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Wall-Builders II

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

In a previous post, All God's Children, we spoke of Wall-Builders in a negative light, as being rooted in the past, and emphasizing the differences between themselves and other groups.

In this article, we revisit the nature of Wall-Builders, and highlight their positive aspects, particularly from a Biblical point of view.

It needs to be stressed that wall-building is an important, indeed essential, aspect of social structures. Every social "we" requires a wall. "We" are in, "they" are out. A marriage bond, a family, a town, a sports team, an ethnic group, a nation, is defined by a set of criteria, both inclusive and exclusive. These criteria collectively form what we have termed a "wall." The people who "own" the criteria are the wall-builders of that sub-community. This person or persons hold a level of authority over group members that subordinates may not possess. For example, a grandmother may decide that a divorced former son-in-law is still "family", or not. Each religious group stipulates requirements for membership, by means of bishops or delegates to a denominational caucus. The agendas of political groups, their platforms, are set by committees of party leaders. Ethnic groups may set up councils to specify the genetic requirements of their members.

This effort at group self-definition is not a simple one or a single step. Groups evolve over time, in response to events in the larger community. Political platforms change, denominations update their statements of faith -- not without opposition. In fact, in any assessment of social conflict, intragroup rivalry can be as frequent and as violent as intergroup rivalry. Should the Democratic party include a guaranteed minimum income? There will be a fight over who is appointed to the platform committee. Should Baptists accept gay marriage as valid? Delegates will be elected to the denominational convention to decide the issue. Of course, every intragroup power struggle can be correctly viewed as intergroup rivalry among sub-groups. Two or more smaller "we" subgroups are attempting to promote their agenda as the policy of the main group, the larger "we."

We hear a lot today about inclusivity, unity, breaking down walls, and so on, much of which is just cheap political cant -- intended to enable "us" have power over "you." There is always a pseudo positive moral value associated with this consolidation. Opponents of inclusivity are said to be self-interested, the privileged few against the oppressed mass. Yet moral priority actually belongs to the wall-builders, as the Bible teaches. We were created as finite beings, and finitude connotes limitation, difference and partiality. No one collective can include all people. God Himself built division into humanity: man and woman, multiple languages, families, a holy nation dwelling in the midst of idolaters. Even the nation of Israel was divided into 12 tribes, one of which was set apart as a priestly tribe, with special privileges. Each of these divisions constitutes a wall, a subset of the human community.

Every individual is a member of numerous "we"s. All the different categories of human differentiation are brought to bear on each person: not just major categories of gender, language, ethnicity, but other criteria such as education level, age bracket, income, family status. Even "minor" lifestyle differences can create dedicated "we"s: sports team loyalty, health and illness status, recreational pursuits, hobbies. As we change our activities during the day, we potentially interact with our peers in many different "we" groups.

When appropriately constructed, walls defend human freedom by providing protection against outsiders. There is security in the "we." But walls also limit freedom, in that one's power to belong does not extend outside the wall. Human identity needs the security of the wall to flourish, human pride needs the limitation of the wall to be checked.

Nehemiah is the great wall-builder of the Old Testament. Upon the return from Babylon to Jerusalem, the exiles found themselves threatened by the local Ammonite and Arab leaders. "Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer disgrace (Neh 2:17). And to Tobiah and Sanballat he said, "'you have no portion or right or memorial in Jerusalem.'"

This is the essential function of the wall-builder, to provide protection for the vulnerable "we" from the hostile "them." And yet, the Bible also commands us, "Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt" (Deut 10:19 RSV). In other words, the "we" we construct must also provide some wiggle room for "them," those who are not like us, not bound in any social covenant with us. This is easily misconstrued: the Bible has no tolerance for alien idolaters in the midst of the holy community. Likewise we should not make allowance for avowedly hostile aliens to live among us, receive legal and economic benefits, and continue to attack and undermine our "we." There is a reciprocity required of the aliens among us: we grant them tolerance and protection, they respect our customs and obey our laws.

In our previous post, we stated, Wall-builders "esteem their own community's values and traditions highly, and tend to look down on other groups. Compromise is considered betrayal of their identity and mission." This is the Achilles' heel of wall-builders -- an inward and backward focus that can stifle the life of the group it protects. It can be devilishly difficult to tell if a new proposal is just a restatement of basic principles or a violation of them. Catholics had to decide if Latin was the required language of the Mass. Conservative Protestants had to decide if rock music, even "Christian Rock", was satanic. The Amish had to decide which products of modern technology to allow in or to ban from their communities.

So we see that wall-building is a continuous enterprise, upon which the very survival of that sub-community depends.

Next we look look in more detail at its equally necessary but rival exercise: bridge-building.

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