Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”


The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.

Independence Planet

A cross-post from my LEGO blog Square Feet today.  This seemed appropriate in both places.

It’s quite out-of-the-ordinary for me to be building a Fourth of July-themed LEGO model.

Although I live in the United States, I was born and raised in the United Kingdom, and American Independence Day is the single US public holiday I’ve had the hardest time getting my heart around.

In all honesty, Britain in 1776 doesn’t look to me like the “tyranny” of you Americans’ popular belief, based as it is on half-remembered childhood school lessons. We had pre-Revolutionary (and later post-Revolutionary) France sitting next door inviting comparison, and besides that the citizens of the American colonies seem to have had in large part a lighter burden than those of the mother country. “British tyranny”, as you so delightfully put it, hardly seems fair.

It’s taken most of a decade now to get past my offended national pride at this seemingly mentally-lazy accusation of “tyranny”, together with my secret fear that you Americans might be still holding a sort of grudge about it all with your closely-held popular memories of your Paul Reveres, your Boston Tea-Parties and your “rockets’ red glare” (from missiles fired by one of our warships, as I can’t quite ever forget).

Really, the Fourth of July is a weird time to be a Brit in America, if you have any sense or knowledge of history. I love America, but I love my homeland too, and it’s difficult to enter into the spirit of a holiday which persists in painting my home country as the villain.

For all that my country of birth and my country of residence are now staunch allies, such that your Red, White and Blue flies proudly beside ours, and the idea that we might be deadly enemies is frankly ridiculous; still, every Fourth of July I’m reminded that it was not always so.

However, in recent years I’ve been far better about not working myself into a frenzy over it in the run-up to the Day itself, finding ways to love America even on the Fourth of July that don’t feel like I’m being subtly asked to reject the land of my birth.

Really, it’s nothing anyone else has ever said or done. This is my own love of my homeland running headlong into the reality that it was that country that those early Americans had to fight to gain their independence. I’m quite happy to celebrate American independence; what I feel sometimes like I’m probably not going to be allowed is permission to love my other country too, even on the Fourth when you memorialise that former enmity.

Silly? Maybe. Weirdly insecure? For certain. Neurotic? Perhaps.

Rather English, though. We never want to impose on anyone; I wouldn’t dream of sounding a discordant note of Britannic pride in the midst of the United States’ birthday celebration. Hence my annual patriotic neurosis.

Really, though, I have been getting better. The War of Independence isn’t exactly current affairs even in the UK where it’s so much closer to 2017 than to 1066, and no-one is asking me to choose sides for battle. I’m gradually realising that it really is a free country (still); I don’t need the nation’s permission to be British even on the Fourth.

And there’s much to love about America, land of liberty, welcomer of those “huddled masses” and home of opportunity and an inventiveness that has blessed the world with so many wonderful devices.

America really is great, and not even Donald Trump can take away that proud legacy.

Hence this build.

A deliberate homage to that famous image of the Flag-raising on Iwo Jima, it uses some of my new red and white LEGO Classic Space astronauts, and my slightly older blue Classic astronaut.

Indeed, the whole build owes itself to the way I had my new astronauts arranged on my son’s LEGO display shelves. Independence Day rapidly approaching, it occurred to me that the visual combination of red, white and blue astronauts was very patriotic. “I’m sure I could do something with that, for this holiday I’m actually beginning to come to terms with”.

Thoughts turned to that famous USMC image, and the rest is as you see.

Have a happy Independence Day, everyone.