Five years ago, I was driving down a main thoroughfare in Buffalo, just around the corner from the church I served at the time. As I drove, I saw a line of people extending from a store I had never noticed before. The line snaked from the front door across the parking lot, and then onto the sidewalk. It was mostly men, and the curious thing was that the economics of that community meant that people didn’t have to stand in line for much at all. The sign out front read “Buffalo Gun Center.” It was the day after twenty-six individuals, including twenty six and seven year-old children, were killed with bullets from an assault rifle and other guns at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. I was stunned to see the crowd of citizens in my community who would rush to buy firearms in response to such a tragedy. After other shootings like those at Pulse Nightclub and one week ago in Las Vegas, I am no longer surprised. It is no less disturbing, however.
I read somewhere this week the statement that when America decided it was OK to shoot children, it was the end of meaningful public debate on gun control. No significant legislation for common sense gun regulation followed the Sandy Hook shooting, and once again we are asking the same question. “Why?” Why is it so hard to find a middle ground that does not take away every citizen’s gun but recognizes that the Second Amendment cannot be a cover for unfettered violence and death?
I was sad to add the words “bump stock” to my vocabulary this week. I suspect many of us had never heard that term before. On Wednesday morning, as politicians and gun lobbyists and others were once again saying it was too soon to discuss gun control out of respect for the deceased, Senator Diane Feinstein introduced a bill to ban the device that turns semi-automatic rifles into automatic weapons. Good for her. Instead of waiting for the dust to clear and committees to meet, she took action with the hope that some measure of greater peace and less violence will be the result.
Each year I have served here at Community UCC, I’ve been assigned sermon topics by successful bidders at our annual auction. I admit I’ve procrastinated during the year and so two of my final three sermons here will be on topics from the auction. A group of women have told me that my topic for today is “Women as Peacemakers,” and the Men’s Group has directed me to preach a sermon for next week titled “Five Minutes to Live.” So, on to peacemaking.
One of the great things that the auction topics has done each year has been to more or less force me to find and preach on characters from the Bible that I would not otherwise select. Today, I’m focusing on a woman named Abigail from the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of Abigail is not included in the Lectionary of prescribed reading that is generally followed here for preaching themes.
Abigail was married to a man named Nabal who had some serious anger issues. As the story goes, the future King David had shown kindness to Nabal by providing servants to protect Nabal’s land from invaders. One day, David sent some servants to Nabal and asked that he provide hospitality to them. Being hospitable was extremely important in that culture. Under normal circumstances, the appropriate response would have been, “Yes, I would honored to do so. And, by the way, tell David thank you for his help.” Nabal, who is described in 1 Samuel as “surly and mean” decided the proper response was to insult David and claim that he didn’t even know him. When word got back to David, he was furious and gathered a large number equally angry servants and an impressive collection of swords. The whole crew, fueled by an overload of fury and testosterone, took the shortest route to Nabal’s estate.
Thankfully, Abigail caught wind of what was about to come down. She took off on her donkey to intercept David and his small army, pointedly not informing her husband about where she was going. When she reached David, she begged to be heard and said this about her husband: “Do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow. Folly is with him.” She then did an amazing job negotiating a peace settlement, urging David not to “have on his conscience the staggering burden of bloodshed.” When she was done, David said, “Thanks be to God who sent you here. Blessed be your good sense in restraining me.” Once again, we’re reminded that restraint rather than impulsive action or harsh or insulting words is a characteristic of strength. And it was a woman who initiated and brokered peace.
Many notable women have led the way for peace. In Liberia, peace activist Leymah Gbowee led a women's peace movement that helped bring an end to 14 years of warfare in that country. She organized thousands of Christian and Muslim women to defy the notoriously violent dictator Charles Taylor. The women prayed together, donned white tee-shirt uniforms, and held daily nonviolent demonstrations calling for an end to the war. They held sex strikes, refusing to have sexual relations with their husbands to get their attention and to recruit them for the cause of peace. At one point, the women barricaded the site of stalled peace talks and refused to move until an agreement was reached.
A peace agreement in Liberia in 2003 led to the democratic election two years later of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected woman to lead a nation in Africa. Gbowee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Sirleaf and Yemini journalist Tawakel Karman. All three were recognized by the Nobel Committee "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." I love this quote by Lymah Gbowee: "You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe."
In Pakistan, a woman named Mossarat Qadim saw an increase of violence as young men were recruited by the Taliban. She has founded two non-profits that work with young men, including potential suicide bombers. She helps them understand that they are being exploited by extremists. One of her groups, “Women for Peace,” is a coalition of women in Pakistan calling for the end of American drone strikes, which they say undermines any meaningful peace. She says, “Poverty, illiteracy, foreign intervention, power, money…these are the root causes of extremism in Pakistan, not religion.”
In Afghanistan, which has been riddled by war for decades, thirty-two year-old Humaira Suqib is working with other women to raise awareness of the ever-diminishing rights of women in that country. In the last few years, a pivotal law to address violence against women was defeated as a proposal to allowing for the stoning of adulterers was reintroduced. Humaira directs a volunteer news organization that reports on women across the country – women as entrepreneurs, women as politicians, women as mothers, women as revolutionaries. They are working for peace and justice.
This week at the United Nations, our ambassador cast a vote against a resolution to ban the use of capital punishment in an arbitrary or discriminatory manner. Within our world, there are countries that allow the death penalty for minors and pregnant women. There are also places where it is used against people simply because they are LGBT. The resolution also called out countries that kill people for adultery, recognizing that it is applied to women much more frequently than to men. Many were aghast that our country would not join the majority of nations in the U.N. opposed to such practices. I am among them, and I suspect you are as well. The only explanation I have heard for this is that we are so committed to our own use of capital punishment that we don’t want to weaken our stance by telling others to curb their own murderous practices. It occurs to me that our commitment to capital punishment is so strong that it leads us to the logical illogical conclusion we saw this week at the United Nations. Where is our voice heard in the face of such injustice?
Hear these words from Margarita Papandreou from Greece: “Women are not at the peace table. We are not there where our commitment to peace, our capacities to find solutions through dialogue, debate, our sensitivities to human needs and human rights are sorely needed. Therefore, we still must press - from the outside... The feminist movement has a vision. We understand, first of all, that we have but one earth, shared by one humanity. ...We will make it a woman’s world, not in the sense of control, or power, or dominance, but those values that we call women-centered values, will be diffused throughout society.”
Abigail in 1 Samuel wasn’t given a seat at the peace table. Like many other women, she claimed it for herself. She did so, using all of her internal resources and wisdom to present a bold case for peace. I wish I could say that the rest of the story was wonderful. It’s presented as so in the Bible, but it reflects a strongly male-centric worldview. Abigail’s husband was not happy to hear about what she had done without his knowledge, and the text says that he died a few days later. David, still not king but on his way to becoming so, took her as his wife (it actually says “took her,” which is telling) and then married another woman shortly after. So far he had three, but eventually he acquired a large number of wives. Once was Bathsheba, whose first husband died a violent death at David’s hand so that David could marry her. We don’t hear much more about Abigail in the Bible, but I suspect she was still able to advocate for herself in a world where women’s lives were generally lived by the dictates of men. She is a model for peacekeeping, along with others who followed in the centuries to come.
There is much to resist today. There is too much violence here in America as we have seen this week. And there is too much violence throughout the world, much of which we contribute to in some way. Women and men together must work to shape policy that is too often shaped mostly by men with questionable results. And together we must be unceasing voices for peace. Thanks be to God for women who lead the way. Amen.