Sunday, January 22, 2017

Biblical Values for Our Day: On Building or Tearing Down Walls

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Paul to the Ephesians 2:14)

The preacher at the inaugural day prayer service, using the story of Nehemiah from the Hebrew afterward, he tried to explain that building walls was not the point of his message, although he also said, "There is nothing unbiblical about building a wall and protecting citizens."  So the wall image was not the main point, but it still was a point.
Scriptures, proclaimed that "God is not against building walls."  In an interview

I think he is wrong. I think God is not a builder of walls, and, in fact, Jesus came to tear walls down.  Why? For precisely the reason, St. Paul says.  Walls are about hostility and Jesus is about peace, not peace as security (protection) but peace as in making "both groups into one."

Walls built for political purposes do not have a very good history, particularly in the last hundred years or so.  They have a dual effect: they keep people out, but they also keep them in. More to the point the people inside the wall (usually the builders) begin to think, our side of the wall good, outside the wall bad.  Sometimes walls, or fences, are used to delineate boundaries, this side mine, other side yours.  Is that so bad? Didn't Robert Frost say that "good fences make good neighbors"?  He did, but I think he was wrong also, unless the fence you build can be easily breached (or at least leaned over) so that neighborliness can be encouraged and maintained.  Fences can be a place where neighbors talk to each other.

If you haven't heard before, neighborliness is one of the prime biblical values.  The last six of the ten commandments are all about maintaining neighborliness, or, we might say, the common good.  Israel struggled all of its biblical life to figure out how this worked.  The political and economic leaders, and even the religious leaders, kept getting it wrong.  Sometimes Israel was so afraid of surrounding peoples that they could only treat them as enemies (and, surprisingly enough, they thought this idea was God's in the first place).  Sometimes, like in the days of Nehemiah, the concern was to keep the purity of the chosen people.

The use of Nehemiah to bless the agenda of the economic leader now become political leader, was a horrible choice, and not just because of the wall Nehemiah built.  It was the purity code that was established at the same time, that not only forced Israelites to marry only other Israelites, but deported the non-Israelite spouses and their children that already existed.  Nehemiah, the governor, and Ezra, the priest, went on a purity purge, to uphold the belief that Israel was the chosen people, God's special people, intrinsically better than all other peoples. (Read about this in Ezra chapters 9 and 10.  Ezra is the companion book to Nehemiah).

However, that was only one stream of thought at the time, albeit the one held by those in power. Another possibility come out of the closing chapters of the prophet Isaiah, clearly from the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.  Isaiah's vision is of a special people only insofar as they are a "light to the nations."  Their "specialness" is not about their purity, but about there practice of justice:

Is this not the fast I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house...Then your light shall break forth like the dawn... (58:6-8)

This is a very different vision than Nehemiah's, a radically different vision, so radically different, that God says:

Do not let the foreigners joined to the Lord say, "The Lord shall surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." ...I will give, in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (56:3-7)

When Jesus comes on the scene, it is the values of Isaiah that he preaches, not those of Nehemiah.  Isaiah is quoted frequently in the Gospels, Nehemiah never.

Walls are not a biblical value. Hostility toward and fear of the other is not a biblical value.  Neighborliness, a neighborliness that pushes against all our boundaries and makes us one, is, in the end, the only biblical value that really matters (see also, "Love your neighbor as yourself.")

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