The Valley of the Dry Bones: Genocide and Resurrection

In May 2012, I travelled on the Reflections on Rwanda program, a two-week trip for Canadian students to visit the Republic of Rwanda and study the genocide that occurred there in 1994. The purpose for studying genocide is to gain insight into human nature through studying the extremes in human action. Listening to the stories of rescuers and survivors prompts me to study the virtues required to affirm the sanctity of human persons.

Confronting profound evil is a difficult experience that challenges my faith. We toured dozens of memorial sites throughout the country. Many of these sites were former churches where people had fled seeking refuge and peace. At each site, we saw hundreds of skulls and bones of victims. Looking at those skulls and bones, I thought about my own skull and my own bones. I thought about how these bones and skulls fall short of truly representing the victims. What the skulls and bones do emphasize is equality, but what they deemphasize is individuality. When I observed a display with rosaries and identity cards among the skulls, it made me think about the dynamism of the life that once animated those bodies that were so violently destroyed.

One day, our group went down through a valley on a rickety white bus in southern Rwanda and came upon a hill in the middle of the valley. We were led into classrooms of a once-destined technical school filled with tables on which the bodies of victims were laid. These bodies had been preserved using limestone and so we saw bodies frozen in form showing the positions in which they had died. Some of the bodies had their arms crossed, some with their arms in the air, some bodies were sprawled out in utter defeat. There was one room with children and infant victims’ bodies. Sometimes clothing was attached to the preserved corpses. We saw the full bodies of the victims whose families had hurried to the site quickly enough to claim them. These bones testified to the horrors of genocide and to the fragility of human life. Did they also testify to the finality of death?

That evening, I was praying fervently and struggling with the experience. My roommate asked, “May I share with you a reading from scripture that I read today while we were at the memorial site called Murambi?” With my encouragement, she began to read Ezekiel 37 aloud.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.” I shivered recalling the valley through which we had driven and the hill upon which we had ascended. “He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.” I could still smell the putrid smell of the limestone that looked like chalk upon the dry, preserved corpses. My friend continued reading: “‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.'” I reflected on each body I had seen preserved. For none were the machete blows deserved.

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.'” During the day, across the distance, I saw some children running quickly to greet us Muzungus, a local word meaning aimless wanderers used to refer to foreigners. Oh, we of little faith, I thought. We saw new life upon this hallowed hill.

The reading from Ezekiel continued, “‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.”

Children had been playing on the hill were their ancestors were massacred. Life was continuing where thousands had been slaughtered. I have seen life after genocide, I thought. And if there can be life after genocide then it is not so difficult to imagine life after death. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.” Those risen from the ashes of genocide offered a glimpse of the hope of the resurrection. With their lives and their faith they declared life in a former place of death.

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” As my friend read this I could feel the breeze that we had felt that day upon that hill. I reflected on the juxtaposition of the memorial site with the beautiful new lives being lived there now.

“Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” I then imagined all those bodies that I had seen rising again.

The reading continued, “I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.” What a message of hope! This message of reconciliation and healing written in the sixth century Before Christ took on so much meaning in light of the genocide in Rwanda. While the country is striving to eliminate tensions between Hutus and Tutsis, the Word of God affirms that these divisions will cease when there is restoration to the unity found in His peace.

I was in awe of this reading’s relevance to our activities of the day. My friend concluded the reading: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” What had been an incredibly challenging day and a great test of faith ended with the reassurance of God’s providence and with the joyous hope of life after death.

This blog is dedicated to my dear friend Rebecca Mattea Chadwick-Shubat who shared Ezekiel 37 with me and we both found consolation in scripture. Thank you for your friendship and encouragement. Philippians 1:3.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121:1


Thoughts on Henry V

Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth (1599) portrays a medieval campaign undertaken by a chivalrous Christian king in a just cause leading the defeat of the many French by the few English.
– Barry Cooper, “The Element of Play in Western War”

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, The Western Schism “in the history of the Roman Catholic church, was the period from 1378 to 1417, when there were two, and later three, rival popes [Urban VI, Clement VII, and Alexander V], each with his own following, his own Sacred College of Cardinals, and his own administrative offices. […] The spectacle of rival popes denouncing each other produced great confusion and resulted in a tremendous loss of prestige for the papacy.”

Historian Peter Reid, in A Brief History of Medieval Warfare: The Rise and Fall of English Supremacy at Arms, 1314-1485“, says: “When Henry V came to the throne
[age 27] on the death of his father in March 1413 the political scene was, for the Middle Ages, relatively settled. The king’s council and parliament worked well together, and relative powers and areas of influence over these two bodies of power were well defined. Trade was booming and the country prospered.” Reid explains that, though conditions in England were stable, “there remained a small number of disaffected but influential barons from his father’s reign, who might be encouraged to take advantage of of his absence abroad. These peers or their families had their land taken from them or been dishonoured in other ways by Henry’s father when he usurped the throne from Richard II.”

This Wikipedia article on the Salic law says, “Shakespeare claims that [the French King] Charles VI rejected Henry V’s claim to the French throne on the basis of Salic law’s inheritance rules, leading to the Battle of Agincourt. In fact, the conflict between Salic law and English law was a justification for many overlapping claims between the French  and English monarchs over the French Throne. […] Salic law regulates succession according to sex. Agnatic succession means succession to the throne or fief going to an agnate of the predecessor; for example, a brother, a son, or nearest male relative through the male line, including collateral agnate branches, for example very distant cousins.”

And so, with this historical context, we have a glimpse of the centrality of the question of legitimacy among both the ecclesiastical and political authorities in this medieval period.

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V asks, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” In Act 1, he seeks the approval of the Archbishop of Canterbury and of the Bishop of Ely. Though a king, Henry was required to subordinate his ambition to the scrutiny of the ecclesial authorities in order to effectively pursue the French throne.

It is exciting to consider the parallels between papal authority and kingly authority. The Great Schism meant that people were, so to speak, of different minds on the issue of legitimacy, risking the shattering of confidence in the papacy more broadly. The French King Charles VI, who was nearly twice Henry’s age, suffered a mental illness called glass delusion whereby he feared that he was made of glass “and therefore likely to shatter into pieces”.

At this point, I am not sure about the origin and development of the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. For this reason, I will focus on the scriptural case for submission to earthly authority found in Romans 13:1-7 where St. Paul writes:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

How could it possibly be that “there is no authority except that which God has established”? Augustine said “an unjust law is not law at all.” Perhaps an illegitimate authority is no authority at all. Dear libertarian and anarchist friends, I am going to move on to a very quick glance at the just war tradition. (We can debate the above scripture verse on Facebook.)

Here are the three conditions for just war according to Thomas Aquinas:

1. The authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged.
2. A just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.
3. It is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.

In this article, “Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War” Donald McClarey discusses how Henry V’s war was arguably just according to the standards set out by Aquinas, but likely not according to the standards of the contemporary Catechism. McClarey writes:
“As can be easily seen, there are differences between the formulation of the Just War doctrine by the Angelic Doctor and the Catechism. […] The most recent interpretation of the Doctrine in the Catechism seeks to set the bar higher, much higher, for a just war, than Saint Thomas did. […] Morally, I believe that Henry V should properly be judged according to the Just War Doctrine enunciated by Saint Thomas, as it is obviously unfair to hold anyone accountable for a different formulation of the doctrine that arose more than five centuries after his death.”

I found it interesting that McClarey says, “Rulers would often seek the opinions of universities to help bolster their claims, and opinions would often vary.” I say this because the aforementioned Great Schism article says, “Various proposals for ending the schism were made, especially by the University of Paris, which suggested either mutual resignation or a decision by an independent tribunal or a general council.” Another interesting parallel.

Contemporary Social Teaching of the Church and the more recent papal encyclicals do seem to deviate from the just war tradition. In this National Review post “The Just-War Tradition”, George Weigel says:

So the notion that just-war analysis begins with a “presumption against war” (or, as some put it, with a “pacifist premise”) is simply wrong. The just-war way of thinking begins somewhere else: with  legitimate public authority’s moral obligation to defend the common good by defending the peace composed of justice, security, and freedom. The just-war tradition is not a set of hurdles that moral philosophers, theologians, and clergy set before statesmen. It is a framework for collaborative deliberation about the basic aims of legitimate government  as it engages hostile regimes and networks in the world.

Did it even matter if a war was just? What about pure military necessity? All of this piety and Christian chivalry, all of this rule-following and decorum seems like quite an obstacle, no? In The Prince, Machiavelli advises:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

Were Henry V’s pious acts manifestations of true religion or Machiavellian pretenses?
I have come across several articles discussing Henry V as a Machiavellian ruler. For the historical Henry at least, this is a clear anachronism. The Battle at Agincourt was in 1415 and The Prince was published more than one hundred years later in 1532.  However, Shakespeare’s play is thought to date from 1599 and there are convincing cases for Machiavellian characters in Shakespearean plays. This makes the historical context and the chronology of publications and political events especially significant.

The other hugely significant event that occurred during this period was the English Reformation. King Henry VIII was prohibited by the pope to divorce and was excommunicated from the Roman Church. There is a lot more interesting history here and I intend to learn it eventually. In 1534, the Acts of Supremacy made Henry the “supreme head in earth of the Church of England”.

Shakespeare was writing for a Church of England audience. He had incentives to satisfy audiences and did not want to be censored, but celebrated. The historical context gives us insight into why Shakespeare downplays the Great Schism and papal authority. Still, there are many ways that the political drama imitates the ecclesiastical drama and of course, there was great interplay between the two because of how entrenched the Church was in the politics of Medieval Europe.

It is often said that the victor writes history. Despite controversy over Shakespeare’s religion and religious sympathies: He who was immersed in the English Reformation wrote history plays!

Book I want to read:
The Just War Tradition: An Introduction by David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles