It is not often that you see and hear the leader of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church express genuine anger. Yet the phenomenon occurred this past week as Pope Francis (the first Bishop of Rome to use this name) returned to the Vatican after a visit to Mexico.
Whilst in Mexico, Pope Francis conducted a papal mass on the Mexican side of the fence that designates part of the border between Mexico and the United States of America. As he left Mexico, Pope Francis was recorded as saying that “any man who builds walls rather than bridges could not be (a) Christian.”
The Pope was clearly commenting on some words of the Republican Presidential hopeful, the billionaire businessman Donald Trump. On the hustings as a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the USA, Trump said that, if he became President, he would “build a wall to separate the USA from Mexico.”
It was the same Donald Trump who had also stated that he would not permit people of the Islamic faith to enter the USA. Donald Trump is no stranger to controversial comments. His response to what the Pope had said about him was to say that a Christian leader should not attack the faith of others – unlike political leaders, whom, it seems, can attack whoever they like!
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are my favourite popular music duo. One of S&G’s most successful songs is called ‘I am a rock’. The words of the song’s second verse are as follows:
I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island.
The songs of S&G are invariably poetic. This song is no exception. It is, of course, possible to not only to survive but to thrive in the kind of environment described in the song – with, as the song also states, suitable protection, e.g. books and poetry. This was shown by the latter-day Robinson Crusoe-type character played by Tom Hanks in the film Castaway. He struggled to maintain mind, body and soul alone on a rock in the ocean (with only a basketball to share conversation).
The above verse speaks of walls that are built in order to provide isolation, solitude, protection. Personal walls prevent contact, therefore, the possibility of pain that friendship might bring. The building of walls can result in a disdain for love and laughter and cuts-off the individual from the relationships that might bring these things into one’s life.
It is not only individuals who build walls. Walls are erected by whole communities, even by nations. This can be seen in the present-day mass movement of asylum seekers and economic migrants from various parts of the world into the European continent. One consequence of this people movement is seen in the fact that some European countries have erected boundary fences – walls of various kinds – in order to try and stem the flow of the incomers. The UK breathes a sigh of relief that it has the English Channel as protection – a form of wall.
Several years ago, The Guardian newspaper published a story that ran with the headline: ‘Through the barricades – how life is shaped in the shadow of the walls’. The article detailed the extent of the barriers between countries such as North and South Korea, US-Mexico, India-Bangladesh, Greece-Turkey, and Spain-Morocco. The list could go on.
Perhaps the most notorious of these purpose-built walls is the one erected on the West Bank in Palestine. Israel says that “the wall is for security”. However, both inside and outside of Israel, many believe that the wall is a monstrosity and that the real reason for its erection is so that Israel “may confiscate as much land as they can and to isolate Palestinians in the hope that they will go away”. That is one problem with walls of separation, such as the one on the West Bank – they force you to take sides. Walls cast giant shadows.
The West Bank wall, the brainchild of the iconic and controversial former leader of Israel, Ariel Sharon, was condemned as illegal by the International Court of Justice. I am reminded of the words of another Israeli, the writer Avi Shlaim: “Good fences may make good neighbours, but not when they are erected in the neighbour’s garden.”
The Guardian newspaper article commented that barriers such as those above-mentioned are separating communities around the globe. However, some say that such barriers offer a sense of security and peace, even tradition. Concerning the latter, walls feature in such obscure practices as the ‘Eton Wall Game’ and its more sadistic variants. For others, though, living with such structures creates a feeling close to imprisonment.
Despite the contemporary age being described as “the new age of the wall”, the history of the Great Wall of China, or even Britain’s modest Hadrian’s Wall, shows us that walls rarely do what they set out to do. It is a difficult, perhaps impossible, task to keep one people in, or another people out. The building of walls by individuals, communities, or whole nations rarely results in a state of complete isolation from others.
It was Janet Napolitano, one-time US Secretary for Homeland Security, who astutely observed, “Show me a 50ft wall, and I’ll show you a 51ft ladder.” Wendy Pullan, the senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of architecture at Cambridge University has stated: “We don’t have examples of walls solving problems”, they are, in fact, “more symbolic than anything else.” But the symbolism of walls is enormous. Even today, Berlin remains best known for its wall and, as Pullan has observed, “the most recognizable symbol of Jerusalem is now, arguably, its wall.”
The Church of England priest, journalist and academic, Dr Giles Fraser, recalls a visit he made to the Christopher Wren church in London’s Piccadilly. As a part of its Christmas 2014 presentation, the church had erected a 26ft wall around its church building. It was meant to be a full-size copy of the Israeli separation barrier to block-off the church. The vicar of the church, the Rev. Lucy Winkett – who lives above a shop on the church complex, told Fraser that she had trouble sleeping, as “the grim presence of the temporary structure was with her all the time”.
Lucy Winkett further stated: “Politics aside, living beside the 26ft wall is having a curious effect on those who are here. It dominates our imagination and has colonized our minds – and ours is only an art installation up for the 12 days of Christmas.” What, then, is to be imagined about real places where people live with the constant reality of walls that separate?
Do prospective wall builders, for example, Donald Trump, apartheid wall builders like Israel, nation-dividing North Korea, or the countries that build walls to separate different faiths, such as those on the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, ever seriously stop to consider the terrifying consequences of the colonization of mind and body their dividing walls will produce?
The Cambridge University’s ‘Centre of Urban Conflict Research – Conflicts in Cities’ project states: “The physical reorganization engendered by a wall is accompanied by an inevitable impact on the psychology of those who live beside it, or within its defining boundaries.” It further states: “There’s a tendency to vilify those on the other side. It’s very easy to say: we can’t see them, we don’t know them. So we don’t like them.” In short, their existence can be effectively ignored.
So, with apologies to the poetry and song-writing ability of Simon and Garfunkel, we need to remember some words of the 17th century English metaphysical poet, John Donne, who said: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” On this continent, walls are unwelcome; their giant shadows should be erased.