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Our passive society needs some new Nehemiahs

November 11, 2011

This editorial by Harry Boyte originally published in the Star Tribune on November 15, 2007 has received some attention on the old blog we had at that time, so we thought we’d re-post it here.

Working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the civil-rights movement as a young man, I saw again and again leaders like Martin Luther King and Andrew Young use stories from the Bible to animate and inform the larger public conversation. I’ve been reminded of this history as the presidential election unfolds.

“It’s a lot better to be with David than Goliath,” Mike Huckabee told the Values Voters Forum on Oct. 18, to illustrate his identification with the little guy. Barack Obama, in a March 4 speech at Selma, Ala., commemorating the famous 1965 civil-rights march, described himself as part of the “Joshua generation,” picking up where the “Moses” generation left off.

But for our time Nehemiah is more helpful than either David or Joshua.

Remembering Nehemiah could put active citizenship at the center of an election campaign that so far has treated it as a secondary question.

Nehemiah, a skillful politician, gained permission from the king of Persia in 446 B.C. to return to Jerusalem in order to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls. “You see the trouble we are in; Jerusalem is in ruins, its gates have been burned down,” he told the assembled crowd.

But Nehemiah did not present himself as a Moses-like rescuer. Rather, he called people to hard work. “Come, let us rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and suffer this indignity no longer.” The people responded. “Let us start! Let us build.” The Bible recounts that “with willing hands they set about the good work” (Nehemiah 2:17-18).

Physical parallels with the first “Nehemiah generation” are not hard to see from Minneapolis, after the Interstate 35W bridge disaster last summer. The 2005 Infrastructure Report Card of the American Society of Civil Engineers, evaluating the condition of the nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and other public works, gave a grade of D. For practical purposes it was no improvement since the D+ of 2001.

Citizen participation on issues like road design and water usage is a good idea, and New Deal-style public-works programs, which built much of the nation’s park system and public infrastructure, are worth considering. But the cultural aspects of Nehemiah hold the most important lessons.

During the Babylonian captivity, enemies of the Jews had multiplied. Jews persevered in the face of ridicule and posted guards against plots.

More subtly, rebuilding the walls required civic restoration. A culture of greed and instant gratification had produced fragmentation and a decline in morale in the community. Nehemiah held together a motley crew — 40 different groups are named, including merchants, priests, governors, nobles, members of the perfume and goldsmiths’ guilds, and women. At one point he organized a great assembly to call to account nobles making excessive profit from the poor. As the Jewish people rebuilt their walls, they regained a sense of their purpose and identity.

In today’s America, as we have come to look to others — experts, great leaders, celebrities — to save us from our problems, we have similarly become afflicted by civic illness. Our bitter divisions along lines of partisanship, income, race, religion and geography are fed by devaluation of the talents and intelligence of people without credentials, degrees and celebrity status. Our citizenship declines while we are entertained as spectators, pacified as clients and pandered to as customers.

We need new Nehemiahs who call forth America’s democratic genius of a self-reliant, productive, future-oriented citizenry, leaders who tackle tough issues in a collaborative way and reject the rescuer role. Such leaders would tap the talents of citizens to address public problems on which government is necessary but not sufficient, from climate change to school reform. They would challenge us to create healthy communities, not simply provide access to health care. They would recall that democracy is a way of life, not simply a trip to the ballot box.

The great leaders in our history — from Abraham Lincoln to Jane Addams, Franklin Roosevelt to Martin Luther King Jr. — have always called upon citizens to address common challenges, and in the process helped the nation remember its democratic soul. Things are likely to get worse until we have such leaders again, leaders who call us all to the ongoing work of citizenship.

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