The Valley of the Bones


In these times, Ezekiel’s valley of the bones comes to mind. The valley is full of bones. The bones are everywhere, and they are very dry. There is no hope. A Voice speaks from the midst of the valley: “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answer, “No. They’re dead. They’re all dead!’’ To which the Voice responds, “Of course they are. They’re dead, but don’t you see? They are you. You and your people are the bones in the valley” (Ezekiel 37).

Gustave Doré, Vision of the Valley of the Bones (1866)

Like Ezekiel, I look in despair at my country and kindred. Ezekiel’s dry bones were his people in exile, far from their homeland. I’m a stranger in my own country, the valley of the bones, with little reason to no hope for a transformation.

Fresh bones are thrown into the valley every day. The remains of three nine-year-old children and three of their teachers in Nashville are the latest to hold our attention, until tomorrow another man, woman, or child repeats the horror somewhere else, while our children and grandchildren go through drills to protect themselves in the event the next gunman comes to their schools.

The land of the fearful

The assault weapons carried by American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the culture of war — “kill-or-be-killed” — have come home to roost, turning schools, shopping malls, synagogues, churches and mosques into valleys of death and destruction in Ukraine and places like Nashville. The “land of the free” has become the land of the fearful; the home of hucksters and cowards. not the home of the brave. The assault weapons that killed nine-year-old Evelyn Dicephalus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney and their teachers were not stolen; they were bought and sold legally.

Asking questions — speak what is real

Evelyn, Hallie, and Billy won’t blow out 10 candles on their next birthdays. They cannot ask the man who has failed to represent them in Congress whether he might now think twice before sending another Christmas card picturing his smiling family, each brandishing an AK-15, or why, moments after they were shot and killed, he said nothing can be done to “fix it,” noting that he homeschools his children. Evelyn, Hallie, and Billy can’t ask him what goes haywire in his brain that allows him to sport an AK-15 on his lapel on the floor of Congress, and shed tears and express surprise and horror at what happened at the school in the district he represents.

Understanding ourselves

Answers to how America arrived at the valley of the bones in 2023 are as many as the disciplines that study such matters: psychology, sociology, history, biology, genetics, economics, philosophy, anthropology, and, yes, religious studies and theology. I look through the lens of theological anthropology — mortals and mortality (death) understood in light of that which does not die—the Immortal, the Eternal, the Encompassing within which every mortal lives and dies.

Guns don’t kill?

“Guns don’t kill; people do.” Seriously? Guns don’t kill? AK-15s don’t kill? A firearm in the hands of “God-fearing, law-abiding citizens” won’t kill? Guns do kill; assault weapons slaughter, massacre, and tear bodies into body parts.

I’d like to say I don’t get it, but I think I do. The bones in Ukraine are added to the valley every hour by a mortal’s worship of himself and his nation. The idolatry of self and nation is no different in America. What’s the difference between “Make America Great Again” and “Make Russia Great Again?” How did the party of Lincoln (“Honest Abe”) become the party of John Wilkes Booth? Why do elected Representatives and Senators wear AK-15s on their lapels and take the floor to block legislation that would put legal boundaries around the freedom to bear arms under the Second Amendment? Guns don’t kill; elected officials do. Guns don’t kill; liars and cowards do. Guns don’t kill; bullies do. Guns don’t kill; ideologues do. Guns don’t kill; those who mistake themselves as more than mortal do.

From folly to wisdom

For people like me there is no better explanation for such horror than the violation of the First Commandment that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The sense of it is this: “You are not the center of the universe. You are mortal. You are born and you will die. You are not infinite. You are finite. To worship yourself is folly.

Photo of Hiker Above the Sea of Fog by Friedrich, Caspar David ,ca. 1817.

I scratch my head and wonder why the obvious isn’t obvious. The valley of the bones makes me weep. Nothing I do will turn us from this madness. The dry bones in Ukraine will not rattle, come together, and stand again, as in Ezekiel’s vision. But my faith tradition insists, against all evidence to the contrary, that the Word is more powerful than an AK-15, and the Immortal greater than a mortal.

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, April 1, 2023.