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Letter 8 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 8

Jean-Pierre Ruiz

Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
St. John’s University, New York

January 27, 2017

Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,

Because I am a professor of biblical studies interested in the pervasive influence of the Bible on people’s minds and hearts, I read the sermon delivered by Rev. Robert Jeffress on Inauguration Day with great interest, especially because he made reference to the book of Nehemiah.

As a young man, I was part of a group of religious leaders and grassroots organizers who took our inspiration from the pages of Nehemiah. In the New York neighborhoods of Brownsville and East New York, Nehemiah’s ancient words rang true: “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace” (Nehemiah 2:17). To this, the people of Jerusalem responded, “Let us start building!” Then “they committed themselves to the common good” (Nehemiah 2:18) and together rebuilt their ruined city. Centuries later, the people of the interfaith community organization East Brooklyn Congregations likewise joined together to build affordable housing, an effort christened the Nehemiah Plan.

Citing Nehemiah, Pastor Jeffress suggested that God smiles on you, Mr. President, and on the building of walls. Yes, God smiles on all of God’s children, both the meek and the mighty. Yes, God calls on all of us to work together in building for the sake of the common good. Yet, as Pope Francis insists: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

President Reagan was the last U.S. president to speak forcefully about walls. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate during a 1987 visit to then-divided Berlin, he declared to Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace…Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

There is much to be done in our time, the sort of hard work on which God smiles because it is done for the sake of the dignity and the well-being of all God’s creatures. Together, then, let us start building—not walls but bridges, roads, and communities.

Sincerely,

Jean-Pierre Ruiz

Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
St. John’s University, New York

About the author

Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University in New York, is also a senior research fellow of the university’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society. His publications include Readings from the Edges: The Bible and People on the Move.