Tuesday, January 08, 2008

president lincoln is dead

My friend Tom preached a sermon on Sunday about Nehemiah. He started out by talking about Nehemiah's reaction to the news of the broken walls and burnt gates in Jerusalem, and how odd it was. It would be, he said, as though we were all moved to tears today by a report that President Lincoln had been assassinated. This wasn't exactly news, after all; probably for his entire life, Nehemiah had heard about the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. He knew that Nebuchadnezzar had broken down the city walls and burnt the gates, much as we know about that fateful night in 1865 when John Wilkes Booth murdered the president.

Still, I want to suggest that the comparison isn't entirely right. The time frame is right, but Booth was hunted down and brought to justice, Lincoln was laid out in state, and his vice president was sworn in for the remainder of Lincoln's term. Since then we've had 27 presidential elections, and while arguably none of them has surpassed or even equaled Lincoln qua president, still they've been duly elected and served out their terms. To draw the parallel with Nehemiah's situation, it would be as though Lincoln were dead; no one had been brought to justice 140 years later; his body was still lying at Ford Theater during its latest theatrical production, with patrons nimbly stepping over and around it; and the country had had no one at the helm ever since.

What upset Nehemiah, I think, is that this is exactly what had happened. Jerusalem had been inhabited all this time but no one had repaired its walls or gates; possibly no one even had tried. And also, as a member of the diaspora, all his life he has heard about the glory of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish culture, national pride, and identity. It's an affront to the dignity of the Jewish people for the city to be thus.

It's important to remember in the chapters that unfold that Nehemiah isn't a stonemason, and probably has no real idea what would be involved in building a wall. His job title is "cupbearer to the king," something as far removed from stonemasonry as needlecraft is from the newspaper business. He is, however, somewhat wealthy and influential, and trusted; his job is to sample the king's food and drink against poisoning, and one presumes he gets cast-offs from the king, and while he probably is not taken into the king's confidences, they're close enough that Artaxerxes notices when Nehemiah's mood dips.

One of the things we should take away from this book is that the task came to Nehemiah solely because he's the one who started the ball rolling. There are other people 800 miles closer who have been upset by the wall's ruin for years, yet they have allowed themselves to be content with being upset and angry over it. Nehemiah is simply the guy who started to do something about it.

Another thing that we should perhaps stop to reflect on is the nature of responsibility that Nehemiah assumes for his people's sin. Invariably when Christians study this book, someone points out that he confesses the sin of the Jews in the first person, as though he is personally responsible, but we don't really go much further than pointing out and being impressed with that curious idiosyncrasy shown by him and other members of the Diaspora, like Daniel. I think we need to go a step further and ask ourselves if we should be doing the same thing.

You're probably aware that right now the New Jersey state Legislature is considering issuing an apology for the state's role in slavery. Invariably when this issue surfaces, as at the federal level a few years ago, someone objects on the grounds that slavery ended throughout the nation 140 years ago. All the slaveowners are dead, and every person who once was a slave has died. There is no one left, the argument goes, to apologize to, nor anyone left who owes an apology.

When we make those arguments, I think we miss a spiritual truth that Nehemiah grasped, even if just by rote instruction: The sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. Slavery ended in the blood and fire of the Civil War, but it swiftly was replaced by more than a century of segregation and jim crow justice, and by a dark legacy of racism. Even today, when we have a serious contender for the presidency who is black, opportunities and education remain slanted very measurably on a racial basis. The sin that led to the institution of slavery remains. If the New Jersey government really wants to make good on an apology for slavery, what it will need is to make a deliberate effort to serve the black community and elevate it to equal footing alongside the caucasian community; i.e., "Our ancestors debased yours, and it was wrong. To correct the heritage we received from them, we will now abase ourselves before you and serve you."

Tom asked us which broken-down walls we see, and as he said, we must begin doing what it takes to raise them up again.

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