Justice: The Book of Nehemiah

In his book Journey to the Common Good, Walter Brueggemann wrote:

“The great crisis among us is the crisis of the common good, the sense of community solidarity that binds us all in a common destiny. It keeps together—the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor. But we face a crisis about the common good because there are powerful forces among us to resist the common good to violate community solidarity, and to deny our common destiny. mature people at their best, are people committed to the common good. That reaches beyond private interests. It transcends sextarian commitments and offers to each of us human solidarity.”

Is justice simply a journey to the common good? In the Old Testament, the theme of justice plays out over and over. The Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, held against their will. It was an injustice, God said, and sent Moses to deliver them. But when the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon, that was justice, a consequence of turning their backs on God.

The Book of Nehemiah (seldom referenced, which is a pity because there’s a lot of good information in it) provides further instruction regarding the subject. The Israelites had been sent into captivity for 70 years first by the Babylonians and then by the Persians. Like Daniel before him, Nehemiah had worked his way up the imperial ladder and became cup bearer—sommelier—to the king. He chose and served the king’s wine. One day,…:

… it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” (Nehemiah 2:1-5)

The king not only sent him as a representative of the kingdom to Judah, but also gave him letters of recommendation and other resources to help him rebuild the wall. So Nehemiah went back to Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls in 52 days.

The story is a case study in leadership, showing how Nehemiah galvanized an exceptionally diverse group of people (as can be deduced from their names, whose list takes up two chapters in the Book). They included building specialists from all ethnic groups and all corners of the of the known world, including women. It shows what happens when singleness of purpose and a common goal is placed before a people.

After the walls were built, a famine broke out, causing…:

… a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, “We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.” There were others who said, “We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.” Also there were those who said, “We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.” Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words. I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, “You are exacting usury, each from his brother!” Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. I said to them, “We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?” Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.” Then they said, “We will give it back and will require nothing from them; we will do exactly as you say.” So I called the priests and took an oath from them that they would do according to this promise. I also shook out the front of my garment and said, “Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.” And all the assembly said, “Amen!” And they praised the Lord. Then the people did according to this promise. (Nehemiah 5:1-13)

There are seven points about injustice or justice in this story:

  1. Injustice knows no limits. It is not limited to “others,” outsiders, people not part of our tribe, people who are not part of who we are. It is present within the family as well as outside the family: “Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. … Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves.” They were not supposed to be charging interest to their own people—the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy forbade it, but they did it anyway.
  2. Anger, righteous indignation, productive (but not destructive) anger, are legitimate responses to injustice, to the undermining of the common good. Nehemiah says: “… and I was very angry, and I heard their outcry.”
  3. Leadership is needed to combat injustice. It takes a dedicated leader—Nehemiah, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, even Jesus Christ—to identify injustice, call it out, and galvanize the people.
  4. There is power in the people (“therefore I held a great assembly against them.”) Don’t underestimate what a united people can do in the cause of injustice.
  5. The leader must reason with those who cause injustice and speak forcibly, but do so respectfully: “Again I said, “The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.”
  6. The leader must “trust but verify.” The power to resist the common good is very strong and it requires the taking of an oath (a strong medicine) to ensure that the offenders will repeal the injustice. Oaths were binding back then, and could be associated with a curse (as Nehemiah warned he would “shake out the garment and God would shake them out”) if they failed to fulfill their promise.
  7. The eradication of injustice is an expression of worship. At the very end, all the assembly said Amen and praised the Lord. Injustice cannot be eliminated without divine intervention.

Who decides what is just? Does justice have a perspective? Or is it pure and simple? Can justice be taught? Can it be learnt and unlearnt? Is injustice getting what you deserve, as opposed to mercy or grace in which you don’t get what you deserve? Is justice only a divine attribute? And what is the relationship between justice and judgment?

Donald: Is justice the most important response to sin? “Love thy neighbor” pretty much includes everything, so are the other commandments really necessary? Right now justice is in the spotlight on racial discrimination grounds but it would be interesting to look at it from other angles too, such as health care. If justice means “love thy neighbor” is there any reason for some people to get better health care than others? We may all have insurance, but we don’t all have the same insurance. It’s just another perspective; it’s not that we can’t look at justice from all aspects, but I wonder if there are other ways in which we can look at justice rather than being so focused on ethnicity or race as we currently are.

Clinton: The concept of restorative justice comes to my mind. In the Book of Nehemiah, you see clear evidence of reparation. For justice to have teeth and meaning, something has to be done. It’s not enough to say “I’m going to treat you fairly,” we have to do something. And it seems to me that in Nehemiah there is a sense of restoring some kind of status quo. For example, perhaps they could give back the interest they received, or find some other way to restore. So I think there is a significant element of restorative justice in the concept of justice.

Beverley: Injustice knows no boundaries. If one person does not have justice, nobody has justice, because if you say nothing when they unjustly came for me, it’s only a matter of time before they unjustly come for you too. The boundary of injustice expands if we are not careful to ensure that all people are treated justly. It behooves us to seriously consider where we stand on such issues as justice in healthcare, and not be among the silent. I saw a sign this week it said “Silence Is Violence.” Perhaps it’s true.

Jay: Injustice sparks anger, which, in some ways, is an appropriate response, unlike violence. But it also sparks politicization, and that’s a slippery slope. It shifts the goal posts.

Beverley: I think that’s why people of faith have to hold to the one solid, unchangeable standard and evaluate everything in light of that, You start with the answer: When God made Adam and Eve He said there are only two rules: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. But because the Israelites were so hard headed they did not understand what it meant to love God and to love Man. So God had to give them four commandments to explain to them how to love him, and six to explain to them how to love each other.

Since then we have drafted millions of laws, each trying more specifically to define the original two laws. Whatever your race or religion, there are some basic tenets that all people hold, throughout the world, undeviatingly. The laws made by man may sound different in various parts of the world, with little tweaks and turns here and there, but there is that one solid pillar that is true for all mankind. And if you are willing to look at anybody who comes into your circle as your brother or your neighbor (they don’t have to live next door or in your neighborhood or even in your country) then you must treat that person the way you would want to be treated. That’s the answer.

Jay: Is justice getting what you deserve? The biblical story that comes to mind is the story of Job. Did Job get what he deserved? His friends seemed to think that he did. They used the word “justice” over and over again to explain why Job was so afflicted. But we wouldn’t necessarily agree that the terrible things that happened to Job was justice being meted out to him. What it highlights for me is how quickly we pervert the word justice; that we take what we believe to be justice as being God’s justice. There is a big chance that we are going to mis-define justice just as Job’s friends did.

Beverley: The Bible teaches that none of us deserves anything, because we’re all sinners. But that aside, I think we say Job didn’t deserve it because we think he was a good man. But an upright man compared to whom? Compared to other people. But compared to the pure standard of Christ, then he deserved everything. But Job’s friends didn’t know what they were talking about. They were saying that job deserved it, but not on the correct basis (i.e., that we all deserve it). And in that I think they were mistaken, but I don’t know that. I don’t know whether, when bad things happen to us, it is necessarily deserved or undeserved. God in His wisdom knows what to do, what to allow. I won’t say what to do, what to allow. And those experiences make us better. Very, very much so. We have to remember that God ultimately knows everything, but within our sphere I think we can figure out what is just to our brother.

Clinton: God is always just. Whatever He does is always just an issue of justice. It is not a matter of the relationship between ourselves and God. The issue of justice is on the horizontal plane between us human beings. God judges, but he doesn’t administer justice because he’s always just. The concept of His administering justice is superfluous. He is just. Period.

Jay: We try to define what God’s justice is. We fall into the trap of thinking that if my life is prosperous, if I’m healthy, if things are going well for me, it is because God is being just and fair to me because I’m doing what God wants me to do. Conversely, when things aren’t so good, when I’m sick, when I’m financially strapped, when I’m emotionally stressed, God must be pouring out His justice on me because I was bad. We’ve built a quid pro quo justice system, but divine justice isn’t like that. It seems that we can all agree on mercy and grace and that they’re tied to the idea of love. It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter who you are: Grace is yours.

Beverley: There shouldn’t be any quid pro quo. Justice is yours just by virtue of the fact that you’re a human being made in the image of God. When God blesses you with an abundance He is making you a resource for someone else who needs, and he uses us to be his hands and feet. So when God blesses you with an abundance, the question should be: “Where does God need me to work? Who is he directing me to help?” rather than “I’ll build a barn and store it for a rainy day.”

David: Job shows that divine justice has nothing to do with mortal, material justice; with whether or not we’re rich or poor or our children have cancer or are healthy. The divine justice that Jesus talks about is spiritual justice which, at the end of the day, boils down to a single issue: Do we deserve entry to the kingdom of heaven or not? And since we’re all sinners, none of us deserve it. Without the salvation that Jesus brought, none of us would enter the kingdom of heaven, and justice would be done.

Job’s friends were concerned about material justice—about his impoverishment and the death of his children and so on—none of which had anything to do with divine justice. Job was enlightened with the knowledge that we’ll never understand divine justice and we don’t need to: All we have to do is accept it. That brings peace and joy and love and all the other good spiritual things that we can indeed, regardless of our material situation, pass on. We’re all equipped to pass on the grace that God gives us.

Jay: There’s been a lot of emphasis on restorative practices in education. A student who gets in trouble at school would typically be suspended from school. But instead of immediately moving to suspensions or other punitive measures, teachers and administrators are now asked to use restorative practices instead. It’s actually become law in the state of Michigan that before a student is suspended, a school has to show that it seriously considered restorative practices.

To be quite honest, it’s tied to the issue of race: African Americans and especially male African Americans get suspended from school at a higher rate than other ethnic groups. The law is meant to address that issue, and research is starting to show that it works, but only when it is done right. Restorative practices initially became: “Let’s do something punitive that’s not suspension.” For example, make the student walk the grounds and pick up garbage, or help the janitor clean the school, or grade papers in the classroom where the offense took place.

But this type of restorative practice was found to have no deterrent effect. Students were still repeating the same behavior. What was found to be much more successful were restorative practices that focused strictly on restoring the relationship between the offender and the offended. When time and effort are put into the restoration of relationships, we are seeing a lot of improvement around student behavior.

Beverley: We know a very bright young man who had a fight with another boy in school. The principal made them design a program, together, to address bullying in the school and present it, together, in assembly. So of course, they had to develop a cooperative relationship to do this.

Clinton: Does this kind of restorative justice scale up to deal with ethnic and racial issues?

Beverley: If you walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins, you get a completely different perspective on the world. This makes it quite a task to implement justice. Our country is torn apart (not that it ever was together, but it is so visibly apart now). We can only impact, and our responsibility is only towards, our little part of the country, to do whatever it will take to restore justice. But it has to be intentional.

How do we bridge this gap? How do we develop relationships with people who are not like us? One of the things that I enjoyed so much about Oakwood church was the opportunity it gives to interact with people from multiple ethnicities. The church’s broad embrace is visible in the dozens of national flags that are flown outside the church to signify its welcome to people of all nations. If there were more such examples, it wouldn’t be “them and us” any more.

Jay: Andrews University strives, successfully, for diversity, including ethnic diversity. The relationship among students is healthy. To achieve that, it is necessary to create an environment where diversity is treated as a priority, and everyone has to buy in to that. But it is a challenge at any private, faith-based institution to balance tolerance of differences with expectations of doctrinal uniformity. It’s not easy.

Beverley: To agree to behave within certain confines is not a foreign concept. When I started my career in the pharmaceutical industry, back in the 80s, women had to wear suits (as did the men of course). There was no apology.

Jay: But some differences are harder to accept and agree upon than others. The LGBTQ issue, for instance, is a challenge to institutions that define various behaviors as appropriate or inappropriate. What do you do with a student who does very well in almost all respects but goes out to smoke on the sidewalk?

Beverley: Social contracts are not a foreign concept to anyone.

Jay: Justice can be seen in a hospital emergency room, where the doctors and nurses don’t treat a patient on the basis of how the situation came about or who it happened to. It happened, so they take care of it.

Beverley: But there is screening that occurs before the doctor sees the patient, where insurance issues come in. The doctor has nothing to do with that, but simply treats each patient brought to her.

Jay: With diversity, we all have to agree to something. Can a diverse group reach agreement on everything?

Beverley: Diversity simply means we’re different in background or in how we look. But in terms of social code, how we relate to each other, that has to be defined and that’s defined by God. We can’t have a free-for-all.

Don: What role does justice have to play in that definition?

Beverley: God requires of us that we treat each other as we ourselves would want to be treated. Anything that falls within that definition is justice. When we say that justice is what you deserve, we’re not talking about God, because none of us deserves anything where God is concerned. Everything He gives us is because if His mercy. But how we relate to others must be defined within the context of doing to others as we would want them to do to us. And that’s what the sixth commandment says. It tells you how to relate to other people’s wives, how to relate to their property, whether you should lie or steal. It is all about relationships, which are thus codified. God was not embarrassed to do that, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed to do it either. We have to define how we relate to each other.

Donald: But it’s a two way street. If my compatriot is being unjust toward another (say) by going to war, am I responsible for the injustice? Am I violating the Golden Rule? And what about the issue of punishment in all this?

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