By David Tulis
A favorite character in the scriptures is Nehemiah, the Israelite who was cupbearer to an alien king, Artaxerxes, and sent back to his home country to look after Jerusalem and the deplorable state of those of his fellows left behind.
As our family has read about Nehemiah at family worship, I have been keen to suggest to my three sons how this man is a model public official. Though my sons live in a day when state-chartered corporations rule and counties have lost the localist and provincialist framework they inherited from medieval and colonial times, I have offered Nehemiah as a model for any godly governor. Public officials might look to Nehemiah for encouragement in ways to reflect God’s character in the discharge of public duty.
Nehemiah cared for the public weal in several unusual ways.
• He used a model of public works in which private parties assume personal responsibility for some aspect of the public welfare. Potholes in our day would be filled and highways paved by private people rather than by tax-funded contractors.
• He used moral suasion to end the oppression of the poor by the wealthy, who lent money under a harsh usury
• He viewed all franchise holders in the kingdom as members of the militia, as citizen soldiers useful in defending the city from attack.
Returning to one’s homeland
If you are a conqueror and a growing empire and want to alienate, unmoor and weaken a subject people, there is no better way than to forceably remove them from their homeland and reestablish them in a strange terrain.
As invaders before and since, Babylon uprooted captive peoples, depopulated their homelands and moved them to alien departments and bureaucratically designed districts many weeks’ camel ride away from their birthplace. The policy of Babylon was to destroy local ties, eviscerate racial and tribal identity and alienate subject races from their past.
The Israelites’ perspective is now Shushan, where Nehemiah works in royal service. Nehemiah, who narrates his book of the Bible in first person, learns of the deplorable state of Jerusalem. Its walls are gone, its gates burned and those left behind in “great distress.”
With his king’s leave, Nehemiah bears letters of authority and a governorship to Jerusalem. Once there, he inspects the devastated walls and gates and declares that the people must rebuild. “Then they set their hands to this good work” (Nehemiah 2:3). The chief devotes the third chapter of his book as an honor roll of those men and their families who haul and set brick and rock. The people work on chunks of the wall near their houses, or in areas of their responsibility. The priests, for example, take care of the sheep gate that affected the sacrificial system.
The sense of personal ownership of a piece of public property is a virtue that awaits revival in our day. Most people are unwitting takers and users of “the system” of government welfare and privilege. They are prompted to this frame of mind by a system turns everyone into a constituent, and it starts with the filing of a 1040 tax return.
Americans gave $347 billion to charity in 2011. I suggest that figure it could be F$1.5 trillion if taxation did not put such a downward pressure on the economy and were not so oppressive of people’s public spiritedness.
The people inspired by Nehemiah share a common faith in God, and they share geography. Common faith and common place are crucial for voluntary giving.
Genuine community spirit
The Babylonians understood the danger of unity of place to their program of tyranny over occupied lands. Nehemiah uses community to reverse the process they impose. He gives the returning Israelites a public purpose and expects each person to contribute.
Is such an idea impractical in our day? Circumstance and heart might make any proposal in this direction untenable. But here’s how it could work, 50 or 150 years in the future.
Rather than impose a property or sales tax, the magistrate would hold a fund-raiser, and at the end of given period of publicizing his needs, he would make do with the funds raised by cash, check or in-kind donation. Such a system of voluntary giving, personal and corporate, might by itself bring people in a city together and create much more community than we now have in Chattanooga under bureaucratically collected taxes premised on coercion and threat.
If Hamilton county became at least partly a tax-free zone, the city would become a worldwide magnet for business.
A hint of this sort of thinking appeared 11/2 years ago when Little Caesar’s Pizza owner Tom Getz offered to pay the mileage to let city policeman be able to take home their police cars (“Businessman offers to sponsor police car,” Jan. 17, 2011).
Care for the poor
Nehemiah relates another important element of what a modern person would call his “public policy.” He uses his authority as a lord of the Babylonian king to end the practice of usury among God’s people and end debt slavery among the Israelites.
In chapter 5 he hears a “great outcry” of the people who “mortgaged our lands and vineyards and houses, that we might buy grain because of the famine.” Some had borrowed to pay the king’s tax. The debtors forced their sons and daughters into slavery. “It is not in our power to redeem them,” they cry, “for other men have our lands and our vineyards.” Nehemiah becomes very anger. After giving some “serious thought” to the problem, he holds an assembly and rebukes the nobles and the rulers. Nehemiah argues about the reproach their lending to the poor at interest causes among enemy nations. He extracts from them an oath, shakes out a fold in his garment and declares, “So may God shake out each man from his house, and from his property, who does not perform this promise. Even thus may he be shaken out and emptied” (Nehemiah 5:13).
The law of God, now as then, forbids lending money at interest to the poor among the household of faith.
Borrowing is generally considered in the scripture to be something done in desperation, with a poor man’s cloak and its return at night being part of the regulation of poor loans for the protection of the distressed (Exodus 22:25-27; Leviticus 25:35-38). God’s people are to lend freely to their poor, even if the year of Jubilee approaches that liquidated all debts in old covenant times. Loans to God’s poor are never done for profit or to exact interest. But lending at interest is allowed against Gentiles and the ungodly, to bring such people into subjection (Deut. 23:19, 20).
Debt crisis in our day; underlying causes
Nehemiah’s boldness against enslavement by lenders is a model for Chattanooga council members, county commissioners, legislators, regulators and other managers in the modern American state and its subdivisions.
Nehemiah cares for the poor and is angered by the cunning of the rich against them.
In our day “the rich” are banking companies as a class, particularly those regulated by the U.S. government and those under state charter.
These banks, savings and loans, issuers of credit and credit unions are engines of inflation, currency debasement and servitude.
They are held up by the media as honorable businesses, part of the normal landscape. Their reputations are miles above those of the check-into-cash title loan companies that compete for the borrowing of the poor.
The short-term loan shop is category of lender is pernicious and grasping, but not as powerful overall in creating economic slavery as the regulated banks.
The real offenders against the poor in Chattanooga are creators of hot money. I believe that check-into-cash joints aren’t licensed to create money. Their dollars come from a stock of electronic capital already on someone’s ledger.
Banks and credit unions create money out of thin air through the fractional reserve process. The victim is not just the poor family or out of work office staffer, but everyone who uses the green paper scrap issued by the Federal Reserve System, the central bank.
The Fed is the centralizer of the American economy, the enabler of Uncle Sam’s phenomenal IOUs to the people and the world, and the silent filcher of the widow’s cash stash and her meager bank savings account. The authority of the Fed given to it under the enabling act of 1913 makes everyone a borrower, even if he is not poor, and makes it impossible to extinguish debts.
For a paper promise does not extinguish a paper promise. Only real money has legal sway for that, and the Fed is all about putting the poor and the middle class and the rich on a borrowing treadmill. Economic growth today simply means whether the credit supply has increased under the optimism of new borrowing, and if the credit supply does not expand, the economy will collapse.
The story of Nehemiah assures us that justice for the common and the poor man comes from the removal of unjust obstacles to his self-possession. He has little capital, and is always on the verge of slavery. If he can avoid that, and possess or guard himself and family members more or less, that is what God allows the poor man in his protection of him under biblical law. (I don’t use the term “self-possession” in the same way that Walter Williams and other libertarians speak of “self-ownership,” a concept the Bible rejects.)
Nehemiah puts knife to own throat
Nehemiah lives out another rule that governors of our day should emulate. “From the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-sixth year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor’s provisions” (Nehemiah 5:14).
He says former governors taxed the people and supplied themselves by taxation for their food and provisions. But he refused to exercise the power of force to supply his needs. “I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”
Part 2 of these reflections on Nehemiah look at the forgotten Reformation doctrines of interposition (how a lesser magistrate saves a people from the evils of a greater) and Nehemiah’s recognition of the men of a district comprising its militia.