A Tale of Two Walls: Trump vs. Nehemiah

It has come to my attention that some Christians are comparing Donald Trump’s imagined border wall to the biblical story of Nehemiah, in which Jerusalem’s wall is rebuilt in 52 days. I’ve only found a few published examples, like this one from “The Conservative Pundit” Tricia Erickson (written back in May), but I suspect that such writing is just the tip of the iceberg.

I feel compelled to now offer my modest contribution to stopping the forces of darkness gathering around the Republican nominee. Many conservative Christians are rationalizing their support for a man who is the very antithesis of Jesus and his teachings, and so the work of stopping his threatened rise to power must include confronting biblical misinterpretation.

The memoirs of Nehemiah point in the exact opposite direction of that called for by Trump’s xenophobic populism. In 2010 I launched a blog about something I called “Nehemian organizing.” I provided a detailed study of this potent tale as a starting point for seeking news of holy cooperation. I wasn’t quite sure where the text was leading. As it happened, the Arab Spring erupted soon thereafter, and nearly seven years later the West is utterly failing to deal with a flood of refugees fleeing apocalyptic violence.

I’ve previously struggled with Nehemiah’s wall. My own faith and politics tell me to love those from outside my community, and the idea of living in a literal walled city (or nation) is abhorrent to me. Yet this text is indeed a model for how a religiously-identified community can keep out foreign influences. So those inclined toward biblical guidance must take seriously questions like that posed by Erickson: “Is Donald Trump God’s Nehemiah?”

The Call for a Wall

At first glance there are indeed parallels between Nehemiah’s organization of Jerusalem’s wall-building and Trump’s scheme of rebuilding the United States’ southern border. While I am generally baffled by how a corrupt and clearly wicked nonbeliever like Trump could gain acceptance among Evangelicals, I can’t dismiss this particular reading outright. It is a story of wall-building, and any attempt to prevent its use by biblical literalists to justify walling off our supposedly Christian nation must begin on literalist ground.

But here’s a key difference between Trump and Nehemiah. Trump hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to build his wall. It took Nehemiah only three days to assess the situation and approach the community with a vision so compelling that, “They replied at once, ‘Good! Let’s rebuild the wall!’” So they began the good work.” (Neh 2:18) Trump should already be disqualified.

While Nehemiah became governor at some point in the story, he most certainly did not need that post to exert his leadership, which he offered as a brand new arrival to the community, and in a way that threatened and undermined the Empire’s current lackeys.

By Nehemiah’s standard, Trump’s wall should already be built! Anyone referring to the “52 days” of the campaign (which implies that we have entered a biblically critical period of history ranging from September 17 to November 8) should recognize that Trump has already failed to match Nehemiah’s transformative leadership.

Instead, Trump appears no closer to success than the first day he floated the idea. Not only that, the wall should have been built through the collaborative efforts of a formerly divided society. In the biblical story we find the entire community, including the mayors of both halves of Jerusalem (which symbolically represent the Democrats and Republicans) setting aside their division and paralysis. These rivals both physically worked on the wall themselves, each with children at his side (3:9,12). Trump has in no way unified our divided nation. It is not even clear that he has the true support of the Republicans and political Christians – most of his endorsements appear based more on desperate political calculation than actual enthusiasm.

A better biblical parallel for Trump might be the character of Ezra, a scribe whose story is used to reframe, neutralize and obfuscate the revolutionary meaning of Nehemiah’s memoirs. I’ve previously written about the structure of the Book of Nehemiah, which was for many years considered part of a single text called Ezra-Nehemiah. I’ve previously shown how there is clear evidence of a secondary writer, who surrounded Nehemiah’s first-person memoirs with a clumsy third-person reframing.

Is Donald Trump God’s Ezra?

The Book of Ezra opens with a proclamation from the king of Persia (that is, Iran) that God has appointed him to “”build him a temple in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:2) Ezra is deputized to lead the effort, and later granted the power of life and death after years of fitful progress. (7:26) Ezra does eventually rebuild the temple, but some years later the story of Nehemiah begins with the city in ruins once more. (Neh 1:3)

Ezra tried and failed to return Jerusalem to glory, using the very same types of totalitarianism and racial exclusion that is Trump’s specialty. Ezra’s apologists later added a sloppy amalgamation of other writings (including a duplicate of Ezra chapter 2, which appears again as Nehemiah chapter 7). They also add a new attempt at Ezra’s failed policies of racial purity, which destroyed families by forcing the expulsion of pagan/foreign wives.

Even so, Nehemiah’s great accomplishment was still the building of a wall. As I said at the start, I can’t dismiss this Trumpist reading out of hand. I spent several years in community with Evangelicals and I know the fear that pervades this community that the imperial culture in which it grew is now turning against apologist Christendom. I don’t agree with this reading and hope that I’ve helped to undermine it, but I recognize its seductive nature in a frightening world of growing violence and collapsing Empire.

I also know the stubbornness with which Christians often cling to mis-applying biblical stories: It is obvious to me that Jesus would have found it absurd to apply his teachings in the way that we often do. Jesus and his community had much more in common with Syrian refugees than with the average American Christian.

We are the Romans. We are the Babylonians. We are the Egyptians. We are worried by these troublesome religious newcomers, who have arrived in “our” land after we devastated theirs in our careless effort to maintain a comfortable standard of living. We distrust their religious values, which range on a spectrum whose far end does indeed call for violence against the Empire that we love more than we love God.

Christians, really, should be having the same crisis of loyalty that we often project onto Muslims.

The Future Wall

The Nehemiah story can of course be read at face value – used to support the creation of a literal wall. But in that case a better analogy has not yet taken place. The people of the lands formerly called Syria and Iraq may someday have a claim to such a reading. They are still in the early stages of their own Babylonian Exile. They are being violently driven from their burning cities, sometimes picked up and moved to faraway lands where they are viewed with distrust and pressured to assimilate.

If there is a parallel to the Nehemiah story, it is this: God willing, we are laying the groundwork for what will eventually be a rebuilding of the walls of Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Kabul. God willing, someday, when the United States and Russia have finally stopped inflaming regional tensions, there will be a rebuilding. When that finally happens, perhaps there will emerge a Nehemiah character. He or she will return to the land of his or her great-great-great-great-grandparents, to apply community organizing principles to a great and difficult effort of rebirth.

Right now, we are not even to Ezra. Rather, we are generations earlier, at the fall of Jerusalem (2 Chron 36:17-21) and the beginning of a long and dark chapter of the story.

Meanwhile, let us pray that the Muslims of find a safe land to wait out their own exile, hopefully keeping their families and identities intact. And more importantly, let us welcome them as fellow children of God, with open arms.

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The R Word

I spent last week at the Ventura River Watershed for a five-day Festival of Radical Discipleship, hosted by Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. It was my third trip to this outfit’s annual event, and I’ve come to love the chance for a deep study of how the Gospel confronts the imperial powers of our day.

However, the gathering changed dramatically this year, expanding more than four-fold in attendee count (from a few dozen to 165). It also blossomed from a rather compact gathering for deep Bible study led mainly by radical theologian Ched Myers to something like a conference, with plenary and break-out sessions led by roughly half of the people in attendance.

But it wasn’t a conference. Ched made just this point during one of his comments: we might have trouble explaining what just happened.

And sure enough, when a friend asked where I’d been the last week I said, as predicted, almost verbatim, “at a conference.” And then I found myself struggling to describe the thing I had just attended. It had enough people to outgrow the simple “institute” in its official name. I tried “festival” too, but the label attached to this year’s expansive version is neither here nor there.

The event was a conference and a festival as well as a gathering for worship and fellowship – not unlike the earliest gatherings (ekklesia) of the followers of Jesus described in the book of Acts.

This gathering, in the Ventura River Watershed, was a chance to reconnect with a widely-scattered family of kindred spirits who feel called to express a Christianity in opposition to the imperial faith that condones and even supports the destruction of Creation’s human and natural communities.

It wasn’t the usual amazing Ched Meyers event, as much as I loved the last two February weeks I spent with that modern prophet, who has the rare gifts of discerning the revolutionary root of the Gospel and also being able to hold an audience transfixed for several days as he gently but firmly unwinds a part of the story. I missed that smaller and more intimate learning experience, but also recognize that perhaps it had to die for new life to grow out of the Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries project that Myers leads. And there lies a clue about the missing label for this thing.

I woke up one night at 1:30. The word had come to me!

Revival.

It was a revival. It is a revival. Life is returning to the dry bones. The yeast spore has found its nice little wad of wet flour. A seed is sprouting during a little break in California’s long (and apparently worsening) dry spell.

It is just like Jesus said the Kingdom would be, albeit in a very small tentative way. Life is coming back in the springtime, from the Latin re-vivere, to live again.

We are embarrassed by this term, revival. It is weighted down with the baggage of a hundred false apocalypses, a thousand ephemeral healings and a million manipulative little tracts promising Heaven and threatening Hell.

This revival is apocalyptic, all right. Each year I’ve attended we have shared a growing urgency as the depth of humanity’s economic and ecological problems become more clear and catastrophic. And healing is on the agenda, although more of a collective healing of systemic problems and a ravaged natural world starting in our own watersheds. Hell can be escaped only together, and it’s not as easy as getting up for an altar call.

Fortunately, Heaven is also close at hand. It’s emerging every day: a fabric that is slowly being stitched together, a community of resistance spreading from watershed to watershed like seeds blown by the wind.

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Gods, Kings and Temples – a movie review

Biblical blockbusters are a thing now. Last spring’s Noah was followed by Exodus: Gods and Kings. Spectacular computer-rendered miracles have helped a supposedly godless Hollywood to cautiously embrace scripture. But the latest shiny apocalypse has preserved little of the Bible’s warnings against wealth and power.

Yes, flogging and starving slaves to build monuments is wrong. But our modern Empire does not feature pyramids built by slaves with flayed skin. Still the great towers of our world rest on the backs of exploited workers; despite significant but superficial improvements, we are still in Egypt. Exodus director Ridley Scott missed his source text’s moral about how not to be like those awful Egyptians.

The film pays no attention paid to how the Israelites attempted to free themselves from the oppressive ways of Egypt, which is a major theme of the Book of Exodus. Evil is found not just in the horrific labor practices that made the Egyptian monuments. The problem is the very existence of grand platforms for worship by and of elites.

It’s hardly surprising that Hollywood ignores the material’s deeper treatment of elites – our culture portrays revolutionary leaders as merely another type of elite. Even relatively subversive works like The Hunger Games default to a messianic hero(ine). We can’t wrap our head around effective collective action, even when the Exodus story teaches just that.

Perhaps elitism is an essential part of filmmaking – a mass of characters certainly can’t be developed in a couple of hours. But as Rebecca Solnit points out in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, disaster films are also propaganda. Catastrophes (including biblical plagues) have their own mythology rooted in our cultural default of hero worship. Elites depend on order and know that disruptive moments can bring it all crashing down – so they preemptively teach us to submit in the moments when their control has collapsed.

But what actually tends to save people after a real disaster is quite anarchic. Solnit notes that it was in the aftermath of San Francisco’s great 1906 earthquake that Dorothy Day first glimpsed the Kingdom of God – which inspired and informed her later work including the Catholic Worker movement.

Unfortunately, Scott followed the rules by ignoring the important post-disaster dynamics within the Exodus community –first a band of guerillas and then a horde of refugees under the firm control of Commandante Moses. While the biblical Aaron played a key role as a conduit for God’s communication through his speech-impaired brother, the film reduces him to looking baffled while his brother talks to a rock.

And once he saved the day, Hollywood Moses enjoyed quality time with his wife – that old “hero gets the girl” trope. Then he enjoyed a nice chat with God over a cup of tea, while chipping away at the stone tablets. Finally, Moses rode off to the Promised Land in the back of an enclosed wagon, alone with the Ark of the Covenant, alone with God.

The Moses of scripture was overwhelmed – struggling with his impossible task of guiding a displaced urban community through hostile wilderness. His dependence on others is introduced symbolically during the battle with Amalek:

Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. (Exod 17:11-12)

Still, Moses micromanaged by judging all disputes until his father-in-law intervenes:

“You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exod 18:18)

Only after releasing control could Moses hear God’s commandments – including an essential warning against monuments like those the Israelites were forced to build for Egypt:

“If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.” (Exod 20:25)

Of course, this commandment against elitism has long since slipped beneath the waves of Temple worship and the revisionism that comes whenever a revolutionary movement hardens into the new establishment.

The Israelites held off the insidious return of Empire for generations, governing through a series of judges. Political power did not harden into dynastic – or even consecutive – rulers until Samuel’s corrupt sons pushed the people to request a king despite God’s clear warning of catastrophic consequences:

“Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. (1 Sam 8:8)

Kings brought a disastrous descent into oppression and infighting, starting with Saul’s homicidal paranoia against his successor David, followed by Solomon’s use of forced labor to build his palace and the Temple. Finally the kingdom split after God triggered a slave revolt against Solomon’s cruel son – only the fourth king. (1 Kgs 12:1-24)

Grand building projects are what took town Israel: Generations of war and oppression followed, leading to the eventual collapse of both kingdoms into the Babylonian imperium. That was pretty much the end of Hebrew autonomy, except for the grassroots rebuilding led by Nehemiah. Hanukah commemorates another attempt to throw off imperial chains, but the Maccabees only replaced external oppression with internal dynastic power.

And we have still not learned the lesson. We are shown Moses as just another authoritarian militarist, and we don’t bat an eye. This hero leader is familiar, but he has not taken us very far.

Not only have we not reached the Promised Land. We haven’t yet entered the desert.

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Holes in Our Wall

I moved home to Sacramento this summer, and boy, the place is a mess! The physical state of downtown bears some resemblance to the wrecked walls and gates of Jerusalem, during the fateful summer of 445 BCE.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but the heart of our city is in a troubling state. The old commercial core is surrounded by a ring of vacant buildings in various stages of decomposition. Some of this blight is of the garden variety: Small-time entrepreneurs went out of business and the landlords have yet to find a new tenant. Such troubles are always present in a city.

However, something larger and darker is happening in Sacramento. The rot has affected large swaths of downtown encircling the gaping hole where the new arena will (hopefully) rise to finally fix our problems. Six downtown city blocks suffer from at least a quarter of all property being in some form of abandonment. Two of these blocks have no signs of commercial life at all. Others feature surface parking where glamorous high-rise condos were once planned.

Here is a map.

Notice how the dead blocks ring the heart of the city, including the arena site on which the city’s current development scheme pins its hopes. This is not a matter of one big project gone wrong. The problem is systemic and therefore requires systemic changes. We need development based on community needs rather than speculative wealth extraction. Established local developers have an important role to play, but only if they can somehow minimize their reliance on the more predatory elements of speculative capitalism.

We need to have a frank conversation about “development” as a concept. Why does it tend to take particular forms and produce certain side effects? I’ll offer more detailed thoughts in a future post, but I believe a change of spirit is needed for Sacramento. The city must be rebuilt in a comprehensive way, requiring transformative collaboration.

The Wall Has Fallen

For ideas about how such transformation might unfold, it is useful to review past experience, especially where urban renewal was as spiritual and social as it was physical: So please consider the state of Jerusalem 2,460 years ago, just before the arrival of a fellow named Nehemiah.

Nehemiah came because he heard that the city of his ancestors was in a sorry state. Although the Jewish people were still living there and worshiping at a rebuilt Temple, the city wall had been torn down and its gates had been burned. For generations the city had been subject to humiliation at the hands of outsiders, known as the Babylonian Exile.

Nehemiah led an implausible and spectacularly successful community-based rebuilding effort, restoring the city’s integrity. Everyone dropped what they were doing and set to work on some portion of the wall, often nearest their homes. The entire city was involved, although not through their official positions. Priests and mayors, goldsmiths and merchants all built the wall with their own hands.

Nowadays, people are generally fortunate enough to avoid the need for literal city walls. However, the function of walls and gates remains essential to a city – a healthy community, like a healthy organism, needs skin and pores to help it decide who and what comes in or goes out.

Sacramento’s protective layer has broken down. The heart of the city lies vulnerable to our own modern Babylon. We are at the mercy of speculators who don’t necessarily share the community’s interests, who rarely have to live with the real consequences of their wins or losses.

With gaping holes in the downtown, the city’s government is hindered from pushing for what will really benefit its people. If someone wants to build something within existing laws, it seems, the city often will help make it happen regardless of the costs and benefits to the community (on the other hand, there is still a lot of red tape). Conformance to our law is an important restraint, but the law is not enough when any profits made will leave the community, worsening the underlying divestment and decay.

Our civic body is badly wounded and vulnerable to infection. Our lifeblood is draining out.

Our wall is breached. Our gates have burned.

It is hard to know where to start with such a huge mess. But we have to start somewhere. And one spot near the cathedral fills me with the strong sense of instruction: “Start here,” it seems to say.

My Place on the Wall

I am drawn, again and again, to the desolate stretch of J Street between 10th and 11th. Both sides of the street have been mostly vacant for years. My focus is upon the south side of this block, half of which has been named “Cathedral Square” for its proximity to the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.

We’ll get to the cathedral in a moment, but let’s start at the corner near the park, at 10th and J. Most Sacramentans wince when I mention this spot, which is perhaps the worst blight in downtown despite its prime location.

A few businesses remain on this block, within sight of City Hall: a liquor store, a bustling sandwich shop and a crowded Vietnamese restaurant. A clothing boutique recently closed, but a small design firm recently hung a sign from a fire escape, suggesting new life upstairs. These entrepreneurs are making heroic efforts in grim surroundings. Good for them.

Next door to this strip is a large vacant storefront that was most recently the Lorenzo Patiño School of Law. There is evidence of remodeling on the ground floor, but that building’s upper windows are mostly covered by graffiti. I have some ideas for this property, which I’ll share soon. But first, we have to look at the neighboring properties that make this such a difficult location for a profitable enterprise. We have to look at the origin of the blight.

Next door to the Patiño Building is the boarded-up Copenhagen Furniture store. It burned in 1997; some people driving down J Street today were not yet born in 1997.

The rest of the block is not even boarded up – peer through the dirty windows and thick cobwebs, and you’ll see debris from ceiling collapses that grow worse each winter. Moss and lichen grow on protected spots as nature reclaims these structures in the absence of human activity. This is among the city’s most centrally-located properties, on one of its busiest streets.

Very little has happened here since 2008, when a pair of local development companies cleared out the last tenants before their planned project ground to a halt. Their failure was part of a catastrophic global cascade of failed bets. My intent is not to blame them. This is a systemic problem, remember.

Their gamble’s desired outcome was to create a large box looming over its namesake’s spire. “Cathedral Square” would be 25 stories of retail, parking and apartments. I put the name in quotes because the building would have been oriented toward J Street, giving the cathedral itself a cold shoulder. The building would have blocked views of the cathedral from Cesar Chavez Plaza (city hall’s front yard). It would be the very opposite of what its name suggests: Residents of this upscale tower would have had great views at the community’s expense.

The strip across J Street been dead for nearly as long as the south side, and it provides important context. The north side of J is the field of dreams for John Saca, who envisions a 40-story tower of condos he calls the “Metropolitan.” The city recently sold him the 7-story Plaza Building for $600,000, so he can finally build.

I’m not sure we should bet another key site on Saca. His prior downtown project was supposed to be a pair of 52-story towers at 3rd and Capitol, but resulted in a full-block hole in the ground at the gateway to our city. It is a stunning failure, where cottonwoods now grow in the foundation of what was supposed to have been one of the tallest residential buildings on the entire West Coast.

But let’s say Saca pulls it off this time. Then Sacramento’s tallest building will loom over its central park – as well as the cathedral, the Elks Building and the Citizen Hotel. Saca’s grand slab would be twice as tall as each of these three historic architectural beauties.

Saca’s tower would be closer to the cathedral than the cathedral is tall – within 100 meters. This massive block would also block the morning sun in Chavez Plaza while creating afternoon glare and worsening the summer heat there. Saca’s vision is roughly equivalent to building a 5-story condominium building, right to the curb of M Street. That little ridge at 45th would nice spot for a penthouse overlooking the Fab Forties, wouldn’t it? To be fair, these proposed downtown towers are within existing height ordinances. But just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is right.

Outside money controls downtown within an increasingly globalized framework, and outside money will continue to control downtown until the community comes up with a positive alternative.

Rebuilding Community

And that gets us back to Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s story is nested within a larger text written by the scribe Ezra, who was commissioned by a distant king to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem in a ruthlessly top-down manner.

Certainly the local people saw some benefit from that reconstruction – both in construction jobs and in the end result of once again having a central place of worship. However, that benefit was incidental: That Temple was built for the king’s own glory, and the city itself languished for many more years until Nehemiah showed up and the community finally found its soul again.

For better or worse, construction of a new temple for the Sacramento Kings is already underway. But in the same way that the Temple’s reconstruction was far from the end of Jerusalem’s troubles, we should not kid ourselves that a new arena will solve Sacramento’s problems. We heard the same promises of renewal when they built Downtown Plaza a generation ago, and that fix failed so miserably that they had to wipe it off the face of the earth. Despite a glut of available property including 60 blocks of infill at the Sacramento Railyards project, no other site will work for the latest fix.

No other sacrifice will satisfy our absentee kings.

So Sacramentans have to come up with a better plan for our downtown, based on our needs as a community. And we have to implement it in a way that will stretch us beyond our individual interests. We all have to get our hands dirty and rebuild our wall.

I’ve got an idea for one of the breaches, and I hope that my sharing a new vision for Cathedral Square inspires others to find their own spot on the wall. More soon…

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A Miraculous Tale for Our Times

The Bible was not written for us. We are too literal to embrace a literary collection full of impossible stories: The Flood. Three days in a fish. Life after death.

None of these events are possible in our scientific world. Therefore, many dismiss the Bible entirely. Or at least we hold it as a generally true history spiked with impossible yarns.

Even the less-impossible stories in the Bible often involve visions or voices of the sort that will get a person medicated nowadays. How many Ezekiels might be rotting away in a psych ward somewhere, doped up to the point they can’t remember what God is telling them? The smart seers have learned by now that they should keep their visions to themselves.

But back in biblical days, people were open to the supernatural to the point that impossible events could be written into the national history.

It would be as though we taught our children that a revived General Washington rode a fiery steed back into the city that now bears his name, routing the Brits after they burned our capitol in 1814.

We moderns just don’t buy that sort of tall tale. So the supernatural is safely slipped into the category of “miracles,” disbelieved and generally ignored by the mainstream. Because the Bible is loaded with the supernatural, the whole thing is suspect.

Mundane Miracles

But tucked away amidst all the impossibilities is a story that is improbable. It is one of the Bible’s more obscure books and I believe it is mainly ignored because it is so deeply subversive. It could have happened, and if it did we must change our ideas about power dramatically.

The memoirs of Nehemiah tell how Jerusalem’s walls were rebuilt in 52 days, after generations of ruin during the Exile to Babylon. After many years of disappointing work within the System, grassroots organizing finally delivered the goods.

It’s hard to know where to put this story.

The story of Nehemiah is a religious story, but one that should be of interest to all people regardless of what they think of the entity or phenomenon commonly known as “God.” We might all learn a thing or two from this story, and open the way for fortuitous events of the sort that biblical authors attributed to God’s grace.

Nehemiah’s story provides a manual for the revival of a city. It is an ancient story with urgent application in the modern world. It shows how God moves when God isn’t parting the waters.

This story has not a whiff of the supernatural. Rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in less than two months is pretty unlikely. Even worse, the project was conceived and led by a regular Joe with no relevant experience.

But this yarn is well within the realm of exaggeration. Maybe it took a few months, and maybe it took a year or two. But in any case the effort was made by the hands of self-organizing people; no angels were reported to join the work crews. So where was God in this story?

Hearing From “God”

Nehemiah got the news that changed his life through a very mundane channel: His brother showed up with some guys from Judah, who reported that, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Neh 1:3)

When he hears of Jerusalem’s sorry state, Nehemiah responds in a prayerful and clearly religious way. He resolved to God that he would ask the king for help.

But it isn’t clear that Nehemiah ever heard back from God. The heavens did not part. There were no angels and trumpets. The Lord apparently never spoke to Nehemiah, at least not according to the man’s own telling of his story.

And you’d think he’d mention if God did respond. This is the Bible, right?

Perhaps because of the lack of response to his prayer, Nehemiah didn’t spring into action like Jonah from that puddle of whale vomit. Jonah could have had no doubt of who was telling him to get up and go, nor that there would be severe consequences for further delay. Not so for Nehemiah, who had no obvious Sign to retrace Jonah’s steps back to the homeland – or else.

So Nehemiah certainly didn’t drop everything in his rush to obey his calling. He knew he had an opportunity due to his access to power as the king’s food taster, a trusted but expendable aide whose duty was essentially to detect poison. Nehemiah had resolved to make use of his opportunity, but then he just kept clocking in and clocking out. Nehemiah did nothing. For months.

Truly, he was an ordinary guy. How many of us, religious or otherwise, have had this experience of knowing what we have to do, and just not getting around to doing it? I know I have.

And so it went from late fall until springtime. Then, all of a sudden, Nehemiah got shook up. Something rattled his cage to the point that his boss noticed.

Perhaps he had a really bad dream. Perhaps he crossed paths with some street prophet (i.e. madman) bellowing, “The gates have burned! Why are you still here?” Maybe it wasn’t a prophet. Maybe it was just a beggar muttering on the street. Maybe there’s no difference.

Or maybe that prophet only needed to shoot him a disapproving glance. Maybe that was all he needed to collapse under the burden of calling he’d been carrying around for months.

In any case, once again, there is a conspicuous absence of the supernatural.

“God” is Moving

From start to finish, this story’s bona fides are not in explicit encounters with a personalized deity – “God” shows up through the unlikely but still completely possible success rebuilding the wall. God is in the results.

Amidst this story about God’s quiet movement are tantalizing glimpses of what it looks like for people to serve as the hands and feet of the divine impulse, in the face of great adversity. For example:

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”

Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”

Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. (4:9-15, emphasis mine)

Change the word “God” if you need to. I know. It’s a loaded word.

In the modern context we might talk about some sort of collective motivation of the sort that gave spark and strength to the Civil Rights Movement. We need not believe in (impossible) miracles to appreciate the grit and grace that went into that struggle. Rosa Parks worked a miracle.

Is it really any different if people are moved by God, than if they just believe they are being moved by God?

Where is “God” Now?

The supernatural doesn’t really happen in our time and place, so we breathe a sigh of relief that we are off the hook. God must not want anything from us. We are OK.

But we are not OK. The forces of darkness are in control. They are going to get us all killed if we don’t change directions. Wealth concentration and ecological devastation will eventually tear us apart, just like in the Bible’s great catastrophes. (see Ezekiel 16:49-50)

In scripture, God showed up at key moments to give a gentle nudge or a hard shove. So what if we believe in a God that gives specific instructions to us in this key moment of looming economic and environmental calamity? What might those instructions be? How could we identify them?

The problem is overwhelming, but we can do almost nothing about almost all of it. So why not start where the Problem is most clear and immediate?

Let’s each find a location – a specific physical location – where we feel God (or whatever we want to call whomever/whatever we hold highest) speaking to us. Where is a spot in your community where reality and your ideal are in greatest conflict? Look for God there.

I’ve recently returned to my hometown of Sacramento, and one spot in particular –the south side of J Street, midway between 10th and 11th – fills me with the strong sense of instruction: “Start here,” it seems to say.

In my next post I’ll sketch a picture of a city whose walls have fallen and gates have been burned, in hopes it might help spark a vision for our own rebuilding project.

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Seeds, Soils and Revivals

What triggers a revival? What sustains it? What are the seeds and soil out of which transformative mass religious fervor springs?

Large groups of excited people gathered to hear charismatic preachers can certainly spark change. But events end and leaders’ perceived shortcomings inevitably emerge. Ne believers are dragged back down from the heights of passion.

Structures are needed to help the change really take root.

Last Tuesday I helped lead a short interactive discussion for the Presbytery of San Francisco, on the subject of the most recent major American religious revival: the Jesus Movement – a.k.a. the Jesus People or Jesus Freaks. While the counterculture of that day (religious and otherwise) has mainly passed, some institutions created out of it have continued to the present.

We watched a portion of the video biography “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, which has since been removed from the free Internet. It was about one of the key figures in the Jesus Movement, Lonnie Frisbee, whose ministry began with wilderness acid trips featuring Bible study and baptisms. The video made passing reference to a key legacy of the Jesus Movement as well as the broader counterculture of the day: Communes.

Life Together

Early in his ministry, Frisbee connected with the Big House, a Christian group living communally near San Francisco. He went on to co-found the House of Miracles, which grew to 19 communal houses, and Shiloh Youth Revival Centers, which included around 175 houses in the U.S. and Canada.

Christian hippies grew out of the same fertile soil as the rest of the hippies, who planted many of the older food co-ops and worker collectives that continue in the U.S. today, along with a whole range of live-in communities.

Now, “commune” is a loaded word. Even those who have never experienced life on a commune (and I’ve visited many, but never joined) have a strong image of what it means, particularly when connected with the counterculture out of which the Jesus Movement erupted. A visitor to a Christian commune might have initially thought that they were on a typical spiritually-eclectic hippie commune until they finally noticed all the crosses.

There has always been a wide variety of communal life, ranging from squalid to almost chic. Some communes might still seem like a throwback to 1972, when the Jesus Movement peaked. Others carry echoes of Medieval or even biblical times. Some feel very much like normal apartment life at first glance – for example the 400-member JPUSA community in Chicago, whose members operate numerous collective workplaces.

The impulse to share is strong, but it is also up against some formidable obstacles. True counterculture goes deeper than beads and tie-dye and, yes, drugs. Communal living is the seed of a new world. And like many seeds, this new world sprouts into a hostile environment.

One of the more spectacular Christian revivals was the original one, which resulted in widespread radical redistribution of wealth. Many people were swept up in this spiritual and economic transformation, which began within the Jewish community but quickly spread to the gentiles.

Life was different amidst this revival: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” (Acts 4:34) Even if this bold statement was exaggeration, something powerful was happening among members of this movement. This new home insulated them from the surrounding economy of debt, taxation and slavery.

As it was in the heyday of the Jesus Freaks, members of the first Christian community returned from whatever religious experiences they were having to find a supportive community. Their new brothers and sisters in the Way of Jesus took care of them as they worked through the jarring transition from the harsh Roman economy of scarcity into the exuberant fertile fields of the Lord.

Seeds

Jesus often taught about seeds, which would have been a familiar illustration for his mostly-agrarian audiences. He described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard seed – and also as yeast, which is a similar biological concept: An organism breaks out from a miniscule protective shell, and begins to convert its surroundings into itself and its offspring.

One of Jesus’ better-known parables is that of the sower; the same kind of seed lands in different places with different results.

In all three synoptic gospels this story is followed by an explanation. It appears first in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown…”(13:3-8)

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (13:18-23)

The same parable and explanation also occurs in the Gospels of Mark (4:3-20) and Luke. (8:5-15) And between each parable and its explanation is sandwiched an emphatic comment such as, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4:13)

It seems that Jesus is making a really important point. We need to understand seeds.

To make sense of a parable we must correctly identify the characters portrayed. Christians in capitalist cultures often assume that this parable is referring primarily to the individual: Is our particular heart good soil or not? (Hint: The answer is measured by our obedience to religious leaders.)

Unfortunately, the wording in various translations of the three gospel accounts is inconsistent. In some versions and translations the seed could be understood as the message of Christ, which the individual (soil) must receive – that is, unless one’s heart is hard, rocky or thorny.

But what if the dominant interpretation is backwards? What if the individual is the seed? At least in the text translated above (New International Version), Jesus’ meaning is clear: The soil is not the heart of the recipient, as so often believed.

Why would Jesus convey individual receptivity through an element as collective and enveloping as soil, anyway? Soil has no boundaries – only variation of qualities from one cubic inch to the next. Soil doesn’t work to signify an individual who is or is not saved.

Soil does, however, present a pretty good metaphor for society and economy – especially to a bunch of peasant farmers.

Soils

Jesus was apparently trying to convey that an individual’s receptiveness to transformation through the Gospel is dependent upon whether that individual’s life and surroundings were conducive to his radical message‘s germination and growth.

How is the soil in which we (seeds) find ourselves?

Obviously surroundings have something to do with individual religious receptiveness. Why else would revivals happen as shared experiences of many individuals? But of all the hearts touched during revivals, how many are really changed in their behavior over the long run? How many really embrace the transformation demanded by the “good news to the poor” that Jesus brought?

A casual survey of history finds a distinct correlation between individuals feeling religiously moved and their making decisions to share resources with others who feel similarly moved. This was certainly the case with the birth of the Church, in which there was reportedly no poverty.

The communal impulse was also prominent in the early days of the United States, when dozens of communes sprang up on the growing edge of the European expansion. One area where communal life was particularly prominent was the “burned-over district” of western and central New York during the early 19th Century.

A great many people were caught up in the religious fervor of this so-called Second Great Awakening, and then life went on more or less as before. But beyond the revival tents, in the moist shady spots of the early frontier, something took root. Many communes emerged, including the Oneida Society (which made silverware and in 1935 converted into the successful if not-exactly-biblical firm now owned by private equity).

It was in this same context that Joseph Smith launched what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was hardly the only preacher with a new revelation from God, but his theology – alone among his peers – has grown into one of the world’s great religions.

The communal energy tapped by the Mormons was much like that found among those first followers of Jesus. And this structure, like a flower pot, helped the first Latter Day Saints hold together in the face of their neighbors’ hostility. Communal life became the prototype for an economic order that took root first in the Midwest before bearing tremendous fruit out in the harsh deserts of Utah.

We may not be comfortable with dirty hippies or frontier polygamists as our spiritual prototypes, but the fact remains that both groups were caught up in significant revivals that permanently reshaped individual identities. So as we consider what might revival look like today, we should ask ourselves where we might find a nice spot for a seed to germinate, so that the sprout has more of a chance to grow.

What cooperative structures should we create now to protect ourselves from the trampling feet and birds, the hot sun and thorns?

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Reading the Qur’an

This month is Ramadan, and in addition to fasting from dawn to sunset Muslims recite the Qur’an over the course of the month. Yes, the whole thing. It is only 4/5 as long as the New Testament, but still quite a bit longer than, say, a New Yorker article. I’m going to do my best to re-read it myself (or technically, read the English Translation of the Meaning of the Qur’an, since the actual Qur’an, as I understand it, is in spoken/chanted Arabic.
I’m going to pick out some interesting bits as I go, and post them for folks to browse as they are inclined. Anyone else should please feel free to do the same if they happen to be reading and something catches their eye pertaining to economics or power. And of course I’d love to hear your thoughts about the excerpts that I’m sharing. I’ll offer some novice thoughts and questions, although I must say that I’m feeling a bit more humbled by the endeavor than when I first read it six years ago as research for a paper on the shared cooperative elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
I’m using the Qur’an Explorer site, with the Mufti Taqi Usmani translation.
First, an overview. So far I’ve read the first and second surahs (chapters). The first is short and sweet:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful (1) Praise belongs to Allah,  the Lord of all the worlds  (2) The All-Merciful, the Very-Merciful. (3)The Master of the Day of Requital. (4) You alone do we worship, and from You alone do we seek help. (5) Take us on the straight path  (6) The path of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,  Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray. (7)
The second is the longest of all, and took up the first 2 1/2 days of reading (the Qur’an is conveniently divided into 30 parts or juz). There’s a LOT going on in there, so I’ll just stick with this for the first dispatch:
Given all of the disturbing news coming out of Iraq and Syria, I have to bring up this passage, which highlights the clear defensive nature of the call to fight.
Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. (190) And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. (191) But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (192) And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. (193)
This is not to say that we can ignore those who purport to be Muslims but seek to kill noncombantants; nor can we ignore those who claim Christianity (or Judaism) as a rationale for using their wealth and power to oppress others. Nevertheless, scripture suggests different in both cases.
This surah also contains a warning against usury followed by an intriguingly detailed guide to giving loans. Watch out for verse 282 – it’s a big ‘un. The length and detail of this indicates its importance.
Those who take riba (usury or interest) will not stand but as stands the one whom the demon has driven crazy by his touch. That is because they have said: “Sale is but like riba.’’, while Allah has permitted sale, and prohibited riba. So, whoever receives an advice from his Lord and desists (from indulging in riba), then what has passed is allowed for him, and his matter is up to Allah. As for the ones who revert back, those are the people of Fire. There they will remain forever. (275) Allah destroys riba and nourishes charities, and Allah does not like any sinful disbeliever. (276) Surely those who believe and do good deeds, and establish Salah (prayer) and pay Zakah will have their reward with their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve. (277)
O you who believe, fear Allah and give up what still remains of riba, if you are believers. (278) But if you do not (give it up), then listen to the declaration of war from Allah and His Messenger. However, If you repent, yours is your principal. Neither wrong, nor be wronged. (279) If there is one in misery, then (the creditor should allow) deferment till (his) ease, and that you forgo it as alms is much better for you, if you really know. (280) Be fearful of a day when you shall be returned to Allah, then every person shall be paid, in full, what he has earned, and they shall not be wronged. (281)
O you who believe, when you transact a debt payable at a specified time, put it in writing, and let a scribe write it between you with fairness. A scribe should not refuse to write as Allah has educated him. He, therefore, should write. The one who owes something should get it written, but he must fear Allah, his Lord, and he should not omit anything from it. If the one who owes is feeble-minded or weak or cannot dictate himself, then his guardian should dictate with fairness. Have two witnesses from among your men, and if two men are not there, then one man and two women from those witnesses whom you like, so that if one of the two women errs, the other woman may remind her. The witnesses should not refuse when summoned. And do not be weary of writing it down, along with its due date, no matter whether the debt is small or large. That is more equitable in Allah’s sight, and more supportive as evidence, and more likely to make you free of doubt. However, if it is a spot transaction you are effecting between yourselves, there is no sin on you, should you not write it. Have witnesses when you transact a sale. Neither a scribe should be made to suffer, nor a witness. If you do (something harmful to them), it is certainly a sin on your part, and fear Allah. Allah educates you, and Allah is All-Knowing in respect of everything. (282)
If you are on a journey, and find no scribe, then (you may have resort to holding something as) mortgage, taken into possession. However, if one of you trusts the other, then the one who has been trusted should fulfill his trust, and should fear Allah, his Lord. Do not conceal testimony. Whoever conceals it, his heart is surely, sinful. Allah is All-Aware of what you do. (283)
And to end on a nice note, here’s another passage undermining the scriptural basis of Islamic State:
There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah is Hearer, Knower. (256)
I’m a bit behind, but I’ll hopefully get another batch through surah 6 over the weekend.

 

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