This weekend commemorates the 50th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall. Not a very pleasant anniversary, if you ask me. Certainly not something to celebrate. And yet the people of Germany are taking advantage of the occasion to remind themselves of a shameful episode in their history as a nation, to teach a new generation of Germans, Europeans and young people everywhere about the dark and harmful consequences of isolationism, elitism, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and to hold up the sacred memory of those women and men who valiantly perished fighting against what that wall stood for.
Human beings build walls for many different reasons. Some of you are familiar with the saying “good fences make good neighbors.” This viewpoint assumes a clearly defined boundary would give an individual a better working sense of self. Knowing where my property ends and yours begins encourages me to respect your right to privacy and self-determination, while expecting the same consideration for my rights. In a perfect world where everyone is mature, responsible and keenly aware of their rights and obligations, there would be no need of walls and fences. But we do not live in a perfect world. And we cannot honestly imagine everyone else is mature, responsible and fully aware of their rights and obligations. So we build walls and fences. We close the blinds and lock the doors. But these walls and fences should not prevent us from interacting with one another. We should still be cordial and pleasant, still be able to exchange greetings and engage in neighborly conversation. These kinds of walls or fences are meant primarily to define us and what belongs to us, for our own sake and for our neighbor’s sake, without judgment, without malice.
Another kind of wall is one that is meant to prevent the possibility of harm or destruction, or in the case where it is inevitable, to prevent greater harm or destruction. Several years ago, I returned to Columbus OH where I spent 4 years in graduate school. I noticed a new floodwall that had since been built in anticipation of what the locals call the hundred year flood. It seems every hundred years or so, the Ohio and Olentangy Rivers which snake through the city, overflow their banks causing much destruction and devastation. So the floodwall is a preventive measure. It is not intended to cause harm. It was not built to sow dissent or hinder anyone’s freedom. The floodwalls in New Orleans were built for the same exact reason. And their failure during Hurricane Katrina was all the convincing it took to rebuild them even higher and sturdier. When danger is not imminent, the local population is accustomed to ignore their presence entirely. Last year, we built a retaining wall on the property by my residence to prevent further soil erosion and make it easier to mow the lawn. It is a functional work of art. I think it serves a very good purpose, and is an inconvenience or danger to no one.
Some weeks ago, I saw a film after Saturday evening mass downstairs called “Budrus,” about the building of a wall along the so-called Green Line in the West Bank to separate Israel and Palestine in the wake of much violence in recent years. Israeli leaders came up with the idea to prevent suicide bombers from crossing in and causing great harm, killing and hurting innocent civilians. While their plan was born of great frustration, there was also much resentment, anger and malice in the mix. And not everyone was supportive of the project. It has been condemned by many Israelis and Palestinians alike, along with many foreign governments and peace activists. It seems a good fence can make good neighbors, but only if both sides welcome it.
Closer to home, a wall stands along the US-Mexico border, seemingly to halt the flow of illegal immigration. Unfortunately, there is also much resentment, anger and malice in people’s hearts. Most reasonable people on both sides of the wall know this is not the best solution to the problem. And while the wall stands, it continues to generate suspicion, anger and resentment. But will we be willing to find a better way?
The Apostle Paul was well aware that a wall stood between his own people and the church he loved dearly. He was first a devout Jew, who in his zeal persecuted the followers of Christ because he perceived them to undermine the purity of his people’s faith. But God had a different plan, and Paul was soon laboring with all his might to build the church he previously persecuted. With courage and energy, he first preached to his own people, hoping to help them see with new eyes. But they resisted, and in frustration he turned his efforts to the Gentiles. Yet Paul continued to believe that God would not turn his back on the children of Abraham, they who first heard God’s word. He believed that in God’s plan, their resistance made it possible for the Gentiles to accept the gift of faith and be reconciled to God. His heart broke for his people, but he firmly believed God desired their salvation as well.
When Jesus responded rudely to the Canaanite woman’s request, scripture commentators say he was simply spouting the party line. They were all convinced his mission was to bring salvation to Israel first. The walls that stood between this woman’s daughter and her healing were many and seemingly insurmountable. But because of her witness of faith, her humility, her persistence, her insistence, Jesus gave her what she asked for. And once again we glimpse the universality of his mission.
Even in the book of the prophet Isaiah, this dimension of God’s plan was not new. We believe God desires that all people be saved, Jews and Greeks, Christians and Muslims, fundamentalists and atheists, and everyone in between. God’s salvation is bestowed freely and will not be hindered by any walls. So in the new covenant, Jesus extends reconciliation and healing to all. But human beings do not always behave like God. So throughout the history of the church, we have continued to build walls to distinguish us from them, us who do things one way from them who do things another way, us who cling to any number of important articles of faith from them who couldn’t care less. We should be asking what God desires. “Observe what is right, do what is just,” we read from the prophet Isaiah. We really should be reaching out to our sisters and brothers who call on the same God as Father, who are partners with us in the same mission of reconciliation Jesus started, who are bearers of the same Spirit to renew the face of the earth. We might still need walls to define us and what belongs to us. But they cannot help us inflict harm on others. They cannot and should not perpetrate fear and anger and resentment. There is enough on the table that God desires to share with all his children. No one should be under the table like dogs scrounging for scraps.