The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”
In a nation steeped in Christian iconography, we are exhorted to imagine all manner or transformative potential for incarcerated people. We are called to imagine the essential goodness in our prisons that is there to be recognized and cultivated. When debts have been properly paid, we expect for human worth to be honored with freedom. And so, we beseech governors, parole boards, and the general public: people are more than the worst thing they have done. Everyone deserves a second chance. Appeals for mercy, pleas for relief. This is the standard operation.
We are not wrong to issue such calls. Governors must use their clemency power routinely, not exceptionally; parole and commutation boards must have the courage to dispense justice long withheld; and all of us must refuse the easy dehumanization that is justified by and, in turn, justifies the vast system of banishments commonly grouped under the umbrella of “mass incarceration.”
Neither in content, nor in form, however, do such pleas go nearly far enough. Earnest petitions for compassion and mercy for the exceptionally worthy few belong squarely to the carceral logics of the America’s criminal legal system and the attendant retributivism that Americans mistake for “justice.” This lesser “justice” demands that we diminish the personhood of those whom we relegate to cages. We cage wantonly, sometimes as a penalty for a harm inflicted, sometimes merely for being a body out of place. Whether the presumed beneficiary has been marked as a “criminal” or an “illegal,” whether they are Black or brown, disabled, or poor, every plea for mercy rests on an antecedent disposal.
With an ear rightly trained for its Christological resonances, historian Caleb Smith characterizes the abiding poetics of American punishment as follows: “the prison condemns offenders to a kind of living death as a precondition for their resurrection into the community of the living.” Should incarcerated people be afforded opportunities for rebirth? Certainly they should. Far better though would be to not relegate people to a living death to begin with.
In his 2014, grand jury testimony, Mike Brown’s killer Darren Wilson—then a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—described the 18-year-old Brown as having taken the shape of a demon just seconds before Wilson killed him. Beyond the halls of Death Row, prisons claim to distinguish themselves from state-sponsored execution by offering a second chance. At its most aspirational, carceral logic envisions incarcerated persons as entering into confinement as already morally dead, with the prison as the potential catalyst for penitential rebirth. However, we know better—that it is the prison itself that takes life.
So, who—or what—precisely is dead and in need of rebirth? We are schooled well in how to dress the incarcerated up in the costume of the executed god. But as we push on for justice for those in cages, let us not be satisfied with this standard pageant. Let us, rather, dream bigger.
When we read about dry bones being animated and Lazarus being brought back from the dead, let us consider rather the dry bones that is the whole house of Israel. As principals in, enablers of, and bystanders alongside the civic edifice of mass human caging, are we not all of us, as individuals and as a collective, in dire need of rebirth? As parties to mass criminalization, mass incarceration, and mass death, let us cultivate our capacity for a moral rebirth. Let us read together, dream together, and build power together. Let us manifest the spirit of abolition so as to bring about a collective resurrection.
Refracted through an abolitionist lens, we see that it is not those who have been shorn of their liberty that are implicated in psalms of dereliction. Rather, dereliction inheres in our civic machinery of state violence that makes lives disposable. Scripture calls us to reflect not on the possibility for the individual redemption of the captive, but for the revolutionary transfiguration of the pale desiccated body of a society that has grown only too comfortable with “public safety” rooted in policing and “justice” rooted in human caging.
Paul’s antinomy between the flesh and spirit invites us to contrast contemporary carceral institutions with the best ideals about true justice, instead of the narcotic figment of “law and order.” And while his famous use of the body as a corporate metaphor comes a few chapters later in Romans, today’s literary pairings suggest that we misuse this opportunity for serious reflection if we fail to expand the aperture beyond a reflection on individual redemption for incarcerated persons, and to think critically about the presumption of disposability of lives that have been rendered remote—both physically and psychologically—through forced removal from the everyday. We must learn to refuse this lesser “justice,” this lesser “public safety.” We must work together toward a world where no one is made disposable. That is the rebirth we need.
The selection from John’s gospel, in which Lazarus both dies and is raised from the dead, we see Jesus proclaim that he is the resurrection and life. And far from a vision of a remote disinterested God, we see a bereft, weeping Jesus, who not only cares but feels. Jesus is both empath and necromancer in these verses, assuaging doubt. We must live this compassion, we must enact this resolve, if, like Lazarus, we are to be unbound and released.
As Adrienne Maree Brown teaches us, organizers are fundamentally engaged in a battle of the imagination. Jesus points to the contingency of the reality that we know, which often seems so intransigent and terminal. Prison preservationists insist that the way things are now are the way that things must forever remain. But every institution preaches its own necessity. And all things pass. We must strain to imagine a world without prisons, a world where none is abandoned, where human worth is honored not with cages but with care. Only by means of this willful dreaming shall these dry bones live.
JACK LEE DOWNEY
Meet the Authors
Jack Lee Downey is the John Henry Newman Professor in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910-1985 (Fordham, 2015) and co-author of Lost in the Cold War: The Story of Jack Downey, America’s Longest-Held POW (Columbia, 2022).
Joshua Dubler is an associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester, where he directs the Rochester Education Justice Initiative. He is the author of Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison (FSG, 2013), co-author of Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (Oxford, 2019).