Nehemiah and Social Change: Part Two

Taking Ownership

Nehemiah 1: 6-7

‘Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you, and have not kept the commandments, the statutes and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.’

We, as human beings, are often very quick to pass the blame, and very slow to accept responsibility. This tendency is often multiplied in situations in which it is easy to see ourselves as the victim. Israel had been under attack and the walls of Jerusalem were broken down. From just about every angle, most would agree that the Israelites were the clear victims here. And yet, in this very moment, Nehemiah takes stock of his own life and the lives of his people, and takes responsibility for the areas in which they have not practised justice and righteousness.

I believe that the practice of this kind of ownership is in fact the thing that qualifies us to be part of the solution. And by solution I do not simply mean something that looks like a fix from the outside, but something that brings healing all the way to the problem’s root. A radical restoration.

Nehemiah’s legacy was not the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. That was merely part of it. His legacy was the rebuilding of the people, Israel. He recognised that if his work had ended as soon as the city walls had gone up, in all likelihood, those walls would have soon been in ruins once again. Instead, after Nehemiah’s individual acceptance of, and owning up to, his own culpability in the circumstances of Israel’s current state, he led his nation into a place of collective ownership of responsibility for where they were as a people (Nehemiah 9), and in so doing, brought them into a space of radical restoration.

There is something about the vulnerability of admitting that we are imperfect, that restores to us our humanity, and opens us up to healing. And our healing becomes a springboard for the healing of others. Defensiveness, while it may assume the guise of a friend, promising to keep us safe and unexposed, in reality is the greatest threat to our humanity, building higher and higher walls around our hearts, until even we lose sight of who we are. The ability to take ownership, to accept responsibility, is a gift. It allows us the chance to be absolved, to be forgiven. The chance to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the solution. The chance to experience freedom.

It is time that we refuse to take the route that looks easy- that performance of absolving ourselves of guilt by pointing the finger at the person that appears the most culpable- and instead do the hard work of examining our own hearts, taking responsibility for our actions or inactions that have contributed to the state of affairs that we find ourselves in.

Instead of ending the conversation on corruption by placing the blame fully on the corrupt government, ask how you have contributed to its epidemic. Instead of blaming poverty on the state, ask how you have contributed to the economic inequality so rife in our country. Instead of finding someone else to blame for racism, ask how you have contributed to the upholding of the systemic racial injustice still so present in South Africa. All the while remembering that inaction is a contribution too.

And if, after a thorough examination- which should ideally include difficult conversations with other people too-, you find yourself guilt-free, then perhaps look to the example of Jesus. The one who, despite his absolute blamelessness, chose to take ownership of, and responsibility for, all the terrible things that humankind had done and would do, all so that the image of God that we bear could be restored completely.

I think that if we are seeking solutions that bring true healing and restoration, far deeper than the surface, we need to let go of our pride and defences, and humble ourselves by owning up to our responsibility. Then, and only then, we should take up the needle and thread to get to the work of mending what has been broken. That work for which our ownership has qualified us. 

By Thandi Gamedze

connect with us