Nehemiah and Social Change

Delving into disequilibrium

Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:1-5

Thus begins the book of Nehemiah. He learns that his people, with their turbulent history of being enslaved, forced into exile, and oppressed, are once again in a very precarious position. The wall of Jerusalem is in ruins- clearly the result of an ill-intentioned attack - leaving an already vulnerable people group completely defenseless and prey to the whims of a very real enemy.

This was gut-wrenching news for Nehemiah. These were his people. This attack on Jerusalem and its people was personal. And so, he sat down and wept and mourned for days.

As human beings, I think that it is in our nature to want to fix things, and often that desire leads us into bringing band aid solutions that address the problem’s symptoms, and in so doing, address our own symptom; the discomfort of disequilibrium.

This is a trap. It is the same trap that we fell into when the laws of apartheid were abolished in South Africa and we placed over the gaping wound that remained, a band aid called the Rainbow Nation.

These symptom-alleviation techniques do not fix the problem. Instead, they cover it up, providing the perfect environment for it to fester and rot, eating through even the flesh that was once healthy.

Nehemiah did not rush in with a band aid. He refused to buy in to a symptomatic cure to propel him out of his pain, but instead chose to remain in it. To be affected by it. To be inconvenienced by it.

He wept and mourned for days, allowing the extent of Jerusalem’s reality to penetrate into every aspect of his being, while praying and fasting before the God of heaven. Nehemiah went on to lead a movement that resulted in the rebuilding of the city walls, and the re-establishment of an entire people.

I believe that our ability to enact real change - change that is not merely symptomatic but that gets right to the root system- corresponds to the extent to which we are willing to be affected by that which we wish to change. Our authority is directly connected to our engagement. Before Jesus performed many of his miracles- of healing, of liberating, of supernaturally feeding thousands- the bible says that he was moved with compassion. I don’t think that is a coincidence. I believe that the healing that he brought was intractably intertwined with the choice that he made to allow himself to be affected by those who sought healing.

Important also, is our ability, in the midst of our pain, to connect to this being that is higher than we. A being who is woven from love, goodness and justice. Who freely pours out comfort, solutions and hope to those who will sit at his feet and ask.

Nehemiah prayed and fasted before the God of heaven.

There are times when things just seem too big and too impossible for us to change. Not so for the God of heaven- who is also incidentally the God who is deeply invested into each life on earth, and the God who loves with reckless abandon, and the God for whom injustice pierces like the sharpest of knives.

This God has gone to great lengths to make himself fully present and available in the times where we are just too aware of our own limitations. There is hope in the midst of chaos, for he resides there, speaking peace to the storms. Because of this, we do not have to shy away from opening ourselves up to be affected by pain and injustice, and from remaining in that uncomfortable disequilibrium for as long as necessary.

This is the place from which real change is birthed.

By Thandi Gamedze
Part 1 of a series

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