Can These Bones Live: Christian Ethics and a Politics of Responsibility for the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands Open Access

Ellrod, Bryan (Spring 2021)

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In 1994, the United States implemented an enforcement strategy for the southwestern border that weaponized the landscape against migrants. The strategy, premised on a logic of “prevention through deterrence,” wagered that if the cost of crossing were raised to an unbearable degree, illicit entries could be prevented by deterring migrants ever from undertaking the journey. The strategy’s efficacy in preventing surreptitious crossings remains uncertain. What cannot be doubted is its effectiveness in producing and reproducing migrant death. Over the last twenty-five years, thousands of human remains, many of them little more than disarticulated bones, have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert.


Political rhetoric and federal policy documents typically portray southwestern border enforcement as an indispensable effort for maintaining territorial integrity, upholding the rule of law, and safeguarding the politics of self-determination. However, fragmented bones in the dust of desert valleys bear witness to the contradictions proliferated by the present strategy’s material prosecution. Rendering the Sonoran a technology of state confounds the distinction between city and wilderness. Relying on its lethal potentials to halt migrants’ advances preserves the rule of law with nature’s anarchic violence. Adding lines to a burgeoning ledger of the dead reveals self-determination’s vicious potential to lapse into other-termination.


The present analysis begins by attending to the witness that the dead bear against the American project of self-determination, reading against it the contradictions written on their bones. Escaping these contradictions’ deadly consequences, I contend, requires an account of political subjectivity that does not premise political liberty on freedom from the outsider’s demand. To this end, I offer a political theological reading of the Parable of the Samaritan (Luke10:25-37) that eschews the self-determining political subject for one constituted by its approval of the other’s demand. Such a subject resists self-determination’s fratricidal potentials by resituating the law it posits within the encounter with the stranger, such that her life becomes that good which at once delimits and re-orients the law, bounding its injunctions and giving them new meaning. Elevating this aspect of the oft-cited parable proposes how Christian ethics may yet spur a politics responsible to the U.S. borderlands.

Table of Contents

Preface 1

Introduction 4

An Aside on Method: The Remembrance of Dismembered Bodies 36

Chapter One: Self-Determination & the Problem of Beginnings 42

Chapter Two: The Theater of Alienation 66

Chapter Three: The Witness of Fragments 96

Chapter Four: The Samaritan’s Virtue 112

Chapter Five: Samaritans in the Sonoran 134

Bibliography 160

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