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Lest we think Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is nothing more than an ancient metaphor for the life-sapping despair that had rendered Israel’s exiles all but dead, lest we dismiss the image of dry bones as far as the eye can see as yet another case of over-the-top Bible talk, let us not forget the multiple genocides of the 20th century and their concentration camps and killing fields.
And let us not fail to consider that spirits die as well as bodies, that the loss of security and belonging and hope for the future can be as life-threatening as disease.
Sometimes a body reflects what is happening in one’s heart of hearts. Think: the grief-stricken widow who has no appetite, the worried parent who cannot sleep, the self-loathing adolescent who cuts, the body-shamed athlete who binges and purges.
And sometimes bodies actually absorb injustice and oppression, fear and despair.
In Sweden it’s called uppgivenhetsyndrom, which translates pretty directly as resignation syndrome.
A recent New Yorker article 1 describes resignation syndrome as “an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees. The patients have no underlying physical or neurological disease, but they seem to have lost the will to live. The Swedish call them de apatiska, the apathetic.”
The physical manifestations of the syndrome resemble a coma: The patients, most of them between the ages of eight and 15, lose the capacity to move or speak or eat. They don’t react to pain or other physical stimuli. Feeding tubes keep them alive as their bodies waste away.
Various medical panels and psychiatric groups have studied the condition, which by 2005 had affected more than 400 children. Last year, another 60 refugee children “just fell away from the world” in “a kind of willed dying.” The syndrome appears to be a defensive physical response to the psychological terror brought on by a deportation order that would send the children and their families back to danger in their home countries. Some psychiatrists accused the Swedish government of “child abuse.”
“For nearly two decades, a political question—What should we do about migration?—has played out through the bodies of hundreds of children.”
Let me say that again: Politics has played out in and through the bodies of children.
And if it is true that politics can be played out in bodies, God knows some of us feel we already have one foot in the grave. God sees that much of our nation suffers from resignation syndrome, that large swaths of our body politic are littered with very dry bones.
But if you have a problem wrapping your head around Ezekiel’s vision of an entire valley of very dry bones, imagine instead entire football fields of paralyzed, comatose children on stretchers. Imagine instead ice caps melting and coral reefs dying while billionaires propose defunding medical research, public television, and Meals on Wheels. Imagine a sick refugee mother being pulled from her hospital bed and other immigrants being rounded up as they leave a church-run shelter for the homeless.
Well, I guess we don’t have to actually imagine most of those things.
Time and again in Sweden desperate immigrant parents have moaned and wailed, asking government officials the same question God, in Ezekiel’s vision, asked the prophet: “Can these bones live?” Time and again, parents have beseeched their doctors, “Will my child return to the land of the living? Is there any hope for us?”
These are the questions Ezekiel’s vision asks of us, aren’t they?
Once we have resigned ourselves to injustice, is there any hope for us? After we have accepted the large-scale deportation of hard-working people as the new normal, can we yet live? If we turn a blind eye to the government-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims, the poor, the sick, people of color, transgender folks, and others, will not something in us die? If we resign ourselves to the rollback of decades of environmental protections and hard-fought climate-change actions, will we not die—along with our precious Earth?
I don’t mean to be harsh. Believe me, I know how hard it is to withstand the daily news barrage about stranger-than-fiction outrages and indignities. God knows how tempting it is to close our eyes, plug our ears, and say, Just tell me when it’s over. God understands how a little resignation here, a minor concession there can feel so much easier than one more act of resistance.
But before we head out to another march, before we sign another petition, make another phone call, write another letter, or scream at the television one more time, perhaps we should consider how all ‘dem bones came together again, how all those rattling skeletons stood on their feet and lived again.
The priest Ezekiel and many of Israel’s elite had been deported from their own promised land, exiled to Babylon. Called by God to prophecy, Ezekiel has preached God’s judgment on the people for their worship of other gods, their pursuit of military power, their oppression of the poor. They have been separated from their land, from the temple, from seemingly everything that had identified them as a people—as God’s people. Many years have gone by, and they have resigned themselves to being cut off from their Creator; they are all but dead.
Another of today’s lectionary passages is the story of Lazarus, Jesus’ dear friend who fell ill and died and was four days in the tomb before Jesus showed up to call him back to life. But Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones speaks to the death of an entire nations, whole peoples. Think: Syria, Sudan, places of drought and famine, the AIDS epidemic.
Think: tens of millions of Americans in 2017, worn down by decades of increasing economic inequality and decreasing opportunity. Think: middle- and lower-class white people feeling exiled in their own land because of increasing racial, religious, and cultural diversity. Think: people so angry and scared that they will strike out at all who are different. Think: people so horrified by what is going on that they have written off family and friends who voted the “wrong way.” Think: all those who have resigned themselves to injustice and disempowerment, thinking things will never change.
Christ has set his church down in the middle of a valley that is full of bones. Christ has led us all around them; the bones are many, and they are very dry. We don’t like looking at them; we don’t like thinking about them. We want to get out of there, and then Jesus says, “Listen up, church. You may have given up on these bones, those people, this never-ending struggle for justice and peace, but I have not. I will not. I will never forsake them. I will never leave you. I will bring entire nations up out of their graves. I will restore them to life and bring them home. They will be my people and I will be their God.”
And the church prophesies as the Lord commands. The church works against racism, the church organizes to save the Earth and protect the undocumented, the church marches for peace. The church feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless.
And, lo, there is a rattling. Behold, if ‘dem bones don’t start coming together, if they are not covered with flesh and skin. All those dead bones begin to resemble people—but they are not alive. They remain as dead because there is no breath in them. The story of Ezekiel’s vision uses the Hebrew word for breath, wind, and spirit—ruach—no fewer than nine times.
“Listen up, church,” Jesus says again. “Call to the four winds. Call to the Holy Spirit. Call on all the lives, and breathe life upon these resigned ones, the hopeless, the weary, the apathetics. Tell them of my love. Sing to them. Tell them how I blessed the poor, fed the hungry, and raised the dead. Remind me that death’s injustice could not contain me. Tell them how I rose again. Assure them there is nothing they have to do. Tell them that new life is something I will do for them; it is my free love-gift. Breathe the good news Spirit into them.”
And, lo, a vast multitude of resigned-unto-death people rises up and stands on its feet. And, behold, if those people don’t start breathing and singing and loving each other. Behold, if they don’t start sharing the holy breath-Spirit and healing the sick, raising the dead, restoring families and friends one to another, and thus changing the world.
In Sweden, resignation-syndrome children have remained in their coma-like states for months and years on end, some for as long as four years. In 2013 the national Board of Health and Welfare said the only real hope for the so-called apathetics was “permission for the child’s family to stay in Sweden.” Indeed, when deportation orders have been reversed, the stricken children have recovered, if slowly and fitfully.
When justice is done, life is restored. When hope is restored, dead bones rise up.
The restoration of spirit may prove a little harder. Georgi, a 15-year-old Russian boy, tries to explain something of his eight months in a resignation coma. “I didn’t want to fall asleep,” he says, but “why would I go to school if I cannot stay here in Sweden and get a job here? Why am I going to learn something if it doesn’t have meaning in the future? … All my will—I didn’t have it anymore. It felt like I was deep underwater.”
Jesus walks us around entire nations’ worth of dry bones and says, “Love them.” Jesus tells us to call forth the very Spirit of life and love that all people might rise up in hope.
“I will put my spirit within you,” he says, “and you shall live, and I will bring you home. You will be my people, and I will be your Lord.”