So, we’ve been in “stay at home” mode for a few weeks, now. Some of us are still getting out and about, performing essential duties. But there’s no denying that our regular patterns have been suspended. Even if we haven’t needed to adapt that much personally, we’re still interacting in a world that has changed profoundly over the last few months. We’re all trying to get used to a “new normal” when “normal” changes every few days. One thing that’s becoming clear is that when this virus finally runs its course, and we come out from under our rocks, we’re going to enter a different world than the one we inhabited at the end of last year. 2020 is going to change things.
In the 5th century BC, Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruin. Nehemiah was the cup-bearer of the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I. A few generations prior, Cyrus the Great had allowed the Hebrews to return to their land, marking the beginning of the end of the Babylonian Exile. But while the people had been returning to the land, the religious rituals had yet to be reinstated, and the temple was not yet rebuilt. It took Ezra the Priest and Nehemiah the civic leader to get things back to normal. And it all began with a return to God.
The situation that Nehemiah found when he came to Jerusalem was one of oppression and corruption—the wealthy were subjugating the poor, leaders were taking advantage of the population, and making alliances with Israel’s enemies. And in an effort to line their own pockets, the privileged were neglecting their civic and religious duty (which were one and the same for the Hebrews). It wasn’t until Nehemiah gathers the people and Ezra reminds them of the requirements of the Law—and the people repent and rededicate themselves—that things actually get back on track.
I’m not trying to draw too fine a parallel between the Hebrew’s return from Exile and our experience coming out of our Coronavirus quarantine. The Children of Israel had endured complete devastation, of their land and their way of life. They almost lost their identity entirely, and they mourned and wondered “How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4). We’re—at least at this point—primarily inconvenienced. But this virus is going to touch us; I suspect that before this is all over, each of us will have been personally affected by the experience. We will all know someone who has suffered, some will have lost loved ones. Some will have lost jobs, or lost material security. The physical impact, the social impact, and the economic impact will be profound. But I suspect that we might need to be mindful of the spiritual impact above all.
It wasn’t until Nehemiah and Ezra got the people back on track spiritually that things really headed in the right direction for the Children of Israel. It wasn’t when they returned to the land, it was when they returned to God. And the same might be said for us when we return from our virus-imposed exile. We will need to be sure that we resist the temptation to prioritize getting back to economic stability or social stability above getting back to spiritual stability. In fact, I’d say that we will have no just economy or society if we are not tending to our spiritual health first. And, as the Children of Israel found, they could still be faithful in Exile, and by holding on to their faith, they were in a better place to restore their life when they did return—there were people like Nehemiah and Ezra who were able to remind the people to keep their priorities straight.
We’re not out of the woods, yet. But we do have an opportunity to consider what kind of return we want to make. When the Children of Israel returned to their land, it was a frontier again. It was somewhat depopulated, and they were able to move in and some of them got pretty wealthy as a result. They reappropriated the resources available to them, but the problem was that they failed to follow the Word of the Lord. And so corruption and oppression became the pattern. They prioritized the economic and social over spiritual restoration. We can learn from their mistakes. We can consider how we might contribute to social and economic restoration from a spiritual perspective. What would helping our community get back to normal look like, if that normal was shaped by Jesus? What would restoration look like if restoration were informed by Jesus’ ethic of neighbor-love? How can we better show Jesus’ love in the reordered world we will enter in a few months? Do we really want to return to business as usual? Or do we want to take the opportunity to rebuild something Spirit-filled in the rubble of the past? Time will tell…