Myodicy, Issue 21, June 2004

A Kingdom Without Borders?

by Theodore Plantinga

During my days as a student in Germany, I made the usual pilgrimage to inspect the Berlin Wall. I also went beyond the wall to visit what we used to call East Berlin. As the holder of a Canadian passport, I knew I could return to the western zone and to freedom whenever I wanted to, whereas the people I spoke with in East Berlin were imprisoned there. It was a sobering experience. The wall seemed both solid and permanent. While I did not give the matter a great deal of thought just then, I assumed it would always be there -- at least, as long as I was on this earth.

My thinking on that point had not changed a good decade later when President Ronald Reagan addressed an audience in West Berlin on June 12, 1987, and issued a bold challenge: "Mr. Gorbachev," he intoned, addressing the leader of the Soviet Union as the ultimate authority responsible for the existence of the Berlin Wall, "tear down this wall!" Thrilling words indeed. I don't know just what President Reagan was expecting at the time, but I do recall my own reaction. I thought it was political rhetoric that would mean little in the long run. How wrong I was!

In 1989, the mighty Berlin Wall did come down. It was a time of euphoria -- almost anything seemed possible! In those heady days, it felt like a new era was dawning. It seemed almost Biblical, like the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. The peoples of East Berlin and East Germany and the Communist zone would now be free to travel and perhaps seek their fortune elsewhere. The free flow of people and goods and information made possible by the toppling of the wall seemed to me profoundly Western but also deeply Christian.

I do recall at the time that there were a few hard-bitten types among us who muttered quietly: One day we will miss that wall and wish we could have it back. They were reflecting on a sad reality: the fact is that the Berlin Wall not only kept people inside the Eastern zone people and restricted their movement but also kept "undesirables" out, that is, out of the Western zone. Throughout many centuries of European history, there have been fears of masses of people sweeping in from the East, people who seem less civilized than those of us who trace their roots to Western Europe, people who will overrun us and degrade our society. And so the cynics wondered whether the Berlin Wall had not served a good purpose all those years. After all, hadn't Western Europe prospered during the years in which the wall defined its eastern frontier?

Now a structure akin to the Berlin Wall is in the news again: the state of Israel is being much criticized for building a wall around itself in order to keep out terrorists and suicide bombers. As I follow the discussions concerning this new wall, I find two feelings in my heart battling it out for supremacy. On the one hand, there is a great sadness within me at the prospect that human beings must build high walls in order to be able to live in peace with one another. It is often said that good fences make for good neighbors, but I'm not particularly enamored of fences. I do not fence off my own property from the folks who walk by on the sidewalk that runs in front of my house. And I understand why the enclosures movement in the history of Great Britain brought about so much grief and was met with such opposition. Surely our human aspiration and destiny is the free flow of people across borders. And so one cannot help but be saddened by what Israel is doing.

But there is another feeling in my heart, a feeling born of love of the Jewish people and love of the state of Israel. I am deeply committed to the security of the Jews living there, and I understand viscerally why they feel they need to defend themselves by keeping out the undesirables, that is to say, those who attack them. Naturally, in the process of keeping out the undesirables, they also make it difficult -- if not impossible -- for many Arab Palestinians to enter Israel and continue with work that they have been doing there to earn a living and support their families. And so the wall creates great economic hardship.

Even so, I cannot bring myself to condemn Israel's action. I do, however, join with many concerned people around the world in wondering just where such a wall should and could be built -- probably not where it is being built right now. Yet I would defend the right of any nation to erect such a wall on its own territory if it felt threatened by its next-door neighbor. But in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, it is not clear just what is and is not Israel's own territory. Its borders have been in dispute ever since the proclamation of the Jewish state back in 1948. Some would-be peacemakers maintain that the borders that were in effect in the year such-and-such should suddenly be adopted as definitive, and that Israel should accordingly be instructed that its wall must follow that particular border. I do not accept such reasoning, for no proper peace has ever been concluded between Israel and those who claim its land.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine that Israel must somehow be required to regard itself as a nation without fixed borders, and therefore unable or ineligible to erect solid defenses against those who wish to slaughter its civilians. And so it is inevitable that there will seem to be something arbitrary about the wall Israel is building. All in all, the wall in Israel is a very sad commentary on human affairs.

I make all these observations as a Canadian. I suppose I should go on to boast about the "longest undefended border in the world," which is how we used to refer to the border between the United States and Canada. Now, the United States is by no means incapable of constructing something akin to the Berlin Wall: the border between the United States and Mexico at the southern end of California is solid evidence in this regard. But, thanks be to God, we do not have such a wall between the United States and Canada. We have long prided ourselves on being good neighbors to one another.

On the other hand, it must also be recognized that a recurring topic of political discussion in Canada ever since the distressing events of 9/11 is that U.S. attitudes about borders have changed. Fears on the part of Americans about Canada as a safe haven for terrorists and as a base from which to strike the United States have led to periodic "border crackdowns." In some cases there have been slowdowns which have imposed significant economic hardship and inconvenience on Canadians who are accustomed to trading with the United States and traveling there on a regular basis. In this regard, we can sympathize with the Palestinians. We may be a bit paranoid, but sometimes it seems to us that there is something almost vindictive in the American attitude toward the border. Perhaps in frustration over being brutally attacked by such an elusive enemy, the Americans needed to lash out somewhat, and Canada became the scapegoat. We almost came to be regarded as the enemy in the post-9/11 period.

Even our flag has become suspect in the United States. Some time ago, my daughter Abigail posted a replica of the Canadian flag in her window in a town-housing complex in Denver. It seemed a perfectly ordinary thing to do, and in her Canadian upbringing she was accustomed to seeing the American flag flying in Canada. (It is worth noting that the U.S. flag was flown by a great many Canadian homes and other establishments in the wake of 9/11 as a gesture of solidarity.) But Abigail encountered hostility because of her display of the Canadian flag, almost as though it represented the enemy. Nowadays it seems hard to persuade Americans that we Canadians are their allies and have sided with them through many campaigns and wars.

Because of the new American apprehension about the border with Canada, some of the charm of living in North America has evaporated, as far as I'm concerned. I would like to think of North America as a place where age-old ethnic hostilities and rivalries do not need to lead to armed conflict and bloodshed. But gradually, something of the feisty contentiousness of the Old World is invading our continent, with the result that we are having a harder time than in just getting along with one another than we used to.

I suppose Marshall McLuhan would have understood all of this. Decades ago he realized that our world was becoming a "global village." How right he was! Part of what this means is that the computers on which we depend so heavily are now linked on a worldwide basis, which entails that they become vulnerable to interference or even some form of attack from people in distant countries of which we may never even have heard. Likewise, obscure quarrels in distant countries become a danger to peace and security in the New World.

When one adds all of this up, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Americans do have some good reason for apprehension and concern. No one who ponders what happened on 9/11 can seriously expect the Americans to be complacent about borders and security. Just as I could not, with a straight face, advise Israel to do nothing in response to Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, so I could not advise the United States to return to its pre-9/11 posture in relation to the terrorist threat. And while I do not expect the erection of a wall between Canada and the United States, I do accept that more concern about the border is a permanent condition of life in North America.

In Christian terms, it is a rather sad subject I am discussing. The Christian ideal would be to live in a kingdom without borders in which all human beings share in the benevolence which God showers upon his creatures, especially upon humankind. The terminology we use in the Calvinistic world reflects this desire and aspiration. When we talk about the "universal kingship of Christ," we do not envision a kingdom chopped up into territories and provinces, with structures akin to the Berlin Wall separating those territories from one another. Rather, we presume that in the kingdom of God, a kingdom without borders, we are free to come and go at will. And in that kingdom, we expect to encounter no opposition to fellowship and interchange with human beings of cultural orientations different from our own. We sing: "Elect from every nation, yet one o'er all the earth" (part of the beloved hymn "The Church's One Foundation").

It would seem, then, that Christian thought has no place for a "wall of partition" (see Ephesians 2:14) that would divide people into categories or groups that need to be kept separate from one another. In Christ, echoing Galatians 3:28, there is not supposed to be male and female, Jew and Greek, and so forth. And if there are still walls and fences and guards to keep out undesirables, we must attribute such sorry realities to the influence of sin in our lives. Hence we look forward to the overthrow not just of sin but also of sin's effects: in other words, we dream of a universal kingdom without borders.

We may think back to the situation in the Garden of Eden. We are informed in Genesis 3 that our first parents were driven out of the Garden and kept from returning by cherubim bearing flaming swords. "He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life." [Genesis 3:24] A sober picture indeed.

When we turn to the very end of the Bible, we might expect that all walls are flattened in order that that worldwide kingdom without borders might become a reality. But what we read in the final chapter of the Bible is not that such a kingdom descends from heaven. Instead we hear talk of a "city." And the city turns out to have walls and gates! The gates, presumably, allow people to pass in and out of the city. But we are also told about those who are "outside": "Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood." [Verse 15] It appears that a fundamental division continues: "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy" [Verse 11]

The reference to walls and gates is also picked up in Revelation 21, the second-last chapter, where we learn that the city has a "great, high wall" with no fewer than twelve gates (see verse 12). The city thus takes on something of the appearance of a fortress.

In terms of the perspective developed in this small essay, Revelation 21 and 22 can almost be read as a disappointment. One might feel inclined to ask: can we not, at the end of time, knock down every wall and invite everyone in and abolish the category of the "undesirables"? What would President Reagan say?

I suppose I should avoid making too much of the image of the city with walls, as though Revelation 21 and 22 were offering us some sort of "proof text." But I cannot help but be reminded of Augustine and his preoccupation with the theme of the city. Here on earth, prior to the return of Christ, he saw humankind as being divided between two cities -- the city of God and the city of man.

Naturally, one would like to see the fundamental religious division that seems to cut through our race abolished in the life to come. But what Scripture presents is a well-built city with a wall and twelve gates. Do we dare to hope that the picture painted for us in Revelation 21 and 22 represents not the end but the beginning of a further development of the history of the human race, a development in which it finally becomes possible that all the walls surrounding our cities -- including any future Berlin and Jerusalem -- could be knocked down, so that we human beings would be free to travel and traffic anywhere? END

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