At the Wall

Two weeks ago, I was in Bethlehem, on a pilgrimage to Christian sites in the Holy Land.

It did not feel very holy.

In fact, it was an emotional trip for a completely different reason: walls. Driving into the small town, crowded with tourists, to get a glimpse of the birthplace of our dear Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I was confronted by a massive, 50-foot wall, snaking through the city, covered in graffiti. With barbed wire at the top and the stories of Palestinians cut off from friends and family marked on various plaques, it was a symbol so alive with hatred, it marred the reason for the visit. The message of Jesus, one of radical inclusion, bursts forth into the world in a humble stable, erasing borders between spiritual and physical as an embodiment of both. And today, that birthplace is a temple bejeweled in bling, in a town radically isolated from its neighbors. The kingdom of heaven seems distant as the reality of borders persists. The tears flowed.

At the Bethlehem border wall.

The sight of the Bethlehem wall sent me into a tailspin alternate reality, simply steps away from my own. I live in Berlin, where I walk past harmless bits of blight that remain from the 40 years of separation in Germany on an almost daily basis. Remnants of rebar and singular barrier sections, overlaid with historical plaques, are dotted all around the city. At the riverfront, a vast stretch of wall pieces graffiti’ed with iconic images (like Gorbachev and Reagan locked in a fierce kiss) make up the East Side Gallery, a popular site for the ubiquitous Cold War selfie (add a fake Soviet soldier to the mix for just one euro at Checkpoint Charlie). Back in my home country, the United States, Trump’s nefarious border wall promise seems even more frightening. The comparison is not lost on Palestinians, who have recently memorialized Trump’s visit to Israel with their own mural of him on the wall, stretching his hand out to it and promising, “I’m going to build you a brother.”

One of the most heartbreaking elements of both the Israeli and the American border wall building is the response of some Christian leaders, who use cherry-picked, 3000-year-old scriptures to defend nationalist positions in the 21st century. However, what it means to “live Biblically” in the world is something much different than applying mandates from another millennia to temporal politics. I think it means digging into the story of God and the people of his book, and asking what it can teach us today.

So began my exegetical exploration into every scripture that mentions walls.

I started by reading about the most famous of Biblical walls, the wall of Jericho. Quick recap: Joshua sends some spies into Jericho to get the lay of the land, and while there, a woman named Rahab shelters them. She believes in their God and wants to help the Jews. When the spies return, they tell Joshua about the very thick wall and the very nice woman, who they will later save from destruction. We know the rest of the story: the Jews march for seven days, Joshua commands them to shout, and the wall tumbles down, defeating Jericho.

Of course it’s not the shouting or the marching that defeats the wall, or even the stoic obedience of the Israelites; it’s God himself, a spirit of pure energy that brings such a gravitas to the sounding trumpets that it explodes the border of the city.

This may be the most famous, but the Old Testament is peppered with other walls, too.

In Deuteronomy 3, the Israelites destroy a smattering of walled cities as part of their conquest of Canaan. In Deuteronomy 28, God punishes the Jews’ disobedience by “Besieging you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land” (v. 52). In 2 Kings 3, the Israelites destroy some more walls of their enemies. In 2 Kings 25, the Chaldeans break down Jerusalem’s walls to carry the people into exile.

The building and breaking of Israelite and enemy walls goes on in 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, but one thing is clear:

the Israelites feel safe when they have a wall around them. But when they disobey God, their walls come tumbling down, just as they tumble their enemies’ walls.

Skipping over some metaphorical walls in Psalms, we come to a major change of tone in Zechariah 2, the last wall of the Old Testament (v.4): “Jerusalem shall be inhabited like villages without walls. For I will be a wall of fire all around it, says the Lord, and I will be the glory within it.”

During the Persian exile, not many Jews were living in Jerusalem. Here, God promises to restore their city. Except this time, it needs no walls. Israel will, once and for all, rely on God’s provision, not a wall. These are God’s people, not Persian exiles or Israeli nationalists. These are not citizens protected (or trapped) behind the safety of a wall. Citizens of God’s kingdom trust their creator. It is fear that builds a wall; not faith.

In the 20th century, walls were built for the same reasons: Berlin’s wall was erected to protect the Soviet East Germans from the temptations of the West. The DMZ divides the Korean peninsula into North and South, by a wall to keep the North purified from the soul-less Southerners. In Israel-Palestine, the West Bank security barrier, with its fences and yes, the solid concrete wall in Bethlehem, was constructed to protect Israelis from Palestinian violence. Funny that, where all these walls exist (or existed), so exists more violence and distrust, not less.

My parents at the now-toothless Berlin Wall memorial.

The New Testament mentions walls only once, in Hebrews 11: “By faith, the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.”

The chapter concludes: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

For these great heroes, faith wasn’t asking God to protect them from their enemies. Their faith was in something greater: a heavenly home in the Kingdom of God, where borders and divisions will cease. Where fear cannot grab a foothold any more than a wall can protect or restrict.

In Berlin, the wall was a failure. Just like in Hebrews, it is the destruction of the wall that Berliners remember. In the New Testament, the “wall” between Jews and Gentiles has been shattered; the curtain of the temple has been torn; the gates of salvation are open to all who accept, even Rahab of Jericho.

For all Christians, citizenship is not defined by nationality, border or positions relative to a wall; it is in a Kingdom of radical inclusion, a place where division and distinction dissipates, and where safety and wholeness radiates outwards. A Kingdom whose only architect and builder is God.