I tuned in the live streaming a couple times this past week, just to check in on our flock. I didn’t actually see our group, though I’m sure they were there somewhere! I did see one fine speaker after another, young, and, well, mostly young, who were telling their faith stories – black, white and brown, gay and straight, differently-abled and modestly famous, all, citizens with the saints, all feeling a part of, included in on, not only this particular assembly, but the wider journey our God calls us to, in Christ Jesus. “For he is our peace,” Paul preached to both Jews and Gentiles, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
“All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purposes of God,” as Kevin Baker, a pastor from North Carolina has said.
Some time ago, when I lived in Europe in 1977-78, I took more pictures of old city walls and stone farm fences than anything else. I was fascinated by them! I’m not sure why to this day, exactly, but something about how old they are and how long they’ve stood – the unique way they define an urban space and farming field, a stoic silent beauty? the wise use of resources and many ways to repurpose them over the centuries? Tour guides, and locals agree, that city walls were often made for defense against intruders, whether armies, or wild animals. I never thought to ask, at the time, if the wall was built after a city was first attacked, or if because the wall was made, attackers then came to find out what was inside?!
Why do we put up walls? “All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purposes of God.” St. Paul was certain that central to the mission of Jesus was the breaking down of walls that divide us – a kind of one man wrecking crew.
I find it curious that the same year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and we watched the jubilant students and others dancing on its rubble, both citizens of east and west peacefully united once again, citizens of this country began building the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Theologian Ched Myers uses this contradictory image to point out the obvious: such “border walls reminds us that there have always been two Americas,” he says, “one of inclusion and one of exclusion… [which] continually compete for our hearts and minds, not least in our churches. The America of inclusion,” Myers says, “is the only hope for democracy; the America of exclusion, as Lincoln’s ultimatum about a ‘house divided’ warned 150 years ago, is unsustainable.”
That’s exactly what I told my brother-in-law a few years ago, as the wall in Israel was being built. He believed the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force’s official line, which calls it a security fence. I’ve seen it – an immense fence of poured concrete, that is taller than either of the Berlin or the US-Mexico walls. And although security is certainly an issue for Israeli’s, this wall is not just built on their property to make good neighbors, but winds its way into and around Palestinian towns on the West Bank, separating families, one from a another, people from their jobs, and creates opportunities for daily abuse at check points for those having to cross from one side to the other. Palestinians have many names for it, dividing wall, is just one of the more polite ones!
This wall, I told my brother-in-law, cannot stand, it is unsustainable. It will come down, because, just like the one on our southern border with our brothers and sisters in Latin America, it’s not built on a moral or ethical cornerstone. These walls are built on the America and Israel of exclusion. Please note that I’m not talking about the Jewish faith or people, just like I’m not talking about the spirit of the American people in particular, but about governments and those who exclude on the basis of race, ethnicity and economic status. A growing number of Israeli and American Jews are also opposed to their security fence. These kinds of walls are corruptible, no matter where in the world they are built, walls that cannot stand.
Rick Steves, of all people, that golden-boy, travel-guide-expert of PBS fame, has noted about the walls which I love so well from medieval Europe, especially the tidy yet simple farming ones – that they were constructed without any mortar in them, on purpose, so that they could be dismantled and redrawn in new ways as needed. I always wondered why that was! They’re not exactly portable to our way of thinking, but the point remains the same, that the walls’ purpose was to be flexible, to redraw the new reality on the social scene, which inevitably would arise.
Jesus, our cornerstone, was a wandering preacher, an alien in his own land, a peasant who crossed over borders, something like a Leer jet flying international flights, looking down at the border-free globe, that is the world we all live in. As one of us, Jesus welcomed the stranger and alien, healing the sick and preaching good news, to Gentiles, as well as Jews. He dined with rich rulers, and sat on the grass with 5,000 hungry commoners to eat fish and bread. Jesus celebrated Passover in Jerusalem at the Temple’s holy site, but offered himself up as a new border-free temple, that would rise and live in us, a portable, border-less new construct, a church who are the people, and who claim the power of the Holy Spirit, poured out in his name.
What are the walls we build up today, the walls that divide, instead of welcome and unite? What are the walls we construct even in our minds, our short-sightedness, that create barriers which we think we need to defend, welcoming conflict and violence, instead of new life and the hospitality of table and meal? I wonder, for example, where the wall is between the north side and south side of Chicago? Where exactly is the fence, the edifice that separates us? And yet, how often we take it for granted that it exists? What else is this wall but exclusion by privilege, discrimination and racism? A wall enforced by banks’ red-lining, by poorly funded schools and social services, and food deserts.
“All walls serve a purpose, but not all walls serve the purpose of God.” And so, the reason we welcome the alien isn’t just to be nice, and not even because it is a command. We welcome the stranger and alien because Jesus, a one man wrecking crew, has broken down the walls that separate us, the very walls that lead to hostilities between us, as Paul said. This is the purpose of God, to create one new humanity in place of [a world divided].
And so what a beautiful step forward it was that the President announced last month, in the Dream-Act-like directive from the Department of Homeland Security, not to deport undocumented college students. Not a fix for our broken immigration system, but a move in the right direction – a welcoming provision for those who came to this country at an early age as, saints along with the citizens, we might say – certainly a breaking down of the walls of division, and, making a way to overcome the hostility between us.
The biblical provision, from Abraham to Jesus, to welcome the stranger and alien who were from beyond their borders, was not just an act of kindness, though it was surely that, but was a way of putting aside differences that all too often in every culture, then and now, lead to hostilities, as Paul described it. The Homeland Security Department of that time, realized that the peace we all desire is best accomplished through bridge-building rather than dividing walls. Walls that are built on exclusion cannot stand. But living on the cornerstone of a new creation in Christ, we are all citizens with the saints, living the dream God would have us live – connecting us up with one another, as we are at this peaceful table of celebration, in the meal of reconciliation, where we banquet with all the saints.