There are times when I read the Bible that the people and their cultures seem so far away from me that I feel detached from the story. Their lives are so different from mine in how they eat, dress, where they live, etc. Yet the more I read and dissect their lives, the more I am able to connect with them. I remember that people are still people no matter when and where they live.
The first time I read through Nehemiah 5 I thought that it was just another passage about the plights of the Israelites, which are so common that I had started to ignore them. They are complaining about needing more food, being in debt, and other complaints – same old, same old, right? On the second and third read, though, I realized that although there are priests, nobles, and temples, these people are acting like greedy, unrighteous people, which is something I do know something about.
In South Asia, forced labor based largely on debt has become a generational, widespread system of oppression. It has become a social norm. It begins with a worker seeking to start a business or needing to borrow money for some endeavor from a local leader, often a businessman who owns a farm or a brick kiln etc. The worker often fails in his endeavor, as entrepreneurial enterprises frequently do, and he ends up in debt to the local businessman. The businessman tells the worker that he needs to pay off his debt by working on his farm, brick kiln, etc.
Unfortunately, the businessman is often unfair and creates a large interest that only increases as the worker needs food and shelter. This first debt starts a never ending cycle that becomes impossible for the worker to ever pay off. If he has a family, the debt is passed on to them, and then their children, and continues from there. Essentially, the worker and future generations have become slaves for life.
What the Israelites experience in Nehemiah 5 is strikingly similar to what many in South Asia experience today. Certain Jews were being oppressed by their fellow Jews through debt, mortgages, and heavy interest. Some even had to sell their daughters, which is also a common practice in South Asia. The same oppression that existed almost 2,500 years ago exists today. Injustice existed then, and it clearly exists now. Moments like these remind me that the Bible is entirely relevant, that each of us is connected to it, and that we are critical pieces of the story in whatever age we live.
When I learn about situations like South Asia, I often feel powerless to help. I want to, but I don’t know how best to respond. Sometimes, I even feel like it’s not my place to be involved because it’s not my part of the world. Fortunately, Nehemiah gives us an answer.
Nehemiah earnestly seeks what is right and true throughout the book. He defends the defenseless, doing so in a way that they can grow more reliant upon themselves and their community. Not only does he seek a physical defense for Jerusalem, but he seeks to defend what is righteous on the inside. He builds walls for the city and also tears down the injustice within it.
We also learn where the foundation for Nehemiah’s responsibility comes from. In Nehemiah 2:2-3 he states, “I was terrified, but…,” which is very simple, but remarkable, because it demonstrates his fear in the face of his calling. He demonstrates his fear through the various challenges he faces, yet he still chooses to do what the Lord requires of him.
In Neh. 2:2-3, he speaks to the king of Persia. He tells the king that he is distressed by the state of Jerusalem, asks if he can leave to help rebuild it, and asks for letters to ensure supplies and safe passage from the king – each of which could have been viewed as sedition, a capital offense. Talking to a king would be intimidating no matter the circumstances, but speaking freely with him would take guts and would certainly be terrifying. Later, in Nehemiah 5, he challenges the priests and leaders of Jerusalem about their unjust behavior, which was probably similarly intimidating. Nehemiah may have had fear of people, but his fear of the Lord was greater and he did what he knew was right.
Nehemiah took responsibility for the people and the injustice of his time. He didn’t make excuses for where he lived – he went to the people – and took action. He feared the Lord more than his worldly fears and it led him to do what was right. Fortunately, there are people working and challenging injustice like Nehemiah in the world today. Groups such as International Justice Mission works in South Asia, challenging and rebuilding legal systems and rescuing the oppressed. They are seeking to be responsible in the world we live regardless of place and worldly fears that get in the way. They are not bound by country and work across the globe, most notably India, Bangladesh, and Nepal for such issues like generational slave labor.
Whether the cries of the oppressed come from ancient Jerusalem or modern South Asia, Nehemiah 5 reminds us that they are one and the same. People are still people, no matter when or where they live. We are called to be in the story, and we have a responsibility to respond.
How does God call me to take steps – even if I am frightened – to make my work more just?
Cara Brown works to develop training events for organizations in the not-for-profit world. She is a member of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.