Walls?

“There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” – Robert Frost

When I was a young child some people in our neighborhood built a fence on the property line between their house and their next door neighbors. That was unusual in those days before subdivisions where almost every yard is fenced. This fence was also unusual for several other reasons. It was 8 feet high but only about 16 feet long, leaving easy access around either end between the neighbors’ yards. You see it wasn’t a practical fence at all since it could not keep anyone or any animal from easily just going around it.

I overheard my parents discussing this fence one day and thought they were calling it a “spike” fence which made no sense because it was completely flat on top. There was nothing spikey about it! When I inquired about the fence my parents told me it was not “spike” but a “spite” fence because the neighbors who built the fence were angry with the folks next door. I don’t know if we ever knew what they were angry about, but I realize now the fence was a symbol of their animosity about something. It wasn’t really made of plywood but of anger.

Symbolic walls are much harder to tear down than physical ones, and I believe that is the reason for the stalemate and government shut down just now. President Trump has correctly pointed out that in the past Democrats have voted in favor of parts of a wall on our southern border; so the problem is not about a physical wall or about needing better border security, it is about what this wall has come to symbolize.

From the day he launched his campaign for president with remarks about Mexicans being “murderers and rapists” to racist comments about “s***hole” countries, to his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville this President has demonstrated over and over that he is a racist. His father was a racist landlord in New York, and son Donald has not evolved from those roots.

Racism is an expression of fear, in this case fear of losing power and privilege that wealthy white males have controlled in this country since the first illegal immigrants landed at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. And the wall stalemate/debate is grounded in that fear, and that is why it is so hard to resolve.

I have reread several artistic reflections on walls as I enjoy my own privileged status to sit in comfort with a cup of coffee and ruminate about what are life and death issues for unpaid government workers and desperate refugees. My thoughts have ranged from the account of the walls of Jericho in Joshua 6, to a play about an imaginary wall (“Aria da Capo” by Edna St. Vincent Millay), to Robert Frost’s poem “The Mending Wall,” to my own climbing up on a part of the Great Wall of China a few years ago.

All of those walls are the result of fear and somewhat based on reality. The citizens of Jericho were wiped out by Joshua and his men when “the walls came tumbling down.” The two shepherds in “Aria da Capo” kill each other because each of them has what the other wants on his side of the wall, but as they die and collapse on where the wall “is” they discover it does not exist except in their own imaginations.

I don’t know my Chinese history well enough to know how well the Great Wall worked at keeping their enemies out, but the sheer magnitude and effort and cost it took to build that wall speaks volumes about how great their fear was.

Frost’s poem cuts to the chase by asking hard questions about the need for walls. Do fences make good neighbors? Are walls needed if we follow the advice of the Great Commandment in both Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels to “love our neighbors as ourselves?” Maybe that’s naïve, but on the other hand maybe it’s the only way, truth and life?

One thought on “Walls?

  1. Hello, Steve, Last August, I attended a workshop at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville. The workshop ended on Saturday; I stayed overnight Saturday because I was leaving for Memphis (not for home in Ohio) the following day. On Sunday morning, I attended West End UMC with the leader of the workshop, who, when I asked her for a recommendation of a church to attend, not only recommended West End, where she and her husband are members, but also came and picked me up from Scarritt-Bennett and took me to worship with her and her husband. The pastor, Rev. Carol Cavin-Dillon, preached a remarkable sermon on walls. (Perhaps what is most remarkable about it is that it was so memorable that I have “carried it with me” all this time since.) I have wanted to have a transcript of that sermon ever since I heard it. Your blog post today nudged me to go look for it. I found it in audio form; will still try to see if I can find a transcript and will share it here. In the meantime, if you are interested, here is the link to the audio version of the sermon: http://www.westendumc.org/media/sermons-and-services/christ-breaks-down-the-wall. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful post. Was so glad to see R. Frost’s poem again; it takes me back to a conversation decades ago (and my conversation partner from back then is now deceased) about walls. For him, the crucial line was, “Fences make good neighbors.” For me, the crucial line was/is, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,”

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