The Mending Wall

Last week at our Council of Bishops meeting, our European episcopal leaders led us in a worship service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which was this past Saturday, November 9. How critical it is to remember.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Robert Frost’s famous 1914 poem Mending Wall, is a meditation told through the eyes of a landowner who, every spring, joins his neighbor in repairing/mending the stone wall that divides their properties.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most famous walls in human history. It is also a Mending Wall. When World War 2 ended in 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered by Nazi Germany, and the country was divided into occupied zones. The eastern part of the country was run by the Soviet Union, and the western part of the country was divided into three territories occupied by France, Britain, and the United States. The city of Berlin, located in Soviet territory in the east, was also divided into four parts for each of the four countries involved.

There were some years of relative calm during the Cold War, yet the East Germans suffered greatly. Their territory had not been rebuilt, and several thousand East Germans successfully fled to West Germany every day, seeking a better life. To stem the tide, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev urged East Germany to close off access between East and West Berlin. It was a hasty attempt to stanch the constant flow of refugees from East to West Germany.

Consequently, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid more than thirty miles of barbed wire barrier through the very heart of Berlin. Several days later, the barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall. In the twinkling of an eye, East German families were no longer allowed to travel to the west, and hundreds of families and friends were completely cut off from each other for what would become years.

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jews and Gentiles had been divided from one another through circumcision. Jews were to have no contact with Gentiles, who were not circumcised and were considered aliens, outcasts, unsaved. Yet, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all walls to faith have been removed.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:13-14, NRSV) The dividing wall became a mending wall.

For the next 28 years, Germany was a country divided, a literal “Iron Curtain” separating families through a series of check points. To ensure that no one could escape to the west, there were mines and machine gun emplacements, the walls were topped by barbed wire, and electric fences and watchtowers with armed guards and dogs dotted the landscape. When I lived in West Berlin in 1974-75, at the height of the Cold War, the walls circled the city with 75 miles of electrified fences plus 28 miles within the city. Many thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings, several thousand were able to escape, and several hundred were killed.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

In 1989, a wave of democracy swept through eastern Europe, including East Germany. Citizens became emboldened and demanded change, including the right to leave. Our German bishops told us about Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig (East Germany), who provided unique leadership during the resistance to the Communist regime. Atheism was the norm in East Germany at the time, and clergy were often spied on, but many of the churches still stayed open. St. Nikolai and other congregations provided a spiritual space where people were free to express their faith.

Leading up to November 9, 1989, thousands of people joined in vigils and marched in the streets of Leipzig, demanding freedom and the right to leave East Germany. On October 9, the movement would not be denied, as 70,000 people marched together in Leipzig against the Socialist Unity Party (SED), transforming their fear into courage. The police were armed but were not permitted to take action as long as the marchers were peaceful.

The communist regime was overwhelmed by this non-violent democratization movement sweeping across Eastern Europe. It was a kairos moment that no one had ever dared dream about. The East German government no longer controlled its people, for this revolution grew out of the church.

Finally, on November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West. With thousands of East Germans demanding to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, the German guards finally opened the borders. Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, took pieces of it as souvenirs and painted graffiti on it. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. East and West Germany were formally reunited in 1990.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

There is one German nation today because a wall that separated became a mending wall. This is not to say that walls don’t still exist today, however. Just as nationalist and tribal instincts continue to influence Germany, so you and I also struggle to create mending walls rather than separating walls.

The Holocaust has taught us much about creating walls that target those who are seen as “other.” The Nazis, who killed two out of every three Jews living in Europe during World War 2, focused their evil on other groups as well, including homosexuals, gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, political dissidents, homeless people, children, and persons of different religions and races other than Aryan.

The Berlin Wall has come to symbolize all of the ways in which we continue to love our walls. There are walls of the like-minded; economic walls that distinguish the haves and the have nots; religious walls that separate Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those who practice other faiths; and ethnic walls that discriminate against other races.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. In the midst of forces that will always seek to build walls in order to separate, however, the mending wall brings people together to create, repair, and unify. For Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, and our call is to ensure that all of the walls in this world become mending walls that bring hope and peace.

As we remember the legacy of the Berlin Wall, I invite you to ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor? Whom am I seeking to wall off from my comfortable existence? What are the forces that threaten to divide The United Methodist Church? And whom do I need to invite to mend the walls together?

9 thoughts on “The Mending Wall

  1. Thank you for this history, and how relevant it feels to the challenges before us in 2019. I was starting my (legal) career in 1989 and, honestly, I have little memory of these events. I certainly wasn’t aware then of the watershed that it actually was in our world history.
    It does seem to me that people more often remember and quote the words “Good fences make good neighbors” than “something there is that does not love a wall.” Both are true, in some circumstances. But the latter is so much more important.

  2. Thank you again for your gem! I remember quite well when it happened. As a matter of fact I couldn’t help but sing a line from an old spiritual, “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came tumblin’ down!”

  3. This post has been a blessing to me. I pray your observations and commentary on unnecessary walls cause us to humbly seek ways to dismantle them. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Bishop. Continue to encourage us to look beyond walls as barriers and focus on the mending opportunities—learning to love and appreciate differences that separate us though in truth have born no ill will or harm against God and the love of Christ.

  5. Yes. And yet we must not forget the pain and hurt and suffering and sacrifice that predated, and therefore, necessitated, the mending.

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