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37 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones,
2 And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.
3 And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.
4 Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.
5 Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live:
6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone.
8 And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
9 Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.
10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.
11 Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.
12 Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.
13 And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves,
14 And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the Lord have spoken it, and performed it, saith the Lord.
There has been much talk of late, in my social circles at least, about social justice and injustice, the sins of the fathers, the guilt that travels down unto the second and third and fourth generations…
The Lenten season, however, is a time in which we are to revisit our own sins.
If you’ve forgotten what yours are, someone is bound to remind you.
My son Peter and I, for example, got into a long conversation this week about my manifold failures as a mother. That was nice.
It was nice: Peter wasn’t attacking me, or demanding reparation. He was sorting out his memories, thinking through his childhood experiences as a child, in preparation for, some day (soon?!) becoming a father.
I could make my contribution to this worthy effort not by wallowing in guilt but by listening to his account and confirming the basic facts of his recollection: yes, that is what happened. And no, that wasn’t ideal. That certainly isn’t the way I would handle the same situation today, knowing what I know now and didn’t know then (even if, arguably, I should have).
This is, I think, the minimum each of us owes to our own, immediate past and the living, breathing persons with whom we shared it: not just apologies but an honest re-collection of the facts set in their context. It is a continuing project — as time goes on and folks mature, more facts are gathered, new sins identified, more apology and atonement and a long series of promises to improve, recommitments to love. These are the ways we might limit the scope of our sins to our own generation; prevent their consequences from leaping over the limit otherwise held by a human lifespan.
Our clever ancestors recognized that every human being will have sins to atone for. They created space within the calendar cycle for that to happen — for our Jewish brothers and sisters there are the days of Atonement and Yom Kippur, for Christians there is the season of repentance, Lent and, in between, should you need a quick moral spruce-up, confession and absolution. Note: it’s a good idea to keep current. Sins, like dirty dishes, do tend to stack up.
And let me emphasize once more that it is our own sins we are to confess to and apologize for. Should we be inclined, like Peter, to explore grievances held against others, we must accept that apology and recompense can only come from the individual who actually caused the harm.
This is important.
We are less than two weeks away from Good Friday, the annual recollection, told as if in the present tense, of the death of Jesus.
He was an individual human being betrayed by other individual human beings: Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, individual chief priests, the men and women of the mob. Each of them had a name, even if we don’t know what it was, and free will.
The story — told in the sepulchral gloom of a darkened sanctuary — is taken from the book of John and punctuated by that drum-beat repetition — the Jews the Jews the Jews.
Is it any wonder Good Friday services presaged pogroms, or that Easter weekend was a particularly dangerous time for the Jewish communities of Poland, Ukraine, Germany, and France? “The Jews killed Jesus,” sounded the cry, and mayhem followed.
Did the Jews kill Jesus?
Well, no. Technically the Romans killed Jesus, but under every oppressive regime there are collaborators. Had we been present at the time, we might have been able to pick out the Quislings. Of course these would have been Jewish because everyone was Jewish — Jesus, Mary, Judas Iscariot, Simon Peter, the priests and scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees…
But that isn’t what was meant when European gentiles sounded the call “the Jews killed Jesus!” It wasn’t about the particular and long-dead human beings who made the choices they made for reasons that seemed important at the time.
It was an unanswerable accusation against everyone who belonged to the group called “Jews,” all Jews everywhere and for all time.
Attacking actual Jewish human beings was not considered sadism or thuggery. It was justice.
Hitler would later promote a secular version of the essential calumny, this time undergirded by science: the supposed fact of the immutable inequality of “races.”
National Socialism — Nazism — offered gentile Germans many rights, but not as individuals. Rather, theirs were the rights of members of a master race. Within that privileged group, moreover, individuals’ interests were subordinate to the collective interest of the Volksgemeinschaft, the “People’s Community.”
The Nazis described their ambitious program—the reordering Germany (and eventually Europe and, what the heck, maybe the world) into a racial hierarchy and the extermination of the Jews (the “eternal racial enemy”) as social justice.
If that makes you wince, join the club: it was a shock to see those words used in that context. But there it is: Social justice is, by definition, about groups, not persons. Social injustice was exemplified by American slavery and the Jim Crow laws that gave rights to groups (white, male, propertied, etc.) rather than to persons; social justice was what happened when those unjust laws were changed — by the 13th, 14th, and 19th Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act.
Human beings have seldom understood justice to be anything other than social justice. Only after the Enlightenment — a mere few hundred years out of millennia of human history— was the same law understood to apply to commoner and King: it was a novel idea that it was the individual who was free and responsible for his or her own choices, the individual who must be punished or absolved.
I’ve noticed that we retain the impulse to condemn, excuse, or define individuals on the basis of their membership in a group, so perhaps that is more natural to human thinking. Groupishness might be our default mode.
If so, it is to be resisted. Over-identification with the happenstance of group gets in the way of human communion, diminishes the opportunities that our recent history as a nation has so dramatically expanded, wherein any of us might recognizes the human in another and grasp that there really is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.
Not too long ago, I found myself, for reasons I’ve forgotten, staying at the hotel adjacent to the Bangor Airport. Going down to the hotel bar for supper, I found it was was absolutely stuffed with stranded troops. Their plane to Iraq had developed engine trouble, and they were stranded. Squishing my way through the crowd — wall to wall Desert Camo — I found myself face to face with a very broad slab of chest. The name tape attached to it bore the name “Elkins.” Elkins was my grandmother’s maiden name, my daughter’s middle name, a family name!
“Hey!” I said, looking up. “We’re related!”
The owner of the chest and name tag looked down at me. He had a nice, friendly, African-American face. He laughed.
Well, we might have been related, mightn’t we? By any number of ways. Maybe his great, great uncle and mine knew each other somehow, and someone married someone else’s sister? Or…
…okay, maybe some cousin of my great-great grandfather’s moved down south and bought slaves?
Should I have bought this guy a beer?
There are those who would say that I owed Sergeant Elkins something. Not because he was heading off to fight on my behalf, nothing, indeed, to do with who he is and who I am, as individuals. But because I am white and he is black, and American history is what it is. Therefore our interactions can’t be a matter of ordinary, flawed humans being friendly and kind to one another; they are inescapably about race, privilege, marginalization, oppression and… social justice.
You know, I think it’s possible that, even here and now — forget Nazi Germany — cries for “social justice,” can do more harm than good.
I think we should be sparing with them, cautious when we claim the right to reorder the world and determine cosmic guilt and innocence and appropriate recompense; we should be humble in the face of history’s complexity.
We are merely human.
Faced with a past filled to the brim with dry bones, it is hubris to imagine that we can do more than try to understand how the bones came to be where they are. We cannot lay sinews and bring up flesh upon them or cover them with skin; we can’t give them breath and life. All we can do is learn from them and recommit ourselves to love, so that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow better still.
Sergeant Elkins and I apparently forgot that our interaction that night in Bangor was about social justice.
He was, therefore, himself — a nice, young black Marine from Virginia — and I was myself — a middle aged white lady from Maine. He was a little worried about getting his Devil Dawgs properly deployed; I was a little worried about the class in Death Notification I was teaching the next day. He had three children (small), I had six (mostly grown). As it happened, he bought me a beer … because, as he explained it, he is a man and I am a woman.
In this Lenten season may we ponder again our own sins, our own mistakes; let’s correct our own faults and apologize to the individuals we have harmed.
I can’t apologize for all mothers from all times to all sons from all times. I can’t even ask forgiveness from the people in this room — the sons and daughters, all of you, of mothers who made mistakes — for what I’ve done to Peter.
I can only apologize to Peter and hope that — for all my maternal failures — I raised a generous and forgiving man.