The creators of the worship materials for Peace Sunday this year invite us to ponder walls, under the theme: Destroying the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.
Walls shape lives in dramatic ways. Some walls are built to keep out and some walls are built to keep in. The Great Wall of China was built over a period of centuries to keep out nomadic invaders from the north. The wall along the US border with Mexico is a series of literal walls, fences, and vehicle barriers which have been recently constructed with the expressed purpose of keeping illegal immigrants out of our country. This fence currently spans about 650 of the 2000 miles of the US/Mexican border (citation HERE). There are also hundreds of miles of desert that act as a natural barrier for immigrants.
The Berlin wall was put up by the government of East Germany to keep the communists of East Berlin in, from fleeing over into West Berlin. The walls of prisons around our nation are intended to keep prisoners in. This year the number of African American males in prison in the US rose to be a higher number than the total of African American males who were slaves in the US in 1850, before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. (citation HERE) Let that one sink in for a bit. I also saw an article (HERE) this week that one year at Princeton costs $37,000 and one year at a New Jersey state prison costs $44,000. College and prison are two exact opposite life paths, and prison is the more costly of the two is so many ways.
In talking about walls I’m struck that even a short description of what a wall is causes one to start making interpretations about the wall. It depends, no doubt, which side of a wall one is on. Are these walls for security? Are they an injustice? Do they divide, or protect? Does the wall being built by Israel in Palestinian territory make Israel safer from terrorists? Is it a prison for Palestinians? If the answer is ‘Yes’ to both of these questions, is that something we’re willing to live with?
A famous wall in poetry is the one spoken of by Robert Frost in his poem, Mending Wall. It begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He goes on to describe the annual ritual he and his neighbor have of mending the wall in the field and woods between their two properties, placing the fallen stones back in a place, “to each the boulders that have fallen to each.” The neighbor says, “good fences make good neighbors,” but the poet wonders out loud if this is really the case. He muses: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
One of my favorite walls in the world is the south facing wall in the house where Abbie grew up and where her parents still live. Abbie’s dad designed and built the house when he was in his mid 20’s, an impressive feat in itself. This wall is made up mostly of windows, and overlooks the yard, and the field beyond. The south facing glass gives a great view of the outdoors, but what’s really spectacular about it is the way it relates to the sun. In the summer, the sun is high enough in the sky that the roof overhang shades it from shining directly into the house, but in the winter, when the sun is low in that clear Kansas sky, the light, and heat, pour into the house. I have been in this house in the dead of winter for a week straight without the furnace ever kicking on during the day. You know you’ve got a sweet wall when it’s ten degrees and windy outside, and you’re opening up a window because it’s too hot in the house from all the free solar heat. I’d like to have me one of those kinds of walls some day.
David Korten, one of the founders of YES! Magazine, gives another perspective on walls. He calls it “The Principle of Permeable Boundaries” (The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, p. 293 ff.). He observes that one of the great innovations of life is the development of an outer membrane, a wall, a skin, that is both protective and permeable. For any living thing to maintain its strength and integrity it must have this outer surface which gives it definition and allows certain things in and certain things out. A cell wall protects it from pathogens in the body. The biosphere over time has developed “boundaries provided by oceans, mountains, and climatic zones to exclude invasive species not acculturated to the established community.” We’ve got some honeysuckle growing all over the fences in our backyard that has breached that wall and is wreaking havoc on the forests in our part of the country. These living walls/skin have this protective aspect, but every cell, every organ, every body, every house, every organization or political structure also has porous, permeable skin that allows it to make use of energy flows and maintain its own health. We breath, we eat, we exchange ideas, we don’t shut ourselves off completely from the world. We let the sun come through to warm up the place. These organic walls serve not to isolate us from the world and others from us, but to help regulate healthy relationships. David Korten says, “Successful living entities protect their borders not out of selfishness but out of a need to maintain their internal integrity and coherence and to assure that exchanges with their neighbors are balanced and mutually beneficial.” (p. 293)
This kind of thinking can be helpful to us if we think about it in terms of our current immigration situation in our country. Over the last couple decades our country has pursued a series of free trade agreements, which essentially is a removal of walls, a removal of regulations, and making more porous of the economic skin between us and other nations. With these trade agreements, each nation, each unique living political body, has less control over its internal decision making in how it manages exchanges that are mutually beneficial. OK. So some walls are brought down, fair enough, but then we get troubled when people seek to cross borders through immigration to seek the wellbeing of their families. So we put up walls to keep them out and protect our own internal integrity. It’s a contradictory in many ways. We tear down certain walls, but put up other walls, and the living organism which is our relationship with our global neighbors gets drained of its vitality, losing its integrity. And we enter a state of spiritual poverty. One could argue that we should have many walls for economic exchange and many walls for immigrants, or one could argue that we should have very few walls for economic exchange and very few walls for immigrants, but it’s hard to make a just argument for no trade walls and high immigrant walls.
The biblical witness gives stories where walls are celebrated and stories where the destruction of walls are celebrated. The walls of Jericho pose the first major obstacle to the Israelite people as they head out of their time of desert wondering, into the promised land. It took a serendipitous encounter with a helpful prostitute, a seven day march around the city, and a final blow of the trumpets and loud shout from the people, but those walls of Jericho famously came a tumblin’ down.
When the Jews were returning to Judah from their Babylonian and Persian exile, they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had been living in a Persian capital city of Susa and receives word from Jews who had escaped back to Jerusalem. The message was: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). After weeping and mourning this fact, Nehemiah prays for his people, and receives permission from the Persian king to return to Jerusalem to lead the project of rebuilding the wall. The rebuilding of the wall is also a rebuilding of the morale and faith of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, leading to a greater influx of exiles into the restored city. At the rededication of the wall, the book of Nehemiah records: “They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (12:43). In their zeal to restore their culture and worship and stake out a clear identity as a people, Nehemiah also records that they separated out from themselves all those of foreign descent, and that the sons and daughters were forbidden from marrying a foreigner, and even those men who had married foreign wives while in captivity had to send those wives and their children away. And so as one wall is built and celebrated, we are given a picture of other, less visible walls also being set up, less worthy of celebration.
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians speaks of another kind of less visible wall. He calls it “the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The us to which he refers are those two groups which make up the primary us/them hostility in the biblical story, Jews and Gentiles. The people of God and the outsiders. The good news that this writer is preaching is that this wall of hostility and alienation, the entire edifice of the us/them divide of humanity – Jew/Gentile, native/immigrant, patriot/enemy – has been utterly destroyed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
The mechanism by which we have continually built and maintained this wall is to create a “them” and therefore give “us” an identity. We have trouble understanding who we are if we don’t have the “other” to define ourselves over and against. It is a mechanism where each side actually needs the other to be other in order to keep going on. If we have no enemy to pursue, if we have no other to condemn, if we have no outsider to exclude, we don’t have any way of making sense of the world.
Jesus the Christ is conscious of this mechanism, this wall, this rut that has kept humanity divided against itself and therefore divided from God. And so he does something rather unexpected, even by his closest followers. He chooses to occupy the place of the other, the outcast, the condemned, the crucified, and in doing so, reveals the whole system as a sham. Now rather than Jew and Gentile casting each other out and making the other be on the outside, both Jew and Gentile are on the inside together, looking out on the crucified Christ, who is occupying the place of shame. And the foolishness of the mechanism of hostility and the us/them divide falls apart. And in the gospel story, rather than the outsider, the crucified one, seeking vengeance, this other seeks peace. “Peace be with you” are the words of the risen Christ. The endless cycle of hostility has been broken. The writer of Ephesians says, “So Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him, we have access in one Spirit to the Holy One.” Our spiritual captivity to perpetual hostility has been broken. In Christ, the dividing walls have come down and Jew and Gentile are, as Ephesians says, “one new humanity.”
The writer of Ephesians begins by focusing on the negative aspect of walls and proclaims that Christ has removed the dividing wall of hostility and created a new humanity of which the church is a sign. No more walls. But then, he returns to the image of a wall, giving it a positive, redeemed quality. He writes, “So then, you are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
Here is an entirely different kind of wall. A wall made up of people, members of the new humanity, being built, linked together, on top of the foundation of the apostles and Christ himself, as a spiritual household. A building. A protective, sheltering, structure. A safehouse. A home of hospitality and warmth. The ideal permeable boundary of loving relationships, letting in hope and mercy, letting out justice and reconciliation. And who dwells inside this house, whose walls are made up of us?
We are a part of the holy temple of God, who inhabits our relationships, and dances in the mortar joints of the house of peace.