Something Doesn't Like a Wall
I’ve been thinking about walls here at the turn of the year. They have been growing taller and appearing more frequently in public discourse again.The Berlin Wall went up at a soaring 12 feet when I was young. The “peace wall” in Ireland is 20 feet of concrete plus barbed wire. And the wall running through the Palestinian territory in the West Bank is 25+ feet of concrete that will run hundreds of miles when complete. That is a lot of space for the artist Banksy to fill (see the Dove). They all came/come with guns and signals of violent conflict.
Big walls have been around a long time, but so have the critics. Chief among them is Robert Frost, who penned the problem of walls in one of his more well-known New England moments (“Mending Wall”):
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Walls take many forms. Several years ago now, a creative pastor in Geneva, Switzerland built a wall in her worship space out of wine crates to represent how walls work in our lives, how we keep things in or out, how walls provide both opportunities to keep things sorted and unintended negative consequences. That was an inspiration to us when working with apple crates in a sermon text workshop here at Gettysburg Seminary, our “wall” led us to think about how crucial immigrants have been to the local fruit industry and how damaging the rhetoric on immigrants has been over these last months. Here on the cusp of Epiphany, we know that the three Magi would have faced a huge wall assuming that they would have likely traveled to Bethlehem via Jerusalem. Their experience at the checkpoints in the West Bank would have derailed the pilgrimage.
Ultimately, walls fail to bring security. The frost heaves topple them. People grow tired of them, and exert an overpowering will for peace, and they crumble. In an ironic twist, an engineering partnership at Disney-EHT Zurich have announced (in Berlin) a robot named VertiGo that can climb walls with agility extending “the ability of robots to travel through urban and indoor environment.” The prospect for the effectiveness of walls gets dimmer every day, and failure is inevitable.
That is what happens to the large scale attempts to wall off people, nations, and neighbors. But perhaps the most dangerous walls of all are the ones that you cannot see. These are the ones we erect in our heads and hearts, the ones that spring from instinctual fear, the ones that make it difficult to have a rational, let alone merciful national conversation about immigrants and refugees, of freedom of movement and diversity. These walls continue to stimulate fear that separates the races, and the cultures that are increasingly signaling religious pluralism in a land that was designed to accommodate it. We retired the legal status of “separate but equal” a long time ago, but it did not make those invisible walls disappear.
What would be more secure and stronger than a wall? Probably a lot of things, but most obviously happy, respectful neighbors who value peace forge quite a bond. It would work wonders in the Middle East. And thanks to the present primary season of the American campaign for the presidency, the subject matter will be coming to a place near you in North America.
Credit for illustrations: Two paintings by Banksy