend the moral arc just a little bit more?
Anyone willing to repent for the deaths of so many of our sons and our daughters?
Who will shoo the vultures away from the corpse of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray?
Who will discourage the jackals from ravaging the transgender body of Zella Ziona?
…demanding the repeal of House Bill 2?
Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?
It’s time for us to confront racism. It’s time for us to confront privilege, it’s time for us to confront power.
— Spearman (full sermon in video below) NC Council of Churches’ Critical Issues Seminar: Race, Power, and Privilege
Six Months is a Long Vigil
Six months is a long time for the sort of vigil Rizpah kept: “Can you just imagine the gruesome scene with those seven blood-covered bodies…,” Rev. Spearman asks, offering graphic details and concluding with “and the noble Rizpah protecting them from the scavengers waiting to gorge themselves on those corpses.”
Six months is also a long time for the sort of vigil Beverly Smith has been keeping: Alonzo Fiero (Zo) Smith, age 27, died in custody of DC special police officers (SPO), November 1, 2015, in confusing circumstances that included no criminal charges; his death was ruled a homicide with compression of the torso (SPO knelt on his back, for one example) a contributing factor. For six months, Ms. Smith has been demanding accountability for what happened to her son. And, just like Rizpah, and the mothers of many other victims of police brutality, Ms. Smith is demanding justice for others as well as her own child. She waits still.
On May 1, the sixth-month anniversary of Zo’s homicide, District residents joined Ms. Smith in a march and rally honoring his memory and demanding, in his name, community control of police. (Read about Zo’s case and his mother’s campaign in East of the River and the Washington Informer; learn about the Justice 4 Zo community)
And, of course, many parents and concerned community members — including some whom Rev. Spearman included in his sermon — have been keeping similar vigil in one way or another for much longer. (See, e.g., Listening to Voices of Grief and Struggle.) Many of those involved in these struggles have joined together in groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality and Coalition of Concerned Mothers.
Where Were Rizpah’s Neighbors?
Rev. Spearman and Allan Aubrey Boesak, whom he cites, note that Rizpah accomplished what she did “all by her lonesome and silent self.” This rightly characterizes the bible story and highlights the power of one individual to make a difference. But it leaves open the question of what Rizpah’s neighbors were doing — or not doing — for the months she kept her vigil alone:
Did neighbors just shake their heads at Rizpah while going about their own business? Were most people too caught up in demands of their own lives to involve themselves? Or, perhaps, fearing to speak out against King David? Or, just maybe, were some of Rizpah’s fellow citizens working elsewhere, in whatever ways were available to them, in support of her protest? Did groups organize solidarity actions that didn’t make it into Second Samuel?
Rizpah’s example of solo action is inspiring and important. And I would hope that each of us answers, “I will,” when faced with Rev. Spearman’s query: “Who will rise up and…confront the wickedness of all the raw racial hatred marinating in this land?” But I also pray that none of us is left, like Rizpah, to face those “vultures of viciousness” or “jackals of injustice” alone.
Rev. Spearman is incoming president of the NC Council of Churches and senior pastor of St. Philip African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Greensboro. He is active in the Forward Together Movement/Moral Mondays.
I had the honor of meeting and protesting with Rev. Spearman as part of a Black Lives Matter Die-In at the U.S. House of Representatives in early 2015.