"The moment the word 'why' crosses your lips, you are doing theology."
—When Life & Beliefs Collide                

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Breaking Down Walls

When Frank and I hiked Hadrian’s Wall in England this summer, we covered long stretches where no trace of the ancient Roman wall remains. Lots of sheep and cows and picturesque English countryside, but no wall.

Built to last, the original wall ran 84 miles in length, east to west across Northern England near the Scottish border. Fifteen feet high and eight to ten feet wide, the wall was dotted with mile castles and turrets along the way. Hadrian’s Wall established a formidable barrier between the Roman civilized world to the south and (my apologies to readers who may be Scottish) the barbarians in the north. Yet, over the centuries, farmers (so we were told) pilfered stones from Hadrian’s Wall to build houses and churches until in many places the massive wall simply disappeared.

Apart from archaeologists (and a few hikers), no one is lamenting the current state of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, one could argue that the crumbling of Hadrian’s Wall is a good thing—a hopeful symbol on the world’s landscape that tells us deep-seated hostilities can subside. I found that harder to believe, as we hiked during the day and caught BBC World News in the evenings. Fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, civil war looming in Iraq, and casualties in Afghanistan—just a few of today’s dividing walls, erected from the stones of hatred and hostility.

In a world of walls—those in the news and those we routinely bump into in our personal relationships—hope can take a beating. We could use a word of encouragement.

ABC news anchor Charles Gibson remarked recently that “we don’t usually look to the Middle East for uplifting stories.” But one of their reporters had found one. In the aftermath of a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli border town, two Jewish brothers—both husbands and fathers—lay dead. A third surviving brother, devastated by grief, was nevertheless determined to do more than bury his brothers. He took action to donate his brothers’ organs. Among the waiting candidates was an Arab man who was losing his sight and who was completely dumbfounded and humbled to receive the gift of sight from a Jewish victim of an Arab missile. A successful cornea implant restored sight to the man and broke through a barrier most people would have thought was impenetrable. Who would believe that a grieving Jewish man and an Arab could weep together, embrace and call each other “brother”, while in the distance the battle continued to rage?

Gibson was right. We don’t expect to find hope in the heat of the battle. But then, those who are living with the horrors of war know how precious peace is and are willing to take extraordinary measures to achieve it.

Even more encouraging (and also sobering), I think, is the fact that Jesus is so fiercely committed to tearing down the walls that divide. He took costly measures to bring true peace to a broken, embattled world. You’d think that, given His commitment, He would handpick followers who had been matched by the most rigorous personality screening. Instead, He has an unsettling way of bringing people together who have nothing in common and are sometimes a lot like combining nitro and glycerine. But this is where the power of His gospel shines through. And He has more in mind for us than a cease-fire or teaching us how to “get along.” He wants us to become so united to Him and to one another that we function as the members of a healthy physical body—His Body. That’s something to ponder.

Big things are at stake in how Christians relate to one another too. Jesus casts a vision for us that demands the radical kind of bridge-building displayed by those two former enemies in Israel. “Father,” He prayed for us, “may they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23). According to Jesus, there’s an awful lot riding on the state of relationships among those who follow Him and the kinds of peace-makers we become in the world. The quality of our relationships sends a message to the world that Jesus has come and that we are beloved of the Father.

Proof showed up in Africa when the paths of two African women crossed. The two arrived as grief-stricken refugees at the same Christian shelter in Kenya, only to discover they were from warring tribes. The men in their family—husbands, brothers and sons—had been brutally murdered by men from the other woman’s tribe. One can only imagine the intensity of animosity and pain as the two women came in contact. The potential for vicious conflict between them was frightening. But the gospel of Jesus Christ took root. As the two women began to grasp what Jesus had done for them, the wall between them simply collapsed under the sheer weight of His grace and forgiveness. I don’t want to minimize the struggle it took, but in the end, the two women embraced each other as sisters in Christ.

As a hiker, I admit I was disappointed that more of Hadrian’s Wall hasn’t survived and I enjoyed most those segments of the hike where ruins of the ancient Roman wall still stand. As a Christian, however, I am compelled to side with the farmers. Jesus calls me to join Him in dismantling the walls.