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Defense of the Dead: The Political and Spiritual Leadership of Grieving Mothers


Defense of the Dead: The Political and Spiritual Leadership of Grieving Mothers

Angelica Brown

by Angelica Brown

When David was the king of Israel, there was a terrible, terrible drought. The ground cracked and pleaded for water. The people were hungry and the sun was hot.

David asked god why.

God said it was because when Israel was under the rule of Saul, Israel had unjustly slain the Gibeonites. The earth was breaking open, crying out against this unjust slaughter.

David couldn’t have this. He was the king of Israel now. Him and his people needed to eat. And The Gibeonites were lost in the crossfire of his ascension to the throne after all. He had to be responsible, accountable. He had to make this right by god and by the people, so he asked the Gibeonites what could be done to reconcile this loss.

They answered, seven sons from the house of Saul.

So David turned them over.

David turned over seven sons of Saul, and they were killed by the Gibeonites and left to rot on the rock of Gibeah. They were suspended in the air for carrion and beasts to come and feed on their dead bodies. There was no proper burial for the seven sons.

These sons of Saul were people, seven rich lives reduced to political pawns.

And they weren't just sons of Saul. They were sons of their mother too. And her name was Rizpah. She was enraged, diligent, and hungry for justice.

The book of second Samuel says  Rizpah daughter of Aiah took sackcloth and spread it out for herself on a rock. From the beginning of the harvest till the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies, she did not let the birds touch them by day or the wild animals by night.¨

In the middle of a drought, where resources were scarce, Rizpah stood against the regime.

She held faithful vigil on the hill where the young men were strung up. For five months, day and night, she stood at that hill, slept and ate on the hill, threw her body in wracking tears over that hill. She defended the bodies of her sons from the animals who wanted to eat them. Eventually, David was moved by Rizpah’s display, and buried the bodies in Saul's family tomb.

She made space for her mourning and grief on that hill. She stood against the power of the king to mourn her dead.

Like all bible stories, it's messy, and it's not a perfect metaphor. The Gibeonites deserved justice. Rizpah, by denying the regime of David, was standing by the reign of Saul.

But in this quiet story of Rizpah’s mourning, this little story that takes up only 6 verses, we see an opening made by motherly grief, by rage. In this faithful tending to her heart, to the bodies of her dead, Rizpah took a spiritual and political stance. One that was eventually acknowledged by David.

Grieving mothers have been a spiritual and political cornerstone forever.

Grieving mothers have pulled the weight we've been too negligent to carry. Their action, their politics, are not performative. They stem from the place of grief and rage and loss. Of a new world being essential to them.

As a community, we call on Rizpah to help us defend our dead. To help us galvanize our grief as a transformative pressure. To do the work we’ve been neglecting and leaving to mothers with their hearts torn out.

We honor Rizpah by fighting the violence of poverty and scarcity. We honor Rizpah by standing against the state using people as political pawns to weaponize in their struggle for power, that naturally crushes the power of the people.

We ask her to join us. Embolden us in our struggle.

We ask her to stand by our side as we risk our lives and reputations, as throw ourselves weeping on the hills of those who have died and say no more.

Posted with permission. Original found here.