Ezra and Nehemiah, who lived at exactly the same time, faced the identical challenge. Each sought to revive the dispirited refugees in Jerusalem by persuading them to rebuild city walls and clean up their morals. But what different tactics the two men used!

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem and saw firsthand the moral degeneration of his people, he went into a state of shock. He tore his clothes, yanked hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled. Hours later, Ezra was still weeping and throwing himself on the ground. So demonstrative was his grief and so infectious his repentance that the city leaders all agreed to change their ways.

Nehemiah, who arrived on the scene a few years later, used a more confrontational approach. As merchants lined up outside the city to sell goods on the Sabbath, he threatened them with physical violence. And when fellow Jews married foreigners against God’s command, he called down curses on them, beat them, and pulled out their hair.

That last scene exposes the difference between the two biblical heroes: one pulls out his own hair in grief; another pulls out other people’s hair in anger.

Ezra was a priest, a mystic. He had refused an armed escort for the 800-mile journey from Babylon to Jerusalem despite the fact that his group of emigres carried 28 tons of silver. Concerned that the presence of armed guards might demonstrate a lack of faith, he relied instead on fasting and prayer for protection.

Nehemiah, a bureaucrat of exquisite pragmatism, had no such scruples. He entered Jerusalem at the head of a Persian cavalry detachment, and at the first sign of opposition he organized the Jews, too, into armed battalions. Soon every workman on the wall was carrying a weapon in his free hand.

Radicals And Pragmatists

Ezra and Nehemiah got me thinking about the different approaches people take in living out their Christian faith. If Ezra was a saint, Nehemiah was a semi-saint.

A saint (as I am using the term) is a radical, a moral extremist who shuns all compromise and may well look foolish in the eyes of the world. Mother Teresa stands in the center of one of the most crowded cities on earth and lectures against birth control. “Every baby is a gift from God,” she says.

Twenty-five years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., would seek out the meanest sheriffs in Alabama and Mississippi and plant his unarmed body directly in the path of their dogs and fire hoses. His goal, King used to say, was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor,” and the best way to shame a nation was to fight violence with aggressive nonviolence.

The church has seen some effective semisaints as well. William Wilberforce became the butt of many jokes in eighteenth-century England because of his one-note-band speeches in Parliament against slavery. But, in the end, his “bureaucratic faithfulness” helped carry the day, and England chose the way of moral courage, even agreeing to compensate slave owners in her colonies. In our own country, Abraham Lincoln believed, truly believed, that he would serve God best by pursuing a terrible war to its bitter end.

My career as a journalist has afforded me the chance to observe a few contemporary “saints.” Some have left comfortable homes in North America to witness for peace in Central America or serve in squalid refugee camps in Asia; others spend their lives sheltering and feeding America’s homeless. After talking to these people, I go away inspired, ennobled, and filled with a higher vision of what a Christian can be.

I have also met some semi-saints. Every working day Christian lobbyists put on three-piece suits and traipse over to Capitol Hill to represent the interests of starving families and aborted children and maltreated prisoners and victims of human-rights abuses. These semi-saints may play a less glamorous role, but can anyone doubt that an organization like Bread for the World accomplishes as much on behalf of the poor and hungry as, say, Mother Teresa?

In India today some “holy men” are leading a campaign against deforestation. These visionaries encourage villagers to tie themselves to trees in order to block the loggers and their chain saws. Television crews flock to cover the dramatic scene of protest. But the saintly protest in India might not even be necessary if every semi-saint in America would diligently recycle envelopes and daily newspapers.

A Nine-To-Five Calling

Although we need saints, desperately, they will probably always be a rare breed. The vast majority of Christians in this country work at “secular” jobs from nine to five each day, worship on Sundays, and try to let their faith influence their lives. Such folks may never enjoy the singularity of vision, or perhaps the freedom from ambiguity, that characterizes a genuine saint. But I take comfort in the fact that the Bible seems to allow for both approaches.

Ezra and Nehemiah, telling the same story from two points of view, make clear that neither approach is entirely effective on its own. Nehemiah, the obsessive, management-oriented bureaucrat, completed in 52 days a mission that Ezra had failed to accomplish in a dozen years: he got a wall built around Jerusalem to provide security for the residents inside.

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On the other hand, once the construction project was completed, Nehemiah turned to Ezra to lead the religious celebration. The latter part of Nehemiah records one of the most remarkable scenes of Old Testament history. A vast throng assembled, and Ezra read from the Law from daybreak until noon. Working in tandem, the two leaders—Nehemiah with his no-nonsense pragmatism and Ezra with his unimpeachable integrity—directed a spiritual revival such as had not been seen in a thousand years. In that revival, both saints and semi-saints played a part.

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