People like walls. Walls make people feel safe. People have formed the impression that by keeping Them out, letting Them be with Their own kind, and by keeping Us sheltered inside, everybody can live in peace and harmony. As long as everybody stays on their own side of the wall, everything will be okay. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that simply. People never stay where they are put. As the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side. Mimetic desire is rooted deep in the fabric of the human psyche; there is always the suspicion that somebody somewhere else might have a bigger or better piece of the pie. And they are not sharing. Much of what constitutes leadership nowadays seems to consist of persuading people that Others want Our pie (Our pie is demonstrably superior and so We have no need to covet our neighbour’s pie), or – where the Other pie undeniably promises greater deliciousness – that They obtained said pie by nefarious means and that We are, in fact, not only entitled to retrieve it, but honour bound to do so. We expend enormous amounts of energy, fashioning logically dubious rationalisations to convince ourselves that what is on Our side of the wall is superior and what is on the Other side is dangerous. Often that means choosing to be blind to Our own vices or to Their virtues. We convince Ourselves that perhaps it is the primitive nature of Their culture, the twisted nature of Their values or the perverted nature of Their desires, but for some reason, They just cannot seem to grasp that They are NOT, in fact, entitled to what is rightfully Ours. They won’t take “no” for an answer. More inexplicably yet, They accuse Us of the same thing! So We have to make Them understand. We have to teach Them a lesson.
Walls have been a part of human interaction throughout our history. It is no coincidence, then, that violence has too; walls, invariably, promote violence. They do so because they fuel mimetic rivalry. Now by “walls” I don’t only mean the brick and mortar constructions that Trump wants to erect along the U.S. border with Mexico. I mean the type of walls that custom and popular rhetoric had long ago erected, for which Mr Trump is merely a mouthpiece, and which make the physical expressions of them, as proposed by Mr Trump, quite superfluous. I mean laws – either formalised or unspoken – that divide people of different cultures, religions, genders, sexual orientations, political orientation, race, or socio-economic classes. I mean the ideological banners that We raise, under which We congregate, by which We separate Ourselves from Them. I mean the way We weaponise Our sacred texts to rally people to Our cause, to divide the Acceptable from the Wicked. Too frequently We are blind to the evil inherent in Our violence – whether systemic, psychological or physical – because Our actions are performed in the name of Justice and Holiness. We erroneously conclude that walls promote peace, that by fighting to maintain them, we preserve the common good. But no matter how noble the cause, violence only ever begets violence. The only possible outcome from a way of violence is death.
But I don’t think that God is in the business of building or maintaining walls. In fact, I think that one of the foundational principles of Christianity (and other religions, too, but I am not nearly qualified enough to speak on behalf of them) is that we should be bulldozing them down. Critics of the way Christianity is practised are correct to reject claims of exclusivity. When Jesus claims to be the Way, the truth and the life, he is not erecting another wall. He is envisaging a world where they are broken down. He is making the radical claim that we have, as a people, two choices: to continue to live as we always have, behind our walls, fearful and blind, the outcome of which history has demonstrated over and over (and over) again can only be bloodshed; or we can choose love and forgiveness, the narrow path that few find. Only at the end of that path can we find the fullness of life God desires for us.
The early church understood this. It is why Paul maintains, in Galatians 3:28, that in Christ there is no male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. In other words, no walls. Stop and ponder the full ramifications of this teaching: NO WALLS. Any time your interpretation of Paul’s theology leads you to discriminate on the basis of gender or class or race or religion, understand that you are not being faithful to the interpretation of his theology that found expression in the lived reality of the churches he founded. The early church lived without walls. They shared all they had with one another. Their criteria for membership completely ignored political and racial and cultural and gender barriers. In fact, attempts by the Jerusalem church to impose distinctly Jewish cultural norms on the church as a whole was the reason Paul branded their teaching as opposed to the gospel (read his letter to the Galatians).
I don’t think we have given enough consideration to Paul’s radical theology. We have misread him to be preoccupied with personal salvation from sins, but the thrust of the argument in every one of his letters is never how to purchase a ticket to heaven; it is always about how we ought to relate to one another in Christ. Can I paraphrase his gospel? In Christ, class, gender, cultural, even religious divisions have no place. No wonder Jesus said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. A world without walls is bound to arouse anger and terror in those who have learned to view the world exclusively from the lonely ramparts of their castles. In the place of the isolation of our fortifications, Jesus offers the table as a meeting place, with the bread of his own broken body as the reminder of why castles do not – cannot – work.
A dear friend of mine shared this story with me, which I think illustrates the point beautifully. Please meditate on it:
A visitor to an Australian outback cattle ranch was intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of farming country with no sign of any fences. He asked a local rancher how he kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, “Oh, that’s no problem. Out here we dig wells instead of building fences.”
The implications should be obvious, but in case they are not, let me say this: a peaceful and just society does not require walls. Actually, it necessitates that we demolish them and allow people to congregate around abundant sources of nourishment. Jesus compels us to envisage a different way of relating to God and to one another, based not on walls and laws and restrictions, but on freedom centred around the promise of abundant life.
Jesus did not build a fence. He dug a well. You, who call yourself his disciple, go and do likewise.