For the last month or so, our Bible study group has been discussing the story of Nehemiah – a passionate wall-builder in 5th century BC Jerusalem when the people of Israel came back after being exiled in Babylon. It's 2500 years later, but the story and the man have offered amazing resonances!
I discovered this week that Nehemiah has been likened to that other builder of walls - Donald Trump. The comparison was made by a preacher and Fox news contributor - Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. And Trump was in the congregation at the traditional pre-inauguration church service. Jeffress explained that the first step to rebuilding the nation was to build a wall to protect the citizens inside from its enemies. Jeffress told his congregation (and Trump!) that Nehemiah was successful in his 'great work' because he refused to allow his critics to distract him or setbacks to stop him. And because he sought God’s help to empower him.
As in so many sermons, I ask myself – ‘Whose God is this? Whose political purposes are being served in appropriating this God?' Jeffress’ sermon, reminded me of other sermons when preachers try to energise members of their congregations to see themselves as builders not of the USA ('God's own country') but of 'God's own church'.
As in the Jeffress sermon, statements are made and questions are asked which reflect the values of the preacher and those in the congregation he is trying to influence. Single-minded, self-confident action against an opponent is glorified. A clear, binary sense of who is right and who is wrong is applauded. And underlying every word, there is absolute certainty – utter and complete certainty - that ‘we’ are the spokespeople for God. God is on our side and we know exactly what God wants and who God approves of.
In the UK where a binary political debate has now been going on for over three years, similar tones of voice are heard on both sides of the Brexit argument. And perhaps it is unrealistic to expect a different spirit from politicians.
But things need to be different in the Christian church. We follow a leader who taught us to love the people on the ‘other’ side of social and physical walls. Jesus described and exemplified an alternative leadership style inspired by a different Spirit whose vocabulary and tone of voice is distinctive. Christian language needs to be less about walls and more about bridges.
Perhaps if Robert Jeffress and Donald Trump - and some other leaders both within and outside the church - read only chapter 5 of Nehemiah's story - they would get a whiff of the spirit of a different leadership style – to be best exemplified by Jesus over 400 years later in the same Jewish city and further afield.
Nehemiah listens to alternative voices. He thinks things over. He seeks equality for the common good. ‘I did not do so (lord it over the people),’ he says, ‘because of the fear of God’. He practices textbook conflict resolution techniques. Nehemiah tells the truth – but not only to the elite about their injustices but also about his own less than perfect behaviour. He shows himself generous and willing to let go of some of his perks and privileges.
So yes – Nehemiah was indeed a wall-builder. But the chronicle says that at his table inside the wall, he fed ‘those who came from the nations around us.’ One more whiff of that same alternative spirit - or should I say Spirit?