I’ve been thinking about walls. In particular, I have been thinking about that “big beautiful wall” President Donald Trump is intent on building along our southern border.
Do you remember Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Mending Wall”? Two neighbors meet and repair a common wall that separates their properties. It begins with the narrator saying, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” Later, the neighbor quotes his father saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The neighbor in the poem is right, to a point. Appropriate boundaries are important. Take social boundaries. Sexual harassment and misconduct are boundary violations that need legal barriers to protect people. Or take physical boundaries. Ranchers need fences to protect their livestock. Good boundaries with fences can make good neighbors.
Can walls be neighborly?
Back to the poem. My takeaway is Frost is having a testy tete-de-tete with his New England neighbor. The narrator, really Frost, seems sarcastic about walls. They keep neighbors apart. That’s often true. Walls can be barriers to neighborliness. Walls can be obstacles to friendship. Even well-intentioned barbed wire fences and stone walls communicate “keep out,” “not welcome,” and “no trespassing.” The poem makes me think about political and social barriers, like false accusations and fear tactics, that effectively build walls of mistrust and fear.
What does our faith teach us about walls? If you are talking about physical ones, there’s lots of examples in the Bible. Jerusalem had big, beautiful walls. Through the centuries it was attacked 52 times and captured or recaptured 44 times. That’s a nearly 85 percent failure rate for its walls. Everybody knows what happened to Jericho’s wall.
America is not alone when it comes to building border barriers. The world is on a wall-building binge. “Building walls is a very costly enterprise, and its purpose is mainly electoral and political,” says Elisabeth Vallet, author of “Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity?” She researches geography, migration, and walls at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Walls are highly visible, but don’t solve problems. It would be better, she suggests, to invest in less-visible projects such as such as overseas peacekeeping and climate-change efforts. Most countries want high-visibility projects to please their publics. Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria have built or expanded border walls and barriers to stop war refugees from the Middle East. France put up a 13-foot high wall that has been nicknamed the “Great Wall of Calais” to stop migrants from hopping on trucks to reach the UK. The Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom in large measure is a response to immigration. By leaving the European Union, the Brits are in effect building a political, economic, and social wall.
Like our southern border wall, these projects require billions of dollars. President Dwight Eisenhower, in a famous 1953 speech, warned us about misspending our resources. While he didn’t specifically mention walls, his warning about out-of-control spending fits our situation:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…”
President Trump’s $5 billion project is no bargain. It will build just under 300 miles of wall. The border is 2,000 miles long. To finish the job it will probably take $25 billion. That’s about $200 for every American household. What about maintenance? Estimates run between $150-170 million annually. What we really need is comprehensive legislation that provides safety and security, protects American workers, and gives legal status to law-abiding undocumented immigrants already living here. Instead we’re getting a “big beautiful wall.”
While other parts of the world are experiencing huge migrations, estimated at 44,000 refugees a day, it is not a serious problem here. In fact, unauthorized immigration has dropped. The Pew Research Institute reports from 2007 to 2016, unauthorized immigration has actually decreased.
Walls are spiritual matters
The wall project is why Frost’s poem came to my mind, especially the opening: “Something there is that doesn't love a wall.” Frost is challenging his neighbor and his readers to be more neighborly. Although Frost was not religious, his message is profoundly spiritual. The record of God’s people in the Scriptures shows many examples of neighborliness, especially to outsiders.
“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34)
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)
Remember the religious expert who gets into a discussion with Jesus in Luke 10? He quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to summarize the Torah:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
That expert must have felt pretty puffed up with his answer, so he pressed on, asking Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which reveals an outsider is the true neighbor of a man who was beaten and left to die on the side of the road.
The greed system
Sometimes, when I listen to some Christian leaders I wonder if they have read their Bible lately. What keeps them from loving their neighbor and not needing to build walls? The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it bluntly. “The greed system of our society does not want neighborliness. Neighborliness makes the greed system nervous.” (“The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann,” p. 214) The greed system fights fiercely when challenged. The prophets of Israel and Jesus offered alternatives to the greed system. Jesus spoke about it as the kingdom. It cost him his life to proclaim a different authority where neighborliness is the standard.
Grounded in God’s love and promises, neighborliness depends on us conducting ourselves in neighborly ways. A good neighbor is approachable. Instead of a glare or ignoring you, a neighbor offers a smile and a kind word. From the standpoint of the Scriptures, neighborliness includes justice, mercy, public good, fairness, respect, and trust to name just a few characteristics.
Build bridges, not walls
Pope Francis has reminded the world that a “person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.” While some church leaders have clearly been co opted or have put their heads in the sand, once in a while there is a wonderful David and Goliath story. Citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville has filed suit to protect a little chapel that lies along the proposed wall’s path through Mission, Texas.
People of faith need to stand up, make noise, and protest. Some walls are necessary. But many are not. They are wasteful and impractical. Worse, building them creates walls of suspicion that fear-mongers exploit to their advantage. Data show that most hard drugs enter the U.S. through well-established ports of entry like airports and border crossings. A wall won’t stop them. A multi-billion dollar wall simply reflects misplaced priorities. There are better ways to deal with these problems.