By Paul Koch –
Since the election of Donald Trump, we’ve found ourselves part of a national discussion about the legitimacy, legality, and virtue of building walls. Not only our politicians but also our nations comedians, talk show hosts, and even Super Bowl ads have taken up this discussion. Is the idea of a building a wall driven by fear, racism, patriotism, or some combination of all the above? Is it something that is inherent to the idea of what it means to be an American? Is it a shameful move toward Nazi-era hate speech? Will a wall make America great again, or will it redefine her as something of which we can no longer be proud?
It’s interesting to watch this discussion among the pundits, journalist, and barflies unfold. In the end, I think it will speak loudly about what America is and how it will be perceived among the nations of the world. But it has also caused me to think about the building of walls among much smaller, much more tightly knit groups within the United States. While I’m not sure what it will mean for a nation the size and scope of America to build a wall, I do think there is a place for walls within the empire. There is something good, something virtuous about building a wall around a family, a tribe, and yes, even a church.
I finally read Cormac McCarthy’s monumental tale The Road, and it has haunted my mind since I finished. He tells the story of a man and his son in burned out-America carefully making their way to the coast to flee the death of winter. Along the way he paints a picture of the fears and strength of manhood and fatherhood and what it means to continue to carry the fire. Throughout the story, there is a scene that plays out, a set of actions that occurs again and again. Every time this unnamed father and son stop to make camp for the night, the father sets out and walks the perimeter. He trudges through the snow and ash to make sure that where they’ve settled is safe. On the inside of that perimeter is his life. Inside is food and water, shelter, and most importantly his child. Outside is death, destruction, and those who would take what he is charged to protect. Again and again, he walks the perimeter. In the middle of the night when some sound stirs him from sleep, he walks the perimeter. In the morning as they warm some coffee over a small fire, he will again walk the perimeter. The reader learns quite clearly that there is an inside and an outside, an “us” versus “them.”
If he could have built a wall, he would have. All that mattered to him was who was on the inside of the perimeter.
I’m not saying that this will work for a nation with the breadth of the United States, but I do think it is worthy of our consideration for the church. Today it is common to speak lovingly about churches having no walls, of being inclusive and welcoming to any and all. Membership, if it happens at all, is a mere formality, and people tend to treat the church as a voluntary organization that they can choose to be a part of or leave at any minor inconvenience. There tends to be little separation between those on the inside and those out, between “us” and “them.” In fact, I would venture to guess that most Christians wouldn’t even like the language (at least publicly) of us versus them.
If people make a distinction between those inside the perimeter and those outside of it, it is usually based on morality and not confession of faith. The “us” becomes those who act like Christians, doing Christian things in Christian ways, and the “them” are all the sinners out there shunning the Christian ways and openly sinning.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
The Baptismal liturgy that we use in my church includes a beautiful prayer commonly called “The Flood Prayer” that was originally composed by Martin Luther. It is a petition to God on behalf of the one about to be washed in the waters of Baptism. The last section goes like this;
“Grant that they be kept safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church, being separated from the multitude of unbelievers and serving your name at all times with a fervent spirit and a joyful hope, so that, with all believers in Your promise, they would be declared worthy of eternal life.”
This image of Baptism is that of being separated, of being brought to the inside, becoming one of “us” distinct from one of “them.” The “us” is established by the work of our Lord through faithful proclamation and administration of the Sacraments. The “us” is important because it not only defines who is on our side but it gives strength and courage to any work done outside the perimeter.
I think there is something good about building this type of wall and clarifying exactly who we are. For then it gives clarity of purpose for any engagement outside the wall even while protecting those vulnerable within.