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Deconstructing the Wall: A Critique of Theological Isolationism, Protectionism

As 2019 gets underway, a large part of the U.S. government remains shut down.

According to President Donald Trump and congressional lawmakers, the shutdown centers on one issue: funding to build a physical wall along the southern border of the United States.

For much of my life, one wall symbolized the destructive nature of the world. The Berlin Wall, dividing East and West Germany, was seen as a physical object that divided the world and hindered the possibility of global peace.

As a teenager growing up in the 1980s, there was one song that came to denote the dangers of barriers when they seek to separate people and divide humanity.

In 1979, the band Pink Floyd released their rock opera, “The Wall.” Centered around a young man named Pink, their music examined damaging consequences when individuals and societies build walls for isolationism, protectionism and conformity.

When the album gained global popularity in the 1980s, South African critics of apartheid quickly embraced it as a protest song against educational inequality.

As tensions grew between the West and the USSR during that decade, the album became a rallying cry for the fall of communism.

One could almost hear the music playing in 1987 when President Ronald Reagan stood by the wall in West Berlin and called upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

In 1990, one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pink Floyd performed their iconic opera where that symbol of political and cultural division once stood.

With the Berlin Wall deconstructed ideologically and physically, the world held a hopeful optimism for the future.

Now, calls for an American wall are echoing across the country.

While simple logic demonstrates that building a wall along the southern border of the United States will not guarantee a safer nation (for example, all of the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. legally while most terrorists’ attacks are conducted by homegrown enemies of the state recruited by outside organizations), proponents of the wall seem committed to its funding and construction.

With the debate at a standstill and a large part of the government still shut down, thoughtful Christians should reflect and examine this issue from a theological perspective.

Within the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrews and the nation of Israel would struggle between their desire for freedom and security.

Freedom brought the release of captives, while security established earthly kingdoms.

Freedom brought about reliance upon God, while security formed armies and sharpened spears.

Freedom allowed access to God anywhere at any time by anybody, while security restricted access, limited worship and segregated the faithful.

The most significant symbol of this human barrier was the curtain that “separated” God from humanity.

When Jesus was crucified on the cross as a sacrifice for human sin, all of the synoptic authors recorded the curtain tearing from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).

For the faithful, the message should be clear: God does not like barriers.

From the moment sin brought a division between God and humanity, God has spent every moment in history attempting to break down walls and welcome us home.

The message of Jesus was also one of tearing down walls and embracing a theology of inclusivity.

His words and actions gave an example that this meant more than just spiritual wordplay.

For the Son of Man, opening the theological border to inclusivity meant that his followers would advocate for the poor, release the captives, speak up for the oppressed and welcome the stranger.

As a carpenter by trade, Jesus did not build walls but a ministry of constructing tables and chairs for more people to dine at the feast of God.

Some might respond, “God erected a wall around heaven for those who will get in and those who will not.” God did not erect anything. Human sin is the culprit when it comes to placing a barrier between our creator and us.

Also, the entire Bible is about God attempting to tear down that divide so that the divine and human can be reunited. For God so loved the world …

Others might suggest a difference between the inclusivity of God’s grace for salvation and the need to build a wall for national security.

In other words, there is a disconnect between the things of God and the things of humanity.

Another way to frame this would be to understand the world in two parts, the spiritual and the physical.

If God’s salvation is only spiritual, then we have redefined the very notion of the Emmanuel. Either God became flesh and dwelt among us, or God did not.

If the spiritual was embodied in the person of Jesus, then the physical world has always been connected to the spiritual world.

Therefore, the real world needs real theology because how we think about God, how we relate to God and how we understand God’s desire for us to connect matters in the real world.

Jesus wanted his followers to welcome the stranger and stand up for the oppressed, so we follow our own course when we ignore his words and actions.

What we are confronted with today in conversations about immigration is the question Cain asked in Genesis 4: “Am I my brother’s [and sister’s] keeper?” God’s answer is the same today as it was long ago: “Yes!”

President Trump’s wall on the southern border may or may not come to fruition, but Christians should measure their support or criticism of such barriers through the lens of their theological convictions.

At the end of the debate, we must ask, “Would Jesus support a wall?”

Mitch Randall

Mitch Randall is executive director of EthicsDaily.com.