In the aftermath of the 2020 election, the Biblical book of Nehemiah offers an important lesson for how President-elect Joe Biden should handle the transition and beyond.
Nehemiah was a Jew who lived as an exile the Persian empire and served as a high-ranking official in the royal court. In the first chapter of the book, Nehemiah received word that the wall of Jerusalem lay in ruins. The exiles who had returned to the city were in a precarious situation because the city had no defenses.
After praying, the king gave Nehemiah all that he requested. He received permission, funding, supplies, and a military force from the king to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem.
Upon arriving at the city, Nehemiah encouraged the inhabitants and organized them into work crews. But not everyone was happy with the new situation.
Immediately, Nehemiah faced opposition from the previous regime. “But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us” (2:19).
Nehemiah and the citizens ignored the threats and began the work. They made significant progress, but in chapter 4 they faced significant obstruction. One of the opposition leaders “was angry and greatly enraged” (4:1). He conspired with his allies, “and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (4:8).
Along with causing confusion, the opponents made violent threats. “They will not know or see anything before we come upon them and kill them and stop the work” (4:11).
Nehemiah and the builders refused to be deterred. They set guards, took necessary precautions, and went back to their mission.
As the building continued in chapter 5, Nehemiah learned that the wealthy inhabitants of the city had been economically mistreating the poor, including children. Nehemiah paused the construction and rectified the situation. He also refused to benefit personally from the construction project and even invited 150 people to his table daily.
The work went on. The enemies, though, refused to quit. They changed their strategy and asked for a meeting with Nehemiah.
The new governor sent a sure message. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?” (6:3)
Nehemiah declined to engage in conversation with people who did not want to talk in good faith. Instead of coming down off the wall to talk with people who did not have the people’s best interest at heart, he stayed focused and completed the job in 52 days (6:15)
Nehemiah refused to give in to the ridicule, obstruction, and threats. His dedication to the task at hand empowered him to lead a team that finished a massive rebuilding project in about two months.
The United States has about two months to complete the transition from the current administration to the new Biden presidency. The task includes rebuilding after four years of extensive suffering and chaos.
The devastation has been well documented. Failing to address the pandemic with science-based solutions, refusing to grant economic relief, and generating social discord contribute to the American carnage.
Since the election results have been known, the outgoing leadership has filed failing lawsuits, held press conferences, and sent tweets saying they do not accept the outcome. They send their spokespeople onto cable news to ridicule the results. They call for recounts and threaten more legal action. Their supporters hold armed demonstrations accusing President-elect Biden of stealing the vote (even while their preferred candidates won some elections).
Nehemiah’s opponents attempted similar tactics: mockery, debate, confusion, and violence.
President-elect Biden would be wise to follow Nehemiah’s example. Ignore the derision. Prepare for challenges. Refuse to get sidetracked. All the while, he must remember those who have been marginalized.
The transition will not be easy. The old administration will seek to cause more disarray, uncertainty, and ordeals. Voices on right-wing media outlets will make noise, and reactionary social media will generate distractions. They will attempt to set the agenda, make bad-faith offers at dialogue, and derail the incoming administration before it even starts.
Hopefully, President-elect Joe Biden will respond to the clamor with Nehemiah’s resolve, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?”