Us n Them

What do you all think of walls? Most of us have some walls. We all interact with walls in public and in private – our walls and city walls and other people’s walls – all day every day. What do walls do? Well, walls are architecture and they can be art. They divide up the human world into two categories that are relatively rare in the natural world – inside and outside.

Walls work best when applied exclusively to human space. Walls create bedrooms and houses, sanctuaries and schools – every familial, cultural, or practical space that you have ever enjoyed has been made possible in part by the application of walls. We’re surrounded by walls right now. We couldn’t be here without them. Walls help you to know you have arrived and they allow you to leave again and leave things behind to return to another time. Walls offer us greater freedom and life by organizing our privacy, our relationships, our work, and our time. Walls are rightly applied to space.

Walls should never be applied to people. Some walls, though they may divide up physical space just the same as any other wall, are built primarily to control and oppress people. Some walls keep us in. Other walls keep us out. Some walls keep them in, keep them out. And whether you’re standing on the inside or the outside, whether you built the wall or voted for the wall or funded the wall or not, walls used inappropriately can quickly begin to divide people up into us and them as surely as they divide space up into in and out.

In May, Noble Peace Prize recipient and President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, was asked by a reporter about the best way to tackle the drug crisis. He gave a thorough and nuanced answer about cooperation and collaboration with the United States – coming together. Unfortunately, he was asked this question at a joint press conference with the President of the United States, and so Trump got a chance to offer his two bits on the subject. He said, “That was a long and very diplomatic answer to your question. I will say it a little bit shorter: Walls work — just ask Israel. They work. Believe me.” Maybe Trump was referring to the West Bank barrier wall or maybe he was referring to the Gaza barrier fence, where just a month earlier, scores of people were killed and thousands were injured while protesting the Trump Administration. Either way, we all know, Trump thinks walls work. He doesn’t just apply them to borders, he applies them against certain people.

And let’s not be naive. Trump is right. The barriers along the West Bank and Gaza are working. They’re working for Israel’s right wing government and their supporters and allies. Under the right circumstances, walls work for the security of insiders – just as they have for thousands of years of human history. But do those barrier walls along the West Bank and Gaza work for the Palestinian people? Are the Palestinian people safer on the other side of Israel’s walls? Of course not. Walls divide space up into diametrical opposites – inside and outside. You can’t be in a room and out of that room at the same time. It’s impossible. Walls that are applied to people, divide people up into diametrical opposites – us and them. If the wall is working for us, it’s not working for them.

Well, if walls work, what about the Berlin Wall? It came down in 1989. Still, the Germans have a phrase “Mauer im Kopf” which means “the wall in the head” which refers to the lasting influence of the Berlin Wall – nearly thirty years later – on the minds and habits of Berliners and on the relationship between those who live in the Berlin that was once east of the wall and those who live in the Berlin that was once west of the wall. “The wall in the head” means that walls, when applied to people, are more than concrete, razor wire, and kill zones. The very real physical divider of the Berlin Wall became a very real psychological divider – east and west, us and them. Physical walls are torn down with sledgehammers and bulldozers. But how do you tear down a wall in the head?

Trump has said he wants to build a “great, great wall” along our Southern Border with Mexico, which might lead you to think that there is currently no wall along our southern border with Mexico. But, as I learned more from my summer reading “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail,” in fact, there are already now nearly 600 miles of physical barriers in place – walls and fences – reinforced in between with “virtual fences” – border patrol agents, cameras, and sensors – which funnel migrants into the most dangerous crossings – over deserts and rivers, assisted by guides (called coyotes) who are controlled by violent gangs of smugglers, kidnappers, and human traffickers. 

It is a dangerous final leg of a long and dangerous journey. Many people are literally running for their lives. The author of The Beast met three Honduran brothers attempting their second trip north. During their first trip they got a phone call that the gang that had been threatening them and caused them to flee had shot their mother dead in the street. They rushed home just in time to see her casket lowered into the ground, then turned around and headed north again.

It’s a journey that has claimed a lot of lives itself. The Beast (referring to a network of cargo trains) carries hundreds of thousands of migrants up through Mexico every year. And it shakes people off and chews them up – they fall off the trains, are run over on the tracks, or are attacked by bandits and kidnappers along the isolated routes.

Kidnappings are a huge problem. Every year in Mexico there are hundreds of officially reported mass kidnappings involving tens of thousands of migrant victims – and even the government agency tracking them admits that there are likely more unreported kidnappings than reported.

Every migrant risks their life, freedom, and life savings just to make it the US border to attempt a dangerous crossing. The remains of almost 3,000 migrants have been found in the Arizona dessert over the last 20 years. But the experts will tell you that a body left in the desert can be stripped down to bone by scavengers in a matter of days. Frequently, the remains found may just be a femur, a skull, a thumb bone. Many more bodies than have been found have simply disappeared into a desert which has been weaponized against migrants.

Border security is important and there should be some. But the worst part of the walls we already have on our southern border and that Trump is proposing that we build more of, is that these walls are being applied to people – to desperate migrants and refugees. And the walls that are supposed to be working for our border security – to stop drugs and terrorists and crime – are instead being used to decrease the safety of migrants – not because the migrants are dangerous, but simply because they are them, and we are us.

There’s some debate about who wrote the Letter to the Ephesians that we read this evening. Traditionally, it has been assigned to the Apostle Paul, but most modern biblical scholars now believe it was written by a follower or imitator of Paul – someone more conservative – some years after Paul’s death or that it contains some material original to Paul with additions made by an editor. The section we read this evening, however, I think, is right in line with what we might expect from Paul and his gospel.

The reason that you and I are sitting here today is because Paul, who was Jewish, believed that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the God of Abraham and Sarah had thrown open the border. He believed that everything good and true about the religion that he had devoted himself to for his whole life had now been universalized through Christ and was offered to all people. And Paul traveled the length and breadth of the Gentile world as he knew it – the Empire of Rome, the Empire of the haves and have nots, the Empire of walls, divisions, and crucifixions, the Empire of religious and political loyalty to Divine Caesar – and Paul preached from the Empire’s borderlands to the capital itself, “Christ has torn down the dividing wall that was once between us. Christ has broken the law for all of us. Christ has made us all citizens.”

And everywhere Paul went in the Roman Empire he organized people into churches that lived not by Roman rules about who was in and who was out, but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that says, we’re all in this together. Churches were then and are now little cells of human resistance, little seeds of the Realm of God, where Christ followers learn to welcome all people in as if we were living in a world entirely without walls.

Beloved, Jesus Christ can tear down the wall in the head. Our job is to tear down the real world walls – be they made of bricks, or laws, or policies, or privilege – that make us feel better, but that oppress our sisters, our brothers, our siblings. Our job is to risk the faith of living in a world without walls. Amen.