March 26, 2017
This week I saw a vision of bones. Well, more of an image than a vision. One might call it a photograph. There was a long table with colorful cloths folded and placed along both sides. On each folded cloth was a human skull. These were skulls of Native Americans. Bones that had been collected by the United States government during colonization and put in museums or used in college classrooms.
I heard about bones uncovered in a construction project at the University of Georgia. Bones from 105 unmarked graves. People that cannot be identified except to know that most of them were of African descent. And we know that in Athens, Georgia, in the 19th century, anyone of African descent was most likely a slave.
I heard about a female Iraqi reporter who was killed by an IED when she went to investigate a sinkhole in the desert, just outside the village of Albu Saif. This sinkhole is one of the largest mass graves in the area; a place where ISIS has dumped hundreds, if not thousands of bodies. Most of those bodies have likely not decomposed yet. But they will soon be reduced to bones.
These bones tell stories. Stories of colonization. Stories of oppression. Stories of brutality.
And now we hear about more bones. Dry bones in the valley where God has set down the prophet Ezekiel. These bones also tell a story; a story that was familiar to people in the ancient Near East. It’s a story of war. Of a battle in which one side lost decisively and their bodies were left to rot and roast in the desert sun. We know this was a familiar story because there are ancient Asyrian relief sculptures that show battlefields with dead bodies scattered around. Vultures flying overhead, some carrying pieces of the bodies in their talons.
When Ezekiel sees this valley of very dry bones, he sees the violent, devastating history of his people—the Israelites. He sees the Babylonian army laying siege to his hometown of Jerusalem; two years of non-stop attacks. He sees his family and friends trapped inside the city, dying of hunger and disease. He sees the Temple destroyed. His fellow citizens killed. And those not killed rounded up, with him, and forced into exile in Babylon.
Like the skulls Native Americans laid out on a table; like the bones discovered at the University of Georgia; like the horrors hidden in the Albu Saif sinkhole. These bones tell stories not just of individuals who have died, but of the devastation of entire groups of people.
In this bizarre vision from God, Ezekiel finds himself in the middle of an old battlefield, surrounded by dry bones. In his current reality, Ezekiel likewise finds himself in the aftermath of war, surrounded by devastated people.
Now normally, I would tell you that allegory is bad—even dangerous—Biblical interpretation. Because if we start saying that this thing isn’t really this thing but stands for that thing . . . well, we can easily make the scriptures say absolutely anything we want them to say. So, generally speaking, don’t allegorize.
But, in this particular case, we need to interpret Ezekiel’s vision allegorically. Because that is how God tells Ezekiel to interpret it: “These bones,” says God, “are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”
I have a feeling this story is included in the Lectionary during Lent because it is considered a sort of precursor to the Resurrection that we celebrate on Easter. But this story isn’t really about dead people coming back to life. It is about a devastated, traumatized community beginning to breathe with the breath of God.
The bones in the image I saw—the table lined with skulls–were part of a video by Mennonite Central Committee about their Return to the Earth project. The congregation featured in the video is Southern Hills Mennonite in Topeka–and many other churches have participated in the project as well. Members of these congregations are mostly white, and many are descendents of people who migrated into the central plains and began farming land from which the indigenous inhabitants had been removed. As people participate in the Return to the Earth project, they learn about the history of the land their church buildings sit on—which tribes made their lives here before white settlers moved in. They learn about the desecration of the remains of Native Americans—how their bones were spread across the country as museum artifacts and educational tools.
And then people in these congregations sew burial cloths and build burial boxes that they give to Native American tribes. The photo I saw was taken during a ceremony in which Native Americans had gathered to grieve their dead and to offer their ancestors a proper burial—using the cloths and boxes provided by Southern Hills and others.
The Return to the Earth project does not undo the violence and genocide perpetrated against Native Americans. But it does work toward reconciliation. You can hear the quiet rattling; feel the gentle breath.
The bones discovered at the University of Georgia were cataloged and placed in funeral boxes. They were buried in a nearby cemetery, and last Monday there was a memorial service to honor these unknown people. There is a granite marker at the site that reads, in part:
Here lie the remains of 105 unknown individuals, originally interred during the 19th century. The vast majority of the 30 remains able to be identified were those of men, women and children of African descent, presumably slaves or former slaves. . . . In March 2017, they were respectfully reinterred here. May they continue to rest in peace.
If you heard the same story I did on NPR, you know that not everyone was happy with the way the remains were handled. There were disagreements about where the bones should be buried. And many people felt that the University did not fully accept and deal with the legacy of slavery that these remains make apparent. Yesterday, there was a public meeting in Athens, Georgia, to discuss the remains and to address the University’s connection to slavery.
I have not read any reports on that meeting. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that it did not lay all racial tensions in the city to rest. That it did not erase the generational trauma experienced by descendents of slaves. Still, can you hear a quiet rattling, a gentle breath?
The bones in the sinkhole outside of Albu Saif . . . are still there. Hundreds, thousands of bodies still piled together, unidentified, abandoned in the desert.
Can these bones live? It’s a question very much on the minds of many many people right now when it comes to the possibility of peace in Iraq. The possibility that the Iraqi people might be able to live normal lives again—lives where they have access to food and water and medical care. Lives where armed men do not dig tunnels into their living rooms or kidnap their loved ones; where foreign planes do not drop bombs on their villages. Can these bones live? “O Lord, God. You know.”
I know that there is currently a photo exhibit at the Lacey Contemporary Gallery in London called #IamYezidi. The Yezidi are part of a minority group in the Middle East often persecuted for their religious views. The exhibit features photographs, by Benjamin Eagle, of Yezidi women from Iraq who have escaped slavery under Isis or who have rescued loved ones from such slavery.
Their stories are horrific. Their portraits are haunting. Yet words of hope keep showing up in posts and stories about this exhibit. Words like love, resilience, inspiration, strength, courage, power, endurance.
Bones are all around us—literal and figurative. It is easy to see them: the depression, the injustice, the violence, the despair.
The Spirit of God is also all around us, but often not as easy to see. That is the purpose of Ezekiel’s vision. To help him—and us—see what we often do not see.
The desolate landscape of bones must have looked familiar to Ezekiel. But what God did with the bones was anything but familiar. Theology professor Corrine Carvalho describes this scene from Ezekiel as “the inversion of the Assyrian reliefs.” Where the reliefs show bodies being torn apart, Ezekiel watches the bones come together, the muscles forming, the skin covering the bodies. Instead of a battlefield becoming a bone yard, Ezekiel watches as the Spirit of God transforms a bone yard into a “vast multitude” of people standing on their feet.
However hopeless a situation appears, the life-giving Spirit is there; this is what God so desperately wants the ancient Israelites to realize. What God so desperately wants us to realize.
In these fourteen verses, the Hebrew word for spirit—ruach–occurs nine times. It’s harder to notice in English because it gets translated as spirit, breath, wind. But in Hebrew it is all the same word. Ruach. And it is everywhere.
It is this holy ruach that breathes life into even the most desolate situations. It is God’s spirit that pulls together the shattered pieces and creates new life. That is to say, it is not our energy or our wisdom or even our sheer willpower that will cause these bones to live.
And yet, in bringing new life to the people, there was a role for Ezekiel to play. And surely there is a role for us in God’s continuing efforts to bring healing and wholeness in the world.
There is a need for human ears to hear the Divine question: “Can these bones live?” There is a need for human voices to speak the words of God to people in despair: “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”
There is a need for us to speak hope into places desolation, to speak life into places of death. A need for us to remember—and to remind each other—that God’s holy wind is all around. A need for us to remember—and remind each other—that in the midst of the valley, we must keep breathing.