Ezekiel | Dem dry colonial bones

A reflection for white settlers living on stolen land. (Listen.)

It’s tempting to reflect on the bones. The massacre site that is now a fast food restaurant just a couple of blocks from Sanctuary. The bones which still wash up from time to time on the beach near Peterborough. The babies’ bones buried six feet under at the missions. The bones which were scattered throughout the landscape, left to rot in every lake, valley and hollow, left lying in the paddocks to dry out in the sun. It’s tempting to focus on the bones: because our history and geography are studded with other people’s bones.

But to focus on the bones is to risk trauma porn. By observing the pain at arm’s length, a pain that we ourselves have not directly suffered, we risk writing ourselves out of the story, and out of any responsibility beyond a few heartfelt sighs. So perhaps a better focus is our own dryness. The dryness that happens when people do not connect with Spirit. The dryness which has its roots in a colonizing empire, and white supremacy and white violence. The dryness which means we are falling apart as a people, as a society, as a culture.

Because the bones in the landscape were left lying there by our people. Our ancestors. Our families. Our churches, our soldiers, our governments. The bones were left lying by the men whose names ring out every time Siri gives directions; for major roads and landscape features are named after them. The bones were left lying by the women who turned a blind eye; by the missions which stole and abused children; by the churches which adopted a theology of genocide and heartily participated in the colonial project. This is our inheritance: and it is horrific.

How did it happen? Maori activist and scholar Donna Awatere believes that only a people severed from their own land and culture could have systematically disinherited Indigenous peoples from theirs. In other words, only a people divorced from Spirit, community and land, indeed, only a culture of dry bones, could have engaged in such terrible violence. It is this desiccated culture that we ourselves inhabit and are shaped by, and this disintegration of people that we see all around us: and they are ours to acknowledge and address.

To people like us, then, God’s question is posed: ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’

Ezekiel, who has been brought by the Spirit to stand among the bones, a place where he cannot avoid the horror, has no real answer. ‘Lord God,’ he says, ‘you know’: because he, Ezekiel, doesn’t. The horror is too great, the inheritance too shameful, the people too detached from their land, their ancestors, and the Spirit of love and life. They have disintegrated; their lives are in pieces; they live in the valley of death. Can these bones live? God alone knows.

As Ezekiel wonders, God tells Ezekiel to preach God’s Word to the bones, for then God’s breath will enter them and they shall live. And why does God do this? Because ‘then you shall know that *I* am the Lord,’ says God. Not money, not violence, not property, and not Christian triumphalism. When these bones live, we will see that white supremacy is not lord and capitalism is not lord. Nothing which brings death and domination is lord. Only the Spirit which brings life and healing is lord of this suffering world, this dark valley, these dry bones.

So Ezekiel preaches to the bones, and ‘there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone … there were sinews on them, and flesh came upon them, and skin covered them…’ Gradually, the bone dry people are stitched together. They are integrated and given flesh; yet still, they do not live.

Then God tells Ezekiel to preach to the Spirit, the breath, the wind. Spirit, breath, wind: they all translate the Hebrew word, ruah, the feminine life force which emerges from God and carries God’s presence into the world. And so Ezekiel preaches to the Spirit, saying ‘Thus says the Lord God, Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain that they may live.’ He speaks, and the newly enfleshed people take a breath, then another, then another. With each breath, they are filled by God’s Spirit; they are transformed and given life and created anew.

They begin to stand, a great multitude. Perhaps, then, they look around at the land. For Ezekiel’s words were spoken to a people living far from the land of their ancestors. In his understanding, because they had broken treaty with God, Babylon had invaded, Jerusalem had fallen and the people had been carried into exile. They were victims of empire, invasion, and the famine that comes with war; they were living on foreign soil.

Like the Cornish, who were invaded, dominated, subjugated; forbidden from speaking their own language; their crops shipped off to England while their children starved; and who were strongly encouraged to move to this continent. My people.

Like the English who in hunger and desperation stole a loaf of bread, perhaps, or gloves or a handkerchief, and were sentenced to colonial exile for the term of their natural life. Like the starving Irish, or the starving Dutch, or the Anabaptists who were shoved and shunted and kicked around Europe and who sought a safe place where they could farm undisturbed and practice their faith. And like so many other peoples who were oppressed, dislocated, dispossessed, and who in their disintegration and trauma came here and sowed fields of dry bones, even as they fell apart themselves.

Mortal, can these bones live?

Ezekiel’s vision suggests that God’s Word can enflesh them, God’s Spirit can enliven them, and in exile they can stand, a great multitude. To people such as these, God promises to raise them out of their graves and bring them to their own land. But what is this land?

There is of course a great danger here, and that is to interpret this promise through a colonial lens. It’s these words, taken out of context, which were used to justify the dispossession of Palestinian peoples and the establishment of modern Israel: a project heavily supported by Christian triumphalists who believe that Jesus will return when Israel rules the land. And it’s these words, taken out of context, which were used to justify the colonization of this continent, and the Americas, and so many other places. The promise of land linked with God is both very seductive and very, very dangerous.

But it is the Lord who makes these promises, and who is Lord? Not money, not violence, not property, and certainly not Christian triumphalism. White supremacy is not lord and capitalism is not lord. Nothing which brings death and domination is lord. And so colonization cannot be of God, not here or anywhere else. Only the Spirit which brings life and healing is Lord of this world, this dark valley, these dry colonial bones.

And so our work must be to listen to God’s Word for the life force, to open ourselves to the breath which animates us, to follow the wind which whips us into solidarity and joy.

Indeed, our work is to allow the Spirit to bring us to life as we face our own pain, speak the truth of our history, and acknowledge our ongoing complicity in colonial systems of wealth and power. We do these things not because it’s all about us, but because until we do our own work, we have nothing to offer anyone else. We face up to our own pain and the dislocating trauma that has been passed down through the generations, so that we can bear the pain of others and stand in meaningful solidarity.

Our work is also to preach to our own culture, this culture of dry bones. It’s to proclaim God’s living and life-giving Word to a fractured society, to a people torn apart by capitalism and empire, to a fragmented people living far from their ancestral communities and disconnected from the land; our work is to proclaim God’s love and justice to the dry, dusty mausoleums of colonial institutions and structures. Like Ezekiel, we must call on the Spirit to breathe new life into these bones, these people, these institutions, and to bring about deep communion with God, with each other, and with the land.

Finally, I suggest, our work is to attend to the land herself. ‘I will place you on your own land,’ says God, ‘then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.’ The fact is, whether through our own choice or through the forces of history, we live on stolen land; a land which was taken by force and has never been ceded; a land whose ancient living culture was violently disrupted; a land which was turned into a field of bones. We cannot change this history, and most of us have no way of going back to the places our ancestors came from. So what does God’s promise mean for settlers in a colonized society?

It is true that some Indigenous folk and activists wish we’d go home; and this is entirely understandable. But perhaps there’s another way. As Bunurong-Cornishman Bruce Pascoe writes in Convincing Ground, ‘We’re stuck with each other and we’re stuck with our history.’ Yet the lies we have told about history have quarantined us, ‘separated from our soul and soil.’

I wonder, then, if we listen for the Word which brings life and allow the Spirit to transform us from within, if we do the hard work of grappling with our own painful inheritance, if we humbly attend to the land and her peoples, and if we learn to live right by them, could the land herself claim us? As repenting settlers committed to the work, might we hear her voice and realize we’ve been home all along?

Pascoe writes of a riverside nap: ‘I woke staring into the branches, the sun several degrees lower in the sky and the feeling that someone had been whispering while I slept. Was it the gentle river breeze, the fantail’s wing, the fluttering prayer flags of the leaves or was it all of them? The land. I felt the spine of her pressing against mine and a mighty reassurance swept over me as it has done so many times before. You are home, you are welcome.’ And he goes on to say, ‘If we do the right thing by the land, justice and peace will flow to its people.’

Mortal, can these bones live right by Spirit, community and land?

Only God knows: but I dare to wonder, in the name of the One who continually breathes life into the world: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer: Amen. Ω

Reflect: What do you know about your family’s settler history? Was it recent or long ago? Voluntary or forced? What did they come to, and what did they leave behind? What traumas did they carry? What impact did they have when they arrived? What are the stories, and what are the silences? How does your family’s settler history and stories influence your position on Voice and Treaty?

A reflection by Alison Sampson on Ezekiel 37:1-14 given to Sanctuary on 26 March 2023 © Sanctuary 2023 (Year A Lent 5), citing Donna Awatere as cited in Ched Myers book, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Questions for First World Christians. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994: 132-33; and Bruce Pascoe. Convincing Ground. Learning to fall in love with your country. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2007: ix, 255, 247-8. For further reading, see Elaine Enns & Ched Myers. Healing Haunted Histories. A settler discipleship of decolonization. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021. I also acknowledge a debt to a sermon by Joanna Lawrence Shenk, found here. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, the air resounds with the love song of crickets; the season has certainly changed. I pay my respects to elders past and present. The peace of the land be with us all.


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