Apr  2017 04
Build a Wall or Blessed to Be a Blessing?

How should Christians frame the present moment in American history? The Electoral College vote elected Donald Trump. Mr. Trump campaigned on (among other ideas—the following are the ones germane for this blog) America First, banning Muslim immigration, and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Christian progressives oppose the entire agenda. Some (yes, only some) leaders on the Christian right support the agenda wholeheartedly, and claim biblical backing. But there is plenty of biblical material to advocate for an opposite agenda.

If you have not read the sermon preached at a private service the President Elect attended before his inauguration, I recommend that you read it. Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress delivered a sermon that is a perfect example of court prophecy, as distinct from the legitimate kind: Jeffress’ version of speaking truth to power was to approvingly cloak the president-elect’s agenda with a Bible story.

The Hebrew Bible book of Nehemiah credits the book’s namesake with rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem after Cyrus the Great (to whom some evangelicals have also compared President Trump) liberated the people from their captivity in Babylon.

Jeffress claims Nehemiah shows it is godly to build walls. Jeffress compares Nehemiah’s opponents with today’s media and encourages Trump to ignore his critics and build that southern wall.

The post-exilic period to which Jeffress refers was a dynamic and conflicted one for the Jewish people. Along with Nehemiah, there was Ezra. While Nehemiah was building the wall, Ezra read the Torah scrolls and built a different kind of wall.

Ezra gathered the people into a public space, read from the Torah, and with assistants interpreted the scrolls to the people. The crowds wept when they heard how they were supposed to live.

Then, and in one of the most dramatic moments named in scripture, and based on the way Ezra interpreted the scrolls, it was demanded that all the men divorce their foreign wives and children of those wives and abandon them. Foreign wives brought foreign gods and were, thus, considered opportunities for idolatry.

Build a wall. Purify the people. Save the pure people from idolatry, disobedience, and ruin. That was one option.

But there was an argument preserved in the Bible between the Ezra-Nehemiah perspective and another position. Ezra-Nehemiah was not the only live option. There was also the perspective advocated in the book of Jonah.

If you still have a Sunday school interpretation of Jonah, dump it :-). Jonah is not about being swallowed by a whale, as interpreted via Pinocchio!

The author of Jonah uses humor, satire, hyperbole, and fantasy to counter the Ezra-Nehemiah version of faithful living. The story of Jonah, in short:

Once upon a time, God called Jonah to preach judgment and repentance to Nineveh, the capital city of the people who decimated Jonah’s people. Jonah rejected God’s call, ran away and hopped a ship in the opposite direction.

After Jonah was tossed from the boat by the crew to still a God-caused storm, God enlisted a great fish to swallow Jonah and spit him out on land.

His call from God to go to Nineveh renewed, Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh, speaks one line, and in the most impactful call for repentance ever offered, the entire city repents immediately! Foreigners, coming to the God of Israel!! Jonah hates this result.

He treks up a hill to sulk, God causes a plant to grow and shade him, then a worm to eat the plant. Jonah curses that a plant has died, and God chastises Jonah for caring about a plant and having no compassion for people, or their animals.

Jonah, whose name means “dove” and dove is a symbol for Israel, is an anti-Ezra-Nehemiah story. Build walls. Purify the people by sending the foreigners away.

Or, be what you are called to be, blessed to be a blessing for all the peoples of the earth. Have compassion for the Other, even those who once did you harm.

So here are conflicting perspectives, within the Bible, about the same time period.

Now, it is dangerous, and wrong, simply to apply biblical stories as templates for understanding American history.

Abraham Lincoln called America “God’s almost chosen people.” The Chosen People we are not.

America is not the successor to Israel, and the stories from Israel’s history do not automatically apply to America.

In using any biblical story, we must be as careful to say how the story differs from the American experience as we are to claim something from the Bible illumines the American experience.

For example, Robert Putnam and David Campbell in the book American Grace ask the question as to why there have not been religious wars within U.S. history (at least up until now).

The answer: intermarriage. Many, many families include multiple ethnicities and religions. What would the Ezra-Nehemiah option mean for American families? Answer: no good. What does that same story mean for American domestic and foreign policy today?

We, the interpreters, choose which story or stories we think apply to a given situation. There is nothing automatic about either the choice of stories or how they are used.

In my way of thinking, the Jonah story is much more apt for a nation that should be a light and a blessing for the world than is the scrubbed-of-compassion story of building walls, dividing families, and engaging in the often demonic goal of purifying a people.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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