In modern Israel there is a wall, that divides the Israelis from Palestinians. It was proposed originally in the 1990s and built beginning in 2000 to prevent suicide attacks, and in some ways it has been successful at that, but it has also come to symbolize the almost intractable divide between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the profound inequity in the quality of life on the different sides of the wall, with Israelis living in relative wealth and security and Palestinians in concentrated poverty and insecurity. The wall starkly embodies the distinction in the first reading: On one side lives the “commonwealth of Israel,” while on the other side live “strangers to the covenant of peace.”
It’s hardly the only wall of its kind to embody such a distinction—the Berlin Wall was like it in a way, as is the system of fences and walls that continues to grow along the U.S.-Mexico border. Chicago used to have an impressive wall of high-rise projects, the Robert Taylor Homes, along the Dan Ryan Expressway, which, along with that expressway, served to remind Chicagoans where, depending on their color or class, they were supposed to be. Even with those high-rise buildings torn down, it’s pretty easy to see where all over Cook County, those walls still exist, marking who lives in the commonwealth and who is a stranger.
Those are the kinds of separating walls the writer to Ephesians is talking about: dividers that separate one kind of human being from another, often as a reflection the hostility between them, and to distinguish who belongs, and who does not. Ephesians is probably referring to a specific wall in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, that separated the “The court of the Gentiles” from the area reserved for Jews. That outer wall warned that anyone from outside the people of Israel risked death if they passed beyond the boundary. That “dividing wall” separated Jew from Gentile, “members of the commonwealth” from those “without God.” Embedded there we can still hear that ancient hostility, between Jews and Gentiles, as well as our modern ones: Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, immigrant and native—you get the idea.
In the face of these dividing walls, and frankly contrary to reality both now and then, the writer of Ephesians makes the shocking claim that Christ by his death has broken down that dividing wall, and erased the hostility that created it. In place of the wall, there is now a new building, made up of living stones, with Christ as the cornerstone. The border where there once was a wall, with hostile forces on either side, now stands the dwelling of God on earth, Christ in his living body, the church, the symbol of the “new humanity” God is creating in Christ.
Ephesians is talking about us, of course, the people called to stand in place of the wall or maybe even at it, as witnesses to the new, reconciled humanity in which no one is a stranger to the commonwealth, but all are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
That’s a grand vision but hard to square with the actual hostility that besets our world, hostility that burst forth again this week in Chattanooga, and that continues to endure all over. It’s so widespread that I wish the writer to Ephesians would have given us a few more tools for living as the reconciling edge of this border zone. I have been thinking of a couple tools that have been helpful to me, and I wonder if they might be helpful to you.
The first has to do with noticing in ourselves and being mindful of the seeds in us of the hostility that divides us from other people, those times when we find ourselves reacting in anger or fear, and taking the time to be curious about them. I remember when David and I lived in our old condo, our neighbors moved and sold their place to two brothers. I noticed in myself anxiety about my new neighbors—the two brothers were African American— and it took me a while to admit that the source of my fear were the kinds of racist attitudes and stereotypes about African American men that I would never want to admit, but that clearly were still at work in me.
That experience made me wonder what other unacknowledged fears lurk in me, and those irrational responses are good signals to me to be mindful of what’s really going on. That embarrassing experience of my own racism has made me more curious about how those same fears are at work in my city or in our country, and how they have produced the dividing walls that keep me and us from experiencing that new humanity in Christ.
The second tool came from our Friday morning group that gathers at Panera after our 7 a.m. Eucharist. We were talking about how to be helpful to people experiencing difficulty of various kinds, things like violence or addiction, and I think it was Richard Adams who counseled that we should seek always and above all to be kind, because we never know what is going on inside another human being or what is happening in their lives. His counsel made me wonder what dividing walls might be torn down simply by kindness, and by giving everyone we meet the benefit of the doubt, and trying to learn more about their stories.
I don’t really know if practices like mindfulness and kindness can break down the walls that separate people from each other, but they seem like the kind of tools that might make a difference. At any rate, the vision and promise of a new humanity, healed of division, in which no one is a stranger to the covenant, in which everyone is a citizen and a member of God’s household, and a church devoted to that vision, makes me eager to keep trying.