“The Walls We Build”
I remember the feeling of the place like it was yesterday. Oppressive. Scary. Dangerous. It was 1986 and I was in Berlin, moving through the checkpoint to pass from West to East, from free society to Communist society. I was one of a group of youth and young adult members of the United Church of Christ traveling through Eastern Bloc countries that summer. We audaciously called ourselves a peace delegation, connecting with peace groups and local (mostly “underground”) congregations in that Cold War era when peace and organized religion were both scarce.
The Berlin Wall through which we passed that day stood 12 feet high and 96 miles long, a bulwark of bricks and barbed wire and stern soldiers with guns at the ready. The East Germans built it in 1961 to staunch the tide of Eastern Bloc defections to West Berlin and western Europe beyond it. But still people fled, over the wall and under it, at risk of their lives, in search of freedom and new possibility for their lives.
Thirty-one years later, I stood at the foot of another wall with eleven other members of the Minnesota Conference in January of this year. The “separation barrier”, as the Israelis refer to it, snakes through this Holy Land, separating the occupied West Bank from Israel. This concrete wall stands as high as 26 feet, and will be 440 miles long once completed. The State of Israel began construction on this wall during the Second Intifada (late 2000) as a security measure to stem the surge in violence. But the effect of this wall has been far more complex. Its checkpoints daily diminish the dignity and rights of Palestinians. It separates Palestinians from precious access to water, from their fields, from essential services like medical care, and from loved ones. And this wall largely prevents normal, everyday interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby further eroding the possibility for healthy relationships that could lay a stronger foundation for peace.
Now in our own country, there’s talk of building a wall at our southern border with Mexico. The stated plan is to build a wall 1300 miles long and 40 feet high (at least 600 miles of fencing already exists along our border with Mexico) at an estimated cost of at least $10 billion, or about $7.4 million per mile. The intent of this wall would be to keep out illegal immigrants, a costly reaction to increasing xenophobia and irrational fears. Whether it gets built, who will pay for it, and what the real and human costs of such a wall would remain to be seen.
Walls. The world is apparently obsessed with them these days. A New York Times article (Tom Vanderbilt, “The Walls in our Heads”) reported back in November that there are “actually more border walls [today] than during the most tense periods of the Cold War… According to the geographer Elisabeth Vallet, there are more than 50 border walls in the world today; 15 were built last year alone.”
Walls, it seems, are an increasingly popular response to intensely complex social and political realities. But what can we say about walls from the perspective of our faith?
Our own scriptures give us evidence that societies have always been fascinated with walls. The walls of Jericho were purportedly built to provide safety and security, to keep out unwanted foreign elements, especially those fleeing unrest and harm in other places. Then there were the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s great building project, part of a larger work to restore Jerusalem to a place of strength and vigor, in part by keeping out foreign aggressors.
But the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and Jerusalem remains a conflicted, unsettled place to this day. Those ancient walls turned out to be inadequate responses to anxiety-filled times, symbols of power and might that failed to effectively address deeper problems and questions.
Walls are designed to keep people out, to send a message that those outside of our walls are not welcome while those inside the walls have all we need. And yet we’re called by our faith, from the prophets to the example of Jesus and the words of the apostles, to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We’re commissioned not to build walls but to break them down.
Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:13-14)
The politicians will wrangle about their dreams of high and mighty walls. But let us, as people of faith, persist in our own dreams of a far more excellent way……….a way of hospitality and welcome and unobstructed love.
Your partner on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister