Should you not walk in the fear of our God?
This is the question Nehemiah addresses to the people of Judah when he sees the way they are treating the poor in the land. The families of the educated, aristocratic, and wealthy Jews had been exiled during the Babylonian occupation, while the peasants had been allowed to stay in the land. When the Persians allowed these upper-classes to return to Judah, they immediately started oppressing the people who had remained in the land. Times were tough, but the rich continued to take advantage of the poor of the land sending them into debt slavery and taking their lands from them. So the oppressed people came to Nehemiah and said, "Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others" (Nehemiah 5:5).
Theirs is a story told over and over again in our world today. Families in India find themselves in a position where they must borrow money to pay for a doctor, and the lender takes advantage of them by imposing high interest rates. To attempt to pay off the debt their children must work rolling cigarettes or shaping bricks. But of course the debt never gets paid off and the children become debt slaves. Or to earn a earn enough money to feed his family, a father in China arranges for his daughter to work a job in a big city factory, only when she arrives does she discover that she is actually captive in a brothel, where she is repeatedly drugged and raped. These stories happen every day as economics and greed instead of love guide our actions. Or a wealthy country sends an occupying army into another land (for their "protection"), claiming the best strips of land and resources for themselves. They leave the country ravished and then offer high interest loans to help the country get back on their feet. The rich then continue to be sent payments from the poorest countries in the world.
Our flesh is the same as their flesh. Our children are the same as their children. But our children go to school, eat three meals a day, have toys to play with, are vaccinated against disease, and enjoy the luxury of the innocence of childhood, which their children can only dream of. Their daughters are ravished, their lands have been stolen by corporations, their children trafficked or tricked into slavery under the economic system that helps us remain rich and in power.
When Nehemiah heard the plight of the people he burned with anger. After much thought, he brought charges against the nobles and the officials telling them, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God?" And the scripture says that the people were silent and could not find anything to say. They didn't call him a socialist or complain that he suffered from white guilt. They heard the messenger of the Lord and were humbled by their sins. They pledged to stop taking advantage of the people who worked the land, promising to return whatever they had unjustly taken from them. And it wasn't just a pledge to cover their rears or get them re-elected. It was an oath before the Lord, with the understanding that whoever failed to abide by their pledge would be ruined and cast away from God.
This past weekend marked the Stand Up, Take Action event -- an annual worldwide mobilization where citizens around the globe spread the message and take action against poverty and toward reaching the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty by 2015. Part of the call is to tell the world leaders who have pledged to stop injustice and oppression and reduce poverty that "we will no longer stay seated or silent in the face of poverty and the broken promises to end it!" It is celebrated in conjunction with Jubilee Sunday, a day dedicated to praying for global economic justice, deepening our understanding of the global debt issue, and for taking concrete action for debt cancellation for all impoverished countries.
This is a reminder to listen to the words of Nehemiah and examine if we do truly walk in the fear of the Lord. To ask in what ways are we contributing to oppression and injustices worldwide and to pledge to put an end to such actions. We are God's people, committed to following his ways. To take advantage of our brothers and sisters for our own material gain is in direct defiance of the way of life God calls us to. We must instead make good on our pledge to follow Christ. To take a stand against poverty and oppression and commit to ending such injustices worldwide. And like the people who heard the charge from Nehemiah, respond not with grumbling or excuses or entitled justifications, but by saying "Amen," praising the Lord, and doing as they had promised.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.