If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Broken Walls, Crossed Borders: a meditation on Ephesians 2:12-22

In Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall he quotes an American aphorism “Good fences make good neighbors.” In this truism, or should I say “falsism,” fences, borders, walls are believed to create good relationships. This may be true for some middle-class families living in the suburbs, who don’t want their gardens trampled on by their neighbor’s dog, but it is generally not the case with walls that divide communities, nations, and cultures.

Often walls are created out of fear of our neighbor or the need to control. The wall that runs through Israel-Palestine is one such wall. It is a wall erected not only by fear of terrorist attacks, but for re-appropriating and controlling Palestinian land for Israel’s advantage. A recent edition of National Geographic magazine, Charles Bowden in his feature article on the U.S./Mexico border wall, said:

Borders everywhere attract violence, violence prompts fences, and eventually fences can mutate into walls. Then everyone pays attention because a wall turns a legal distinction into a visual slap in the face. We seem to love walls, but are embarrassed by them because they say something unpleasant about the neighbors—and us. They flow from two sources: fear and the desire for control. Just as our houses have doors and locks, so do borders call forth garrisons, customs officials, and, now and then, big walls. They give us divided feelings because we do not like to admit we need them.

Just like many U.S. employers do not like to admit that they need immigrant workers. Not long a go a California construction company with a contract to build a 14 mile stretch of wall between San Diego and Tijuana was fined 5 million dollars for using undocumented Mexican workers to build the wall that was supposed to keep them out! How ironic! It only reflects the economic realities of the U.S. and Mexico that the wall does not solve.

Borders and walls can serve as metaphors for exploring the boundaries and landscapes of human differences, personal identities, and the clash of cultures. Gloria Anzaldua, a chicana feminist, in her book Borderlands: La Frontera uses the metaphor of the border to explore how conceptual boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and sexual orientation create limits that when transgressed cause one to be labeled as unacceptable or an outsider.

The writer of Ephesians uses the metaphor of the wall to describe the religio-cultural differences that separated Jew from Gentile. This dividing wall was symbolized by the differing views of the Jew and Gentile Christians concerning “the law with its ordinances.” The law served as a type of border between these two cultures and people groups. The law defined the borderland of Jewishness through prescribed ways of eating, drinking, socializing, working, praying, worshipping, ritualizing, and being family. Public association of Jews with Gentiles was a questionable activity. This “border document,” so to speak, created a social consciousness of who was in and who was out. Walls and borders are intended to divide people and to keep their separate identities clear.

The Gentiles, who lived on the other side of this Jewish border or law, did not recognize the border as valid for them. Because they did not observe Jewish purity laws, the Gentiles were technically labeled as “unclean.” The temple of Solomon even had literal walls constructed within it that separated Jews from Gentiles, Jewish men from Jewish women, and the priests from the Holy of Holies. Within this sacred space walls reinforced their social divisions. Sacred space, temple, church, religion reflecting the social and national walls that divide people? Surely that doesn’t happen today in our world.

Walls create hostility and violence. Charles Bowden, in his National Geographic article described walls as “attracting violence.” The writer of Ephesians describes the border wall between Jew and Gentile with the term “hostility.” There was no real peace between the two sides of the Jew/Gentile border.

“Christ is our peace,” says the writer of Ephesians. He has broken down the border wall that created hostility between the Jew and Gentile. Did Christ just break these walls down, as the text says, “through the blood of the cross?” Not just in the cross. Jesus broke these walls down when he ate with tax-collectors and sinners, when he met in a public space with a Samaritan woman, when he touched lepers, when he was willing to learn a lesson about ethnic prejudice from a Syro-Phoenician woman, when he sent his disciples across the border into Samaritan land, as he related to a Roman centurian. Jesus was a border-crosser, a boundary breaker, a social transgressor.

The law, as a social, religious, and cultural boundary-maker between the two groups, was removed in Christ. Gentiles no longer needed to become law-observing Jews to be accepted. So, in Christ there was no longer two separate groups, but one new humanity, thus making peace. When we see people from different cultures, nations, people from across social, racial, economic, and national borders as part of one humanity, there is the possibility for creating a theological foundation for peace.

Christ came and proclaimed peace to those on both sides of the border, people divided by literal walls and walls of the heart. In Christ there is a new creation without borders and boundaries. The borders make some people strangers, aliens, illegal, and non-citizens. In Christ we “are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”

This new reality of Christ’s community, that transcends borders and boundaries, shapes a different understanding and practice around borderlands and boundaries. In Christ’s new community labels like “hostility,” “illegal” and “alien” have been replaced with words like “peace,” citizens,” “saints,” “members of the household of God,” “sisters and brother.” Words and walls that separate and divide have been torn down. Christ is our peace, who has broken down the dividing walls.

Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall, begins with the line: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. Let me be so bold as to say, “There is someone that doesn’t love a wall.” That someone is Christ. Whether it be in Israel/Palestine, the U.S./Mexico border, or the borderlands of the heart. Christ is a wall crasher, a boundary breaker, a border crosser. Daniel Smith-Christopher goes so far as to call Christ a “good coyote,” one who helps others to cross borders. Christ is with us here…. helping us to cross borders of the land, of the mind, of the heart, and of the soul. Christ is our peace, who has broken down the dividing walls.

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