(Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10)
In the United States today, journalists are being criticized from both the right and the left. People accuse them of sensationalism and bias, and pin the label “fake news” on stories they don’t like. World events look very different depending on whether they are being covered by Fox News or The New York Times.
Some folks are taking this very personally. A T-shirt is now available that says: “My 60th Birthday is FAKE NEWS.”
But guess what? We are lucky to have a free press, even if we don’t always agree with it. The First Amendment of our Constitution says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Whether you like the news or not, our American press is free, uncensored and available to all.
In some countries, the government tightly controls the media and bans many news sites. So where can people who live under censorship get access to uncensored journalism? You might be surprised. They play the game Minecraft.
Yes, really. Minecraft is a video game in which players explore a virtual world, extract raw materials, make tools and build structures. They can also fight computer-controlled mobs or compete against other players. When you log on to Minecraft, you can choose to play in survival mode, in which you have to gain resources in order to build the world and maintain health. Or you can play in creative mode, in which you have unlimited resources.
Or you can access uncensored journalism.
A nonprofit called Reporters Without Borders has created a backdoor within the game. Go through this portal, and you can visit a virtual library stocked with uncensored articles. This journalism can be accessed by any player, anytime, anywhere in the world.
The magazine Fast Company reports that visitors to The Uncensored Library can read reporting from the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His articles would be difficult to find on Saudi Arabia’s censored internet. Readers can also access articles from Javier Valdez, a Mexican journalist who exposed crime and corruption until he was killed by gunmen.
Through this Minecraft portal, Reporters Without Borders is trying to expose the younger generation to the importance of press freedom. “In the real world,” says Anna Nelson, the U.S. executive director of the group, “there are very real consequences when information is censored.” They want game users, some as young as 7 years old, to understand how important it is to have access to the truth. Since it launched in March 2020, says Fast Company, the project has reached more than 20 million gamers from 165 countries.
Minecraft reminds us that we should never censor journalism. And the same could be said for religion. The book of Nehemiah makes clear that people of faith also need access to the truth.
The citizens of Judah lived in exile in Babylon for 70 years, cut off from their homeland and their temple in Jerusalem. They had little access to the news of Judah and were living as strangers in a strange land.
Finally, they were allowed to return home. Their governor, Nehemiah, led them in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and the priest Ezra read from Scripture while the people listened. For them, the truth came not through a backdoor in Minecraft, but through the Water Gate in the walls of Jerusalem. The word of God really mattered to the people, which is why they all gathered together and “Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding” (Nehemiah 8:1-2).
The book of the law of Moses was their uncensored library.
The people of Jerusalem craved the truth that came through Scripture, so they told Ezra to read the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. “He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law” (v. 3).
Like censored journalism, the words of Moses had been unavailable in their homeland, and now they were being read in the presence of the people. Ezra stood on a wooden platform and read the law, and the reading turned into a worship service that lasted about six hours. “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. … Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord” (vv. 5-6).
The people hung on every word, and the Hebrew text was interpreted by leaders standing nearby. Even though Ezra was reading the Scriptures loud and clear, the people could not understand them completely until they were interpreted in the more familiar Aramaic. Like worshipers today, they needed Scripture to be read and interpreted. The people were enriched by access to the uncensored word of God, especially when it was made understandable through interpretation.
A group of leaders “helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law” (vv. 7-9). When the people grasped what they were hearing, they were so moved that they cried. In ancient times and today, the God’s word has the power to penetrate the human spirit, to speak to the heart, to touch the deepest corners of the soul.
Think of the biblical passages that still have this effect today:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1)
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 29:11)
“Do justice … love kindness … walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)
“Love is patient; love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4)
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)
“All things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
These are words that touch our spirits, hearts and souls. All come from God’s uncensored library.
The people of Jerusalem gathered beneath a wooden platform and listened to the law of God being read. They knew that to “understand” the Bible means, quite literally, to “stand under” the Bible – to place ourselves under its authority, to take it personally, to allow our lives to be shaped by it and to give it our trust and our confidence. When we seek to understand the Bible, we are doing more than making an effort to understand what the words mean. Instead, we are “standing under” Scripture’s view of God and humanity and history, giving it not only the insight of our brains, but also the allegiance of our hearts.
When the people of Jerusalem stood under the law of God, they were allowing the words of Moses to shape them as a people. And although we do not know the exact words that Ezra read, they could have been the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), the challenge to “love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), or the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Whatever truth Ezra delivered to them, the people “were attentive to the word of the law” (Nehemiah 8:3). They answered, “Amen, Amen” (v. 6), which means “May it be, may it be.” They were pledging allegiance to these words and to the God who was speaking them.
That’s a challenge that remains for us today, when we read from God’s uncensored library.
Then Nehemiah told them to go off and celebrate, urging them to eat rich foods and drink sweet wine, while taking care to provide for those who might not have anything to eat. The day was a special and holy day, and Nehemiah commanded them to “not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).
The same message applies to us today when we allow the truth of God to shape our lives. There is nothing fake about the power of the word of God to refresh our souls and guide our steps. It is no lie that we can understand Scripture best when we “stand under” God’s word and allow it to mold our hearts, souls and minds. When the Word is read and interpreted, we share the experience of the people of Judah, who wept and rejoiced “because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (v. 12).
In every time and place, the uncensored word of God is our truth, and the joy of the Lord is our strength.