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My Turn: Can these bones live?

For the Monitor
Published: 5/30/2021 8:30:14 AM

‘There is something intoxicating about the possibility that morality is a paper-thin lie and barbarism is the truth of the human condition,” wrote Jackson Arn in The Hedgehog Review. This “truth” seems credible as we are hammered by the daily news saturated with reports of wars, rebellions, racism, terrorism, obstinance in Congress, shootings and denigration of the other’s point of view.

Leaders of nations seem to lack the wisdom and skills to solve conflicts except by wielding brute force. The bombardment of these daily reports threatens to dry up faith in human wisdom, empathy and love of neighbor, leaving only dusty despair. I wonder what it is that makes people turn against each other, verbally or physically? What is it that solidifies divisions among us? Why is it so easy to perceive the flaws in others?

Then, on a recent morning after reading the Concord Monitor, I stepped out of my house into the heat and dust of our region’s persistent drought. In the front yard there is a Rose of Sharon bush without any spring buds, hopelessly bare and dry as old bleached bones. I thought about the ancient prophet Ezekiel overlooking a land filled with countless dry bones. He is asked, “O man, can these bones live?” It was a time when his people were saying, “Our bones are dry, our hope is gone…”

I looked more closely at the dry bones of that Rose of Sharon bush. Hidden at the foot of the cluster of desiccated branches were two tiny green sprouts. Pondering the renewed possibilities for this Rose of Sharon raised a memory of my time living in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank.

A 70-year-old Palestinian farmer took us through an Israeli military check point between his home and his farmland. He has paid for a permit, but it does not guarantee that the soldiers will let him pass through. The daily whims of the soldiers are the final authority. The checkpoint is only open from 7 to 7:30 a.m. and 5 to 5:30 p.m. Palestinians are not permitted to stay overnight on their land.

This day we were allowed to pass through the checkpoint. Our Palestinian friend showed us his vegetables, olive trees and fruit trees. The olive trees were over a century old, producing olives for generations of Palestinians. The farmer showed us a large swath of destruction through his ancient olive grove. All that was left were stumps and survey markers, foreshadowing the taking of his land for the expansion of the Israeli settlement off in the distance.

“Can these bones live?” Is there any hope for his children to continue farming this land? We walked through the olive tree graveyard assessing the farmer’s loss. He stopped next to one of the tree stumps and called us over. With a broad smile he pointed to a small green shoot poking up from the old stump, “this dead tree will live again. Our occupiers fail to understand Palestinian persistence and determination to live in this land of our ancestors. Olive trees are our prophets and guides.”

It seems I may have been asking the wrong questions about the state of our society and country. Once again, remembering my Palestinian friend has reminded me that the right question is, “O (humanity) can these bones live?” It is right because it is a rhetorical question, carrying within it the answer, “yes.” Moral and ethical principles may sometimes be only “paper thin,” but they gain strength in every disturbing report of barbarism and injustice.

For example, the PBS News Hour reporters know that some of their reports will stir uncomfortable reactions. Therefore, they often preface a story with, “Warning, the following report may be disturbing for some.” Print media news of violence, white nationalism, QAnon conspiracies, and US involvement in distant wars prompt feelings of moral and ethical indignation. These warnings and feelings reveal the existence of an embedded shared human ethical value — the universality of love. In “Toward a New Universalism,” Shahrzad Sabet writes, “(This) spark of human ethics and morality within each of us includes a shared ethic conceived as a rational commitment to the equal moral worth and dignity of all persons by virtue of their humanity.” At the core of every human being is a green shoot of empathy, love of neighbor, and justice for all people – unrelentingly affirming that even in the worst of times, “these bones can live.”

The Rose of Sharon, the Palestinian farmer’s olive tree, and the rise of our ethical and moral indignation point to the rest of the story. It is a story being written by us, by our children, by their children and their children’s children. The story is being lived among a great diversity of people and organizations poking up through the dry bones of fear, anger, and aggression. They don’t often make the news headlines. But they are all around when we look and listen carefully. They refuse to tiptoe around the universality of love of neighbor.

Desiccating barbarism may be intoxicating and pose as the true human condition. But who is it that brings to life the dry bones of our nation and world? The answer is, “us.”

(John Buttrick can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com.)

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