In my bible study group right now, we're studying the book of Nehemiah, and a passage caught me on Monday that I wanted to mull over. Chapter 5 of the book is a sidenote of sorts- the book is all about the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, and this chapter talks about the plight of the poor among the Jews. They spoke to Nehemiah (v. 1-5) about their hardships- not so different than today: high interest rates, mortgages, not making ends meet, being powerless, unfair employment practices.
Earlier this year, a small group of clergy in Indianapolis made a public protest in support of the poor- specifically the "working poor"- those that work full-time, but aren't being paid a 'living wage' so still can't make ends meet. The clergy stood and blocked a downtown Indianapolis office building in support of the janitors who work there.
"We need medical benefits," said Gloria Frias, who said she makes $5.50 an hour at her job. "That's not a salary high enough to support our families."This is the cry Nehemiah heard. It is the cry we still hear.
Nehemiah responded in two ways. He had a public response- inciting community leaders to help the poor and stop unfair practices (v. 6-13). He spoke before them, rebuked their unfair practices, encouraged them to loan to the poor without demanding interest, and even had them take an oath to show they were serious about changing.
We can respond like this too, albeit without the authority that Nehemiah was able to exact. We can vote. We can be aware of the issues and possible solutions (Shameless plug for Grace's Justice Seminars, which happen semi-regularly. There's one this weekend featuring the author of God in the Alley), and support leaders who make those social-justice issues a priority. We can discuss policy and issues in hopes of changing other voters' minds as well. High level, systemic change is necessary to break the cycle of poverty that families live in. One good step is the increase in minimum wage passed earlier this year. There are Christians who are very good at this response to social issues- they are not afraid of politics and public policy, and see it as a responsibility to work at a system-wide level to alleviate the hardship of the poor, who God says over and over he cares so much about.
This plea to the governors was not Nehemiah's only response to the problem, however. In the next verses (v. 14-19), Nehemiah shows that he himself is not 'all talk'. Along with encouraging policy change, he 'lives out' the values in his own life. He refuses to take any more from already-heavily-taxed people by not eating food allotted to the governor. Members of my small group likened this to people in our church who, although the have very large salaries, have made a choice to place a cap on their lifestyle and give away anything beyond what they need to support their modest lifestyle. They- as well as Nehemiah- have every right to take what they have earned. With humility, to help others, they choose not to keep what they rightfully could have. Nehemiah, in this way, lives out his values not only in talk, put also in his day-to-day lifestyle. How can we respond as Nehemiah did? We've met Christians who care deeply about the poor and structure their lives around this value, personally ministering to individuals. This is as important as the Christians who do the higher-level, policy work. In our life, we've talked about being aware that someday, we will cap our lifestyle as we have seen others do. We also participate in Bag Hunger and Sunday Suppers regularly, and are always looking for other ways to create space in our lives so we can live out the issues we value.
This public/private response can be applied to issues other than poverty- creation care, for example, can also have a two-fold response. What are some public or private ways you respond to issues you are passionate about?