If there is something that doesn’t love a wall, as Robert Frost wrote – something in the frost heaves that topples the carefully stacked stones or in God who transcends our stubborn divisions – there’s also something in us that loves them dearly. We may deny it; as Christians we may embrace the message of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us (2 Cor. 5:19); but our work to dismantle the walls that divide the human family usually goes only so far, seldom far enough to break through our favorite ones.
Walls have been with us almost as long as we’ve been human. According to the sacred story, we had barely begun to enjoy our original place in God’s perfect creation when we forgot who we were and bit into a dualistic way of looking at life. We started seeing life in terms of good and evil, right and wrong, things to be valued and accepted and things to be devalued and rejected. The price we paid was losing our place in paradise, losing the purity of an original, naïve relationship with the source of life. We’ve been struggling with it ever since (Gen. 2:17; 3:22-23).
Consider a few of the walls that divide us. There are walls of economic and racial privilege that shape community development, separating enclaves of the wealthy from ghettos of the poor and controlling access to health care, nutrition, education, transportation, immigration, jobs. Or consider the walls of religious differences that show up in world conflicts, conflicts that some are happy to describe as religious wars, mainly between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They’re not really conflicts between religious traditions; they’re conflicts between cultural values, ethnic traditions, and political prejudices that masquerade as religious differences.
And there’s the wall of national chauvinism we’ve erected at our borders, by which, subtly but surely, we define ourselves as especially virtuous and deserving of the world’s wealth and other nations as at least slightly less deserving. That’s why we’re willing to accumulate such disproportionate economic, political, and military power. That’s why we’re willing to define someone else as the “enemy” and maintain impregnable defensive walls that keep us apart.
There are lots of other walls we like to maintain, the final one, and perhaps the toughest one to crack, being the wall between heaven and hell, between those who, we think, will live forever at home with God and those who, we think, will be forever excluded from a home with God. It’s an old way of thinking, but not the oldest, and not the most recent.
In the oldest tradition of our faith, there was no wall between good and evil, right and wrong, the ins and the outs. In the beginning those opposites existed side by side as parts of the original whole of creation. God saw everything that was made, every aspect of life and every person, and said, “that’s good.” God created a time and place for every opposite: birth and death, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, loving and hating – you know the list. God made everything suitable for its time (Eccles. 3:1-8, 11).
But we humans couldn’t stand it, I guess, and pretty soon we started dividing things up, including the human family. Some came to think of themselves as God’s chosen people and all the rest as the unchosen. Some people built a wall, with Jews at home on the inside and everyone else on the outside, without hope.
It went on that way until someone understood that all the brokenness dividing the human family was a thing of the past and all the walls were coming down. That someone was Jesus of Nazareth. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased St. Paul, “The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance.” (Eph. 2:14 The Message).
Did you get that? Have you heard the good news? Everyone is at home with God, everyone now has a place at home with God. Even those who are “without God” (Eph. 2:12) – atheos is the word Paul uses: “godless,” a term of disparagement and contempt – even the godless ones who threaten the well-being of society now have a place at the table of grace along with all the righteous. Nobody gets left out. As Rob Bell famously said a couple of years ago: Love wins, and nobody stays in hell forever.
Our job as Christians is to take that message to the world. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). It’s our God-given commission to stand in places like Charleston and Chattanooga and say to the world: This conflict ends here, with me; these walls that separate us are coming down here and now. We will not meet violence with violence; we won’t even meet violence by hiding behind any wall.
It’s not in the power of most of us to stop a terrorist attack like the one in Chattanooga last week, much less to heal the causes of the global conflicts that give rise to such attacks. But it is in my power, and it’s in your power, to step out from behind the walls that isolate us from someone else, someone we don’t understand, someone we may fear.
It’s in my power to seek out one person in the Muslim community, or one member of a racial minority, or one person lost in the wilderness of poverty, and start building a relationship of understanding and respect. It’s in my power to stop reading the news through the filter of fear and start reading it with hope and a desire for understanding and an active commitment to reconciliation. I may not take down a whole wall, but maybe I can remove one brick, or maybe I can chip away a little bit of mortar.