Strange fruit

Photo: Gabriel, Unsplash.

2 Samuel 21:1-14 is a difficult passage. It disturbs our Anabaptist sensibilities to focus on such a violent story. Yet it’s important not to shy away from parts of Scripture like this one.  

David asks God about the cause of a famine that has lasted three years. God tells him it happened because the house of Saul has a legacy of murder. David takes it upon himself (God did not command him) to ask the Gibeonites, a group slaughtered by the actions of Saul, what it would take to atone for the violence. 

As we will see, violence will beget violence. 

The Gibeonites respond that nothing could erase the murder of those lost. However, they demand the handing over of seven of Saul’s descendants. David does not hand over any descendants of Jonathan (Saul’s eldest son), due to his close relationship with Jonathan. He chooses two sons of Rizpah and five sons of Merab.

Rizpah was the daughter of Aiah, one of Saul’s concubines. After her sons were impaled (or hanged, in some translations) by the Gibeonites, she spread a sackcloth on a rock nearby and kept the birds from eating her sons’ flesh. She stayed there day and night from the time of harvest until the rains came. She was a mother in mourning. 

The biblical scholar Wil Gafney gave a powerful sermon, “Good Fruit, Bad Fruit, Strange Fruit,” on this passage. She likened Rizpah to a mother of sons lynched by white supremacists. (“Strange Fruit” was an anti-lynching song recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.)

Nothing justifies capital punishment. Rizpah’s sons and the many Black Americans who were lynched were guilty of no crime. 

I can’t imagine being a mother who is told her sons need to be sacrificed for the “greater good.” 

Here is a current story of race and injustice: Virgilio Anguilar -Mendez, a 19-year-old Mayan farmworker living in Florida, was standing outside his motel room on the phone with his father when a police sergeant approached him because he “looked suspicious.” Virgilio told the officer he didn’t speak any English. Virgilio speaks a Mayan language and a little Spanish. 

An eight-minute struggle ensued in which multiple officers abused Virgilio, who was tasered. Soon after, the sergeant suffered a heart attack and died. The coroner ruled that his death was due to natural causes and that he had preexisting conditions. 

Yet Virgilio has been charged with aggravated manslaughter of a police officer. Prosecutors are attempting to put him in jail for life. He has been held without bail for seven months. 

The sergeant’s fellow officers said that Virgilio was trespassing and that he pulled a knife on the sergeant. Body cam videos show there was no knife. Police reports indicate nothing was stated to Virgilio about trespassing. 

Once again, merely existing can have serious consequences, whether in the name of “law and order” or even in the name of God — especially if those in power are abusive. 

Minoritized communities are especially at risk. I know that I am extremely privileged when it comes to interacting with the police, which has been a rare occurrence for me. 

I can’t help but think of Virgilio’s mother or other family members whose loved one is now incarcerated, facing a life behind bars. (I want to emphasize that this is not the same as a public execution. This is not a direct comparison.) 

It is unlikely that Virgilio’s mother in Guatemala will be able to see her son again. His life will be given over to the state. Does she live in fear, like Rizpah? Is she lamenting day and night over her son’s fate? 

What does this lack of justice say about the United States as a nation, with white supremacist values and the abuse of power over people from minoritized communities? 

In the Bible, in recent history and -today, we see what happens when people are at the mercy of those who abuse their power. It leads to more violence. Jesus was murdered by those in power. Black people lynched in the South were murdered by those in power. All were unjustly “given over” by those in power. 

Jesus may have conquered death, but that scenario does not extend to the surging murder of innocent Black, Indigenous and people of color, and immigrants. 

There are things we can do. We can sign the petition for Virgilio at, an action that has been known to make a difference in such cases. We can put hands and feet to our nonviolent witness. We can protest the death penalty. We can pray. May God help us rid our nation of “strange fruit.”  

Joanne Gallardo

Joanne Gallardo is conference minister of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA in Goshen, Indiana. Originally from northwest Ohio, Joanne Read More

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