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Bad Theology Builds Walls

Why the book of Nehemiah is no justification for Trump's border wall.

photo credit: Mike Blake (Reuters)

We are not far into 2018 and there is already heated conversation happening around the country regarding the construction of a border wall.

Not only that, there are many evangelical Christians who support it and pastors who are defending it with bad theology.

Let’s set aside for now the cost of the wall, Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for it, and any actual evidence a wall would make any real difference to thwart illegal drugs and undocumented immigration.

Let’s talk about Nehemiah.

I have heard the argument from Trump-supporting pastors that the book of Nehemiah, which recounts the rebuilding of the Jerusalem wall, provides a theological justification for Trump's border wall.

First of all, Nehemiah is rarely cited in many congregational settings. When it is, it is usually used as an analogy to rebuild the broken areas of our spiritual lives. I personally don’t remember hearing a sermon on Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem until I became involved in urban ministry. The rebuilding of the wall is often used in Christian community development circles as an analogy for the need for Christians to invest in under-resourced urban communities. When I heard the story of Nehemiah being proof texted in support of Trump’s wall, I knew I needed to set the record straight.

The Jewish people had been conquered by a more powerful and dominant army, the Babylonians 140 years earlier. The city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed. Their temple had even been decimated, a theological problem as well as a physical one, as they believed it represented the literal dwelling place of God (the book of Ezra chronicles the rebuilding of the temple).

They were a minority people. They had been conquered, humiliated and taken forcibly from their homeland into exile. Nehemiah hears of the devastation (which could be the generational toll of Babylonian captivity or a more recent unnamed disaster) and weeps.

“They told me, ‘The remnant who are left of the captivity there in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been broken down and its gates burned with fire.’” Nehemiah 1:3

The people of God lived under harsh dictators and were treated as second class citizens. Without walls around their city, Nehemiah’s community was vulnerable to being taken advantage of by more powerful foes. The most apt parallel today might be refugees who are fleeing brutal dictators or undocumented families forced to leave their homeland to find protection. Ironically, these are the very people that the Trump administration is threatening to keep out with travel bans and border walls.

Looking at this historical context, it is grossly inaccurate to associate America (ie., Trump’s white America) with the Jewish people. America is much more like the Babylonian empire in the story. The Jewish experience of Babylonian captivity and exile more closely resembles the history of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and Japanese Americans.

Nehemiah worked for the Persian government and used his position as cupbearer (also likely a eunuch) to leverage resources from the king to preserve and protect his people.

This would be like a Puerto Rican mayor asking the President of the United States for significant funds to rebuild the infrastructure of Puerto Rico after a hurricane hit.

Or faith leaders using their influence with members of Congress to advocate for a circle of protection around the poor and vulnerable.

Are you getting the picture?

The book of Nehemiah is about building walls of protection around a vulnerable minority community that had withstood a series of traumatic events.

This is why using the Nehemiah text in the context of rebuilding inner city neighborhoods or advocating for a vulnerable immigrant population is a more faithful reading than using it to justify an anti-immigrant wall. Nehemiah and the Jewish people were fighting for their survival, not inflicting their vengeance or institutionalizing their fear.

Biblically speaking, Trump’s rationale for a wall sounds more like Pharaoh than Nehemiah. It was the Egyptian Pharaoh who was worried about the Israelites multiplying and threatening his dominance.

“Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” Exodus 1:9-11

Ironically, Pharaoh both instilled fears about the Israelites and used their labor to build up his own properties (sound familiar?). His fears of the Israelites caused him to amp up his rhetoric and toughen his social policies against them.

Referencing Nehemiah in order to justify Trump’s border wall is not only bad theology, it is heretical!

Nehemiah built a wall to protect the vulnerable inside the gates, not to create a gated community to keep the vulnerable out.

Trump may want to make America into a gated community, and he may be successful, but let’s not allow the Bible to be misused to endorse it.

After all, the Bible also talks about dismantling walls.

Remember Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho until they came down.

And Jesus tore down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles.

When we take a deeper look at Scripture and look at the context, we see that the weight of the biblical narrative is on tearing down dividing walls, not building them up.

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