A couple weeks ago, I was talking politics with my friend Kelley Nikondeha. Kelley is one of those smart and interesting friends who makes me think a little deeper on everything, and when it comes to the bible, she knows her stuff. We were talking about the Make America Great narrative, and Kelley offhandedly illuminated the Old Testament version of this phenomenon in a way that blew my mind, because I’d never made the connection before. I begged her to write it up for me so I could share it with you. Whether or not you are a Christian, I think the historical precedent is fascinating. Here’s Kelley:
It’s occurred to me that the call to make America great again is not new. I heard it in the Old Testament and I’ve caught whiff of it in the New Testament as well. Of course, in the Bible they aren’t talking about America but about the greatness of Israel. How can Israel be restored to its former glory? I think we see two very different strategies depicted in Scripture. Let’s take a look!
Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE. The Babylonian forces razed the great city; temple included, and took many Israelites into captivity. For generations they lived as the enslaved underclass in a foreign land. But even the Babylonians were conquered by the Perians.
The Persian emperor decided to allow a small group of Jews to return to Jerusalem. He probably thought a thriving economy could pay him tribute taxes – if they could pull off an urban resurrection. This is the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, the men who returned to a ruined cityscape to reclaim the former glory of their beloved Zion, the high and holy place.
The leaders determined to do three things: rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to ensure it’s future security, teach Torah again so that Jews could reclaim their faith tradition and ban intermarriage to move toward ethnic purity. Security, identity and ethnic purity were pillars in the agenda to make Israel great again.
Building the wall did not come without challenge. The Samaritans, still living in the vicinity, were offended by the project and tried to thwart the construction of the wall. But in the end, their efforts failed and the wall was rebuilt to secure the city.
Ezra, scribe and priest, has been credited with the early construction of the sermon. This was the tool he employed to teach the Torah to the Jews who, generations in another land, forgot their stories and songs. He preached at regular intervals believing Scripture would be the cornerstone to reclaiming the Jewish identity.
But that was not all. Ezra was deeply concerned with the ethnic impurity of the returnees. They lived, loved and married in Babylon. Was there any pure seed among them anymore, with all the intermarriage to Moabites and such? So he instituted a firm policy against intermarriage to re-establish ethnic purity. This echoes the earlier instructions of Moses who wanted Israelites to avoid marriage to Canaanites and, at all costs, Moabites. So there was precedent for this kind of thinking when it came to tribal purity.
I found this cursory reading somewhat resonant with our current political context. We are concerned with security, identity, and even ethnic purity. We think, maybe like Nehemiah and Ezra, addressing these matters with exclusivist policies will restore our former national glory. We talk about controlling borders, limiting refugee resettlement, and religious litmus tests. We water the seeds of suspicion about people not from here or not like us. We decide that excluding them will be the solution.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a long genealogy meant to demonstrate the pedigree of Jesus. Except it includes anomalies like Rahab (the Canaanite) and Ruth (the Moabite). They are impure, according to Moses and the rebuilders of Jerusalem. How could King David, the ultimate Jew, come from this line? How could these women be the foremothers of Jesus, the Messiah?
I imagine Matthew was taking a page out of his Rabbi’s playbook – “you have heard it said… but I say unto you.” You have heard it said by Moses and Ezra that Canaanites and Moabites cannot be part of Israel, that they will compromise its greatness. But I say unto you… And then Matthew writes about the Anointed One who had a different vision for how to make Israel great again.
Jesus came from contaminated seed. Jesus came from the backwaters of Nazareth where little good ever sprouted. He lived beneath the poverty line and worked a menial labor job. People wondered if Joseph was really his father, if you know what I mean. He spent time with the wrong people, the drinkers and harlots and sinners. So many times the Pharisees pointed to the company he kept, guilt by association. In the end Jesus was crucified as a state terrorist, dying between the kind of people he lived with day in and day out. Not exactly a great record for ethnic purity.
We notice that Jesus let everyone come to him. Street kids flocked to him, the lame and blind called to him, those inflicted with contagious diseases cried out to him and he tended to them. Women felt at ease with Jesus, they were respected and welcomed as followers. Among these women was the first evangelist, the first witness to the resurrection, the first preacher and his primary funders. Jesus interacted with Roman functionaries, Samaritans, and people the temple would not allow in. His policy was radically inclusive – and offensive to some.
The greatness of God’s Kingdom would be determined by who got in, not who was left out. Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures well. He knew what Nehemiah and Ezra feared in their day and why they leaned on the strategy of exclusion. But the life of Jesus testifies to another strategy for greatness, another way to combat fear – welcoming others in your life and into your national story. According to Jesus even our enemies shouldn’t be excluded, but somehow incorporated.
I think that as Matthew writes his Gospel he wants us to see that the entire life of Jesus was a rebuttal of the old ways of exclusion. Jesus incarnated a radical inclusion. It would have confounded Moses and the others, but Jesus was always pushing us to reimagine his Kingdom.
The ultimate picture of a restored Israel is the New Jerusalem. It is a city where everyone parades up to the city and into the temple – a house of worship for all people. It is an audacious and amazing hope – a place where inclusion wins the day and we are together at last. This is when (and how) Israel will be great again. If we say this is only a spiritual dream then we miss the entire earthly example of Jesus who was, himself, a temple for all people.
So while we ought to be careful about making easy parallels between the ancient context of the Scripture and today, this observation gives me pause. Jesus leaned toward inclusion as an agenda for restoration and greatness, not fear or exclusion. As I consider my own preferred agenda I want to try and calibrate it by the witness of Jesus.
Kelley Nikondeha is the co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is currently writing A Sacrament of Belonging: Graces for Transformation in a Fractured World to be published in 2017. She writes at SheLovesMagazine.com and KelleyNikondeha.com. Kelley lives in Burundi with her street-smart husband and two energetic kids. She’s known to be ecclesiastically promiscuous, a connoisseur of pesto and a devotee of Walter Brueggemann.