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.