Monday, February 6, 2017

A Theology of Walls

There are walls in the Bible.

The first and most familiar?  The walls around Jericho.  Those walls served a particular purpose: safety and security.  And they stood, as the story goes, to keep out a foreign rabble, a mass of humanity fleeing slavery and oppression on their way to a land where they could settle.

The choice of the residents of Jericho was not to show welcome, to shut their doors against this strange motley army of aliens that came through their land.  On many levels, this is an understandable response.   Here, a people who were taking the resources of every land they passed through.  There were so many that they posed a threat, both to the culture and to the economic structures of the region.  It was not just a migration, not just a flight, but an invasion of an host that took what it needed by force when hospitality was not offered.  Which, more often than not, it wasn't.

So hiding behind a wall certainly makes sense, seen from the perspective of Jericho.

But those walls came tumbling down, as the story goes.  Those trumpets must have been played by Fred Wesley.  So much funk, even them walls gonna dance.

Even so, this isn't my favorite story.  Whenever a biblical tale ends with a holy-war massacre of women and children, I cringe more than a little bit.  Because, well, Jesus.

The best-case-scenario issue here, as it is in so much of the Biblical narrative, is to see it through the lenses of hospitality.  Closing doors to the journeying stranger in need is a violation of the fundamental ethos of every Semitic culture, and by extension, a violation of the will of the God of Israel.

Walls appear again in the narratives of Ezra and Nehemiah, the scribe and governor charged with rebuilding Jerusalem with the blessings and resources of Cyrus of Persia.  Jerusalem's walls would permit the Jewish people to regain their integrity as a nation-state.  The walls, a new bulwark against invasion, and a mark of the renewed strength and pride of Judah.  Both Ezra and Nehemiah saw the rebuilding project as part of the divine work, the will of YHWH in re-establishing the boundaries of a shattered people.

Here, it's primarily presented as a theology of reconstruction and collective identity formation.

But there's a twist.  A theological minority report, woven up into Scripture.  Because physical rebuilding was not the only item on Ezra and Nehemiah's agenda.  They were also obsessed with racial purity, on re-establishing the blood-integrity of the Hebrew people.

So in addition to the physical walls, Ezra and Nehemiah instituted a policy of driving out the foreigner, casting out the wives and children whose heritage was mixed or impure, colored by the "lesser" peoples of ancient Palestine.  They were straight out racist.

And the Bible resists that part of their story.  That resistance comes from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, which makes a fiery case for the inclusion of the foreigner and the alien.  The foreigner who honors the laws and God of the land must be welcomed, saith the Lord through Isaiah.  It comes from the Book of Ruth, which came into its final written form after the exile, reminding the people that their greatest king had Moabite blood.

Those walls cast up to keep the Other out, says my sacred Book of Books, do not come without peril to the souls of those that build them.

Seems worth keeping in mind.