Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar. Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war. — Psalm 120:5-7
Like the Psalmist, we can feel like aliens in a culture of violence. We live amid well-stocked gun shops and daily bloodshed. When we speak of peace and decreasing violence, others speak for military solutions, honorable violence and protecting gun rights.
I’ve had an aversion to gun violence ever since attending a funeral with my then fourth-grade son. One of his friends found a gun, and the walls of his room cried out from his scattered blood and brains.
Guns are relatively new, but violence and retaliation are old news. Cain kills Abel. Violence is unleashed. The ground cries out from Abel’s scattered blood. God steps in to prevent others from taking revenge on Cain. Perhaps God has an aversion to perpetual violence.
The list of violent killings in Hebrew Scripture is long. Lamech avenges 77-fold (Gen. 4:24). Abimelech kills 70 of his brothers (Judges 9:1-5). Jephthah offers his daughter as a battle victory sacrifice (Judges 11:36-39). To be gender-inclusive, we’ll add Jael and her handy tent stake, which ends up in the head of a Canaanite army captain. (Judges 4:17-22). The list of splattered blood seems endless.
Amid the violence runs a contrasting thread of peace and shalom. We see it in the reminder not to abuse the alien. We see it in Isaiah’s call to imagine swords becoming plowshares and in his warning not to trust in chariots.
When the language of violence surrounds us, we need stories of peace. One of my favorite stories is that of Abigail. David is running some kind of pay-for-safety racket. He requests payment for protecting rich Nabal, his workers, his 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. Nabal refuses to pay this upstart son of Jesse. It sounds like the normal jockeying-for-power clash.
David prepares 400 men to attack Nabal. Unknown to Nabal, his wife Abigail packs up bread, wine, mutton, grain, raisins and figs. She heads to David’s camp. Maybe she has an aversion to swords. Maybe she’s seen too much splattered blood.
Abigail asks David for forgiveness. She acknowledges her husband’s foolishness. She warns David that taking vengeance will leave a mark.
David accepts her gifts and her wise words. Bloodshed is avoided. The cycle of violence is broken. The one-upmanship game is stopped, at least for the moment.
Keeping score creates an endless cycle. Jesus demonstrates an alternative.
Instead of an eye for an eye, Jesus calls for loving enemies and turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39:45). When asked to go one mile, instead of falling into the resentment trap, Jesus calls for going an extra mile. He teaches that greatness isn’t measured in one’s ability to lord over others. Greatness is measured in service (Luke 22:24-27).
In our culture, jockeying for power seems like the main game. Like Nabal, many want to be top dog. This mindset of ruthless competition too often leads to violence. When guns are readily available, the violence turns deadly.
As Jesus-followers, we live as aliens. With God’s help, we look for ways to opt out of the one-upmanship game. Like Abigail, we look for ways to offer bread and alternatives to violence. In the whirl of splattered blood, we mourn, and we refuse to become complacent.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.