Outside St James’ Church, Piccadilly, stands (or stood, until 6th January) an 8m (26ft) concrete wall. It has displaced the bustling market which normally inhabits the square. It has obscured the view of the beautiful seventeenth century church. Its lower reaches are covered in graffiti. It is one of the most unusual Christmas displays London has ever seen.
The wall is a replica of a section of the wall surrounding Bethlehem, dividing Israel and Palestine. Though the stated purpose of the original, on its construction in 2002, was to provide security for Israeli citizens, the thing about walls is that simultaneously to providing security, they also create segregation. Anyone behind a wall is safe, but he is also ‘other’, designated ‘different’ by his very location.
Towards the end of last year, we had a sermon series preaching through Nehemiah. Naturally, it focussed on building walls, using that as a metaphor for, amongst other things, helping to reconstruct the broken-down bits of our world. Then during one sermon, towards the end of the series, my neighbour leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t building walls usually a bad thing? We’re normally looking for ways to break down barriers…”
“I suppose it depends on whether you’re looking at Jerusalem or Jericho,” I whispered back.
The thought has stayed with me ever since, buzzing around in the back of my mind, and coming to the fore again on New Year’s Eve, when I visited ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped’, the wall replica/art installation at St James’ Church.
The wall – both the real one and its London counterpart – inspires strong feelings on either side, as eloquently illustrated in this post by ‘Archbishop Cranmer’. The people behind the installation in Piccadilly are determined to remain neutral as to who is ‘right’ in this conflict, but the general sense I pick up from it is that the wall is considered to be a Bad Thing. Peace and reconciliation are incompatible with 8m high concrete walls, it seems, and a poem displayed in the courtyard heightens this:
I didn’t know I was on a side until a wall was built
and then I knew I was on a side, the wrong side…
– ‘Every Wall Has Two Sides’ by Robert vas Dias
We are supposed to build bridges, not walls, aren’t we?
Or are we?
I don’t see that in the Bible. Yes, God tears down walls, and commands his people to do the same, but they are the walls that are barriers against Him and his glory – the Tower of Babel, the city of Sodom, the walls of Jericho… There are at least as many instructions about building up walls – not to mention building the Temple. We ourselves are called living stones, Jesus is the capstone or cornerstone, the end-point of the story is a Holy City. God tears down walls when people start to put their trust in those walls rather than in him and his provision, but walls in and of themselves are not wrong, and the word ‘bridge’ is never even mentioned.
Perhaps the key is the context in which the walls are built. Look at Isaiah. Twice there we are promised that we “…will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; [we] will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” and we “will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; [we] will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” But what is the context of this joyous building? It only happens when we get our worshipping and fasting right, when we do away with oppression and spend ourselves on behalf of the needy and oppressed, when we’ve bound up the broken-hearted and freed the captives. In other words, strong, secure walls only make sense – only do what they are supposed to – in a world characterised by righteousness and justice. And by contrast, it is only when the world is characterised by oppression and injustice that walls become negative things, things which oppress and exclude rather than things which provide and protect.
Is it stretching the text too far to apply it to discipleship? In a broken and unjust world, God’s standard for our lives often appears oppressive and unreasonable, a barrier of exclusion rather than an open plain of inclusivity. Calls to tear down the walls in order to make God’s Kingdom accessible to all are extensive, yet this is a symptom of people seeking security in things other than God’s holiness, while asking for his blessing on their choices. When we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, then his laws and precepts become a sheltering wall of provision and protection, available to all who will choose to seek refuge in them.
So it seems to me that we as Christians are supposed to build walls, but that to be sure of constructing the right ones in the right places, we must first focus on fighting oppression, misery and injustice. Maybe then we will find that we ourselves have become the bricks in the wall, with Christ as our firm foundation.
This post originally appeared on Think Theology.