“The cost of a wall, whether physical or philosophical, is always too high.”
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” — from “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Each year, over 10 million people visit the Great Wall of China. The most recent studies have calculated its total combined length at 21,196 km, making it the longest man-made structure in the world. It has also been called the longest cemetery on earth. It is estimated that more than one million people died building the Great Wall of China.
That’s a high cost to pay for a wall.
From the earliest known civilization until now, human beings have been building walls. The ancient Sumerians constructed a massive fortified barrier to keep out the nomadic Amorite tribesmen who had begun invading their territory. It worked for a few years until their enemies found ways to breach it—or they simply walked around it. Hadrian’s Wall was built in the early part of the second century AD to protect Roman Britain from the “barbarian” tribes that inhabited northern England and Scotland. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where “barbarians” are as welcome as any other brand of tourist.
For as long as there have been kingdoms, countries and cities, walls have been built around them to keep people out. Or—as with the infamous Berlin Wall—they’ve been built to keep people in.
As you might guess, this train of thought has been sparked by the vow of the newly elected U.S. president to build a wall along his country’s border with Mexico. Whether a physical wall is ever built or not, the political rhetoric over the past year has fortified the walls of misunderstanding, hostility and fear between these two neighbours.
The cost of a wall, whether physical or philosophical, is always too high.
“Good fences make good neighbors” is the line most often quoted from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.” But when you read the entire poem, you discover that Frost is actually offering an argument against the building of walls. Frost sees darkness in man’s desire to build walls. Nature itself, he suggests, works secretly and persistently to tear them down:
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
I think Frost was right, but I’d go a step further and say, “Someone there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
Jesus, the Gospel writers tell us, made it His business to tear down walls. In chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel—which Luke describes as his “carefully investigated” and “orderly account” (Luke 1:3)—we find three interesting wall-destroying stories. First, Jesus appoints and sends out “seventy-two others” to heal the sick and announce that the kingdom of God is near. When these “others” return with reports of great success, Jesus, “full of joy through the Holy Spirit,” says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure” (Luke 10:21).
The second story contains that scandalous parable in which a Samaritan is the hero. And not only is he the hero, but he comes off looking more righteous than both a priest and a Levite.
In the last story, a woman named Martha opens her home to Jesus and His disciples. Martha, we’re told, has a sister called Mary. Martha, being a good host, is in the kitchen preparing food for her guests. She’s where she is supposed to be. Mary is in the room with the men, sitting at the Lord’s feet like a disciple. She’s where she’s not supposed to be. When Martha tells Jesus to tell Mary to get back where she belongs, He replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
In the kingdom Jesus came to establish, walls are torn down. The wonders of this kingdom are revealed to little children and entrusted to “others.” The wise and learned possess no privilege or power. Racial, social, and gender barriers are destroyed. Samaritans become heroes. Tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes and sinners find a warm welcome and a seat at the table. All disciples, regardless of gender, sit side by side at the feet of Jesus.
Paul reminds the churches in Galatia that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Of the wall that once separated Jews and Gentiles, Paul says, “For he [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 2:14-15a).
Thirty years ago, a U.S. president stood in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and shouted, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” This past summer, the man who would become president pumped his fist in the air and joined the crowd as it shouted, “Build that wall!” What does that say about the state of our world?
As we step into this Easter season, let’s be ambassadors of a new way of living. Jesus tore down walls. It’s time His followers stopped running along behind Him building them back up.
- Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1979), 33.
. “Top 10 Interesting Facts about the Great Wall of China,” China Travellers, accessed January 26, 2017, http://www.chinatravellers.com/Artcle_Show.asp?id=157.
- Evan Andrews, “7 Famous Border Walls,” History Lists, February 1, 2016, accessed January 27, 2017, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/7-famous-border-walls.
- . Frost, Ibid.