Introduced as a major proposal during the 2016 Presidential campaign, and now continuing into the actual administration of Donald Trump, the construction of a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico stands as an unsettled, and unsettling, issue.
The whole matter is full of imponderables, challenges, and controversy, ranging from a wall’s ultimate effectiveness, feasibility, the message it sends about the nature of the United States, and of course its cost, and in that regard, most particularly who will bear that.
The appeal of a wall of the sort proposed along the Mexican border lies in its apparent quick, direct, decisive and absolute effectiveness in addressing a problem. Even presupposing that the problem is as generally articulated—something along the lines of quelling an unchecked flood of illegal immigrants, some portion of whom have either malign intentions against United States’ interests, or will become social parasites draining economic resources—there are questions to be asked about this pursuit.
The issue about this wall quickly moves to a larger context, which is the nature of walls in general, and whether in the instances they are employed, they are the most effective solution to a problem at hand.
There is another wall that became a reality in recent history, and that is the Berlin Wall. Memories quickly become foreshortened and with them the perspective of history can be lost. In regard to the Berlin Wall, however, people of a certain age, of which I am one, have firsthand recollections of the entire cycle of that structure, from its construction to its eventual dismantling, and this has left us with insights and understandings that may be relevant to the current situation.
In one basic aspect, the Berlin Wall was proposed, and in its case implemented, to serve the same purpose in mirror image as the one with Mexico, namely to keep one group of persons from one state, East Germany in that instance, from “illegally” migrating into another state, West Germany, although ironically its purpose was to keep people in rather than keep them out.
At the time when trucks and equipment moved in and barriers started going up on the border between the two halves of Berlin, the United States and other western natures were outraged at the actions of the East German government, with the shadow of the USSR behind them. This was all one of those plays of hand that took place on the larger backdrop of the ongoing Cold War between the US and USSR. Now much of the rest of the world is looking at the United States askance, as we are the ones contemplating a wall.
The impact of the Berlin Wall and the ferocity with which people fought against it was immense. Nightly newscasts included coverage of the numbers of people who through various acts of daring and subterfuge found a way over, through, around, or under that wall to escape to what they and we in the Western world perceived was the legitimate pursuit of persons seeking a life of freedom.
The wall was strengthened over time, concomitant with the East German government’s growing resolve to stop any human penetration, and thus the situation became increasingly dire. People who wanted freedom were driven to more and more desperate alternatives. News reports included instances of people jumping from upper windows of buildings on the eastern side into the arms of waiting crowds on western side. Parents even tossed children across the barrier this way. The effort to interdict became so fevered that eventually fleeing citizens were summarily shot dead by East German police or soldiers.
The message was clear: no one was to cross that wall, and any attempt to do so entailed life-threatening peril.
In time, the whole premise of that wall, namely forced conformity to a political point of view and literal entrapment within an authoritarian state, collapsed upon itself. The two Germanys, East and West, were eventually reunited, and with that, the Berlin Wall was no more.
Human Spirit Unshackled
The lesson of the Berlin Wall is that the human spirit cannot be bound to an ideology by a physical barrier. This example suggests that walls often reflect a last, desperate effort at forced control. Still, the resilience of the human will in this instance was shown to be more powerful than concrete or steel. Masses of citizens defied the bricks and cement and barbed wire erected by a State that sought to enforce conformity when it could not otherwise persuade.
We generally think of walls in physical terms, made of wood, stone, brick, castings, steel, whatever. There are emotional walls as well, though, that we all employ in our daily lives and these walls may reflect, like the Berlin Wall, a desperate effort to constrain what we cannot otherwise.
Such a situation showed itself in a recent media feed about a local shop owner in Tennessee who made national news when she published a personal response to the Women’s March in Washington and asked anyone who held sentiments sympathetic to the marchers to refrain from patronizing her establishment.
Her words were unchaste and relentlessly critical. She wrote, “The vulgarity, vile and evilness of this movement is absolutely despicable. That kind of behavior is unacceptable and is not welcomed at [my store].” She further stated, “As the owner of this business and a Christian, I have a duty to my customers and my community to promote values of mutual respect, love, compassion, understanding, and integrity.
The vehemence of her words, also containing as they do, a verbal assault on the moral integrity of a whole group of other persons, combined with a request to stay away from her store, are all evidence of a person who is erecting a wall to insulate herself from points of view that do not conform with her own.
That she identified herself a Christian, and in so doing inferred that her point of view was grounded in Christian precepts, reflects an increasingly common posture in our society, namely invoking Christianity as a way of elevating a person’s position to some unassailable level, as well as insulating it from any intellectual or moral challenge or objective accountability.
Some Christians, and it would appear this woman can be counted among them, understand faith in a narrow and self-congratulatory way that can present as rather smug, even prudish. They effectively use Christianity as a blind behind which they can issue intemperate judgements about other persons’ attitudes or lifestyles, or even their very natures, without being subject to contradiction, the premise being that proclamations of faith are not subject to rational challenge.
Such persons treat Christianity as a moral breastplate which they can set upon themselves, invoking their faith as a self-fashioned moral cudgel employed to demean, degrade, or disenfranchise others. This is reminiscent of the way a cross was used in plot lines of old horror movies to ward off a vampire, which would always recoil when a cross or crucifix was thrust at it.
Similar to the clerk in Kentucky who not so long ago thrust her religion before same sex couples as a rationale for denying them marriage licenses, this store owner seemed to presuppose that her positing herself as “a Christian” would position her above contradiction, reproach, or challenge. In short, it would serve as a wall of protection.
To whom, it might be asked, would this woman extend the “mutual respect, love, compassion, understanding, and integrity” she evokes as a Christian, if she excludes those who hold different views from hers?
Building Bridges as an Alternative
The story of Christianity is one that is peopled by a cast that includes many who are fallen, broken, lame, halt, or flawed, but above all who are striving to become more fully whole each day. The call of our faith is not to set up barriers of condemnation, but to gather all together, in the same spirit that Jesus invoked when he prayed “that they may all be one.” These very words are emblazoned on the logo of the United Church of Christ and serve there as a declarative statement that the gathered Church is intended to be a place of harmony, safety, and inclusivity for everyone.
Walls are simply not a Christian construct, but bridges are.
While walls divide and separate, bridges unite. Bridges promote interaction and interchange. Bridges provide channels for engagement and commerce.
In the realm of human interaction, bridges can lead, when employed, to better understandings of differences, and in that regard, ultimately promote more harmonious relationships between people.
Were that shop owner who disinvited proponents of the March on Washington from entering her establishment more conversant with the faith she lays claim to, she might have thought of the injunction in Isaiah which states, “Come, let us reason together, says the Lord.”
Rather than declare the threshold of her shop a barrier to other points of view, she could have treated it as a passageway, a virtual bridge, inviting those of different minds and attitudes to join together with her in a shared effort at an enhanced understanding of what it means to be “other,” or of another mind on a subject. That, I would posit, would reflect a more fully authentic expression of Christianity than the disdainful utterances she actually put forth. Ironically, building more walls can only result in more marches of the sort she reviled, while building bridges would do much to empower and enfranchise all people and thereby still the forces of repression that fuel such protests.