“I will be a wall for them"

What's in a wall? On Sunday, one of the women in our RCIA group mentioned that she is an elementary schoolteacher and last week the children in her class, shaken by the result of the election, were drawing walls.

"They're frightened," she said. "They are worried about what having a wall is going to mean. Their pictures were all about fear of the Wall." Her voice got anxious in the way everyone's voice seems to get these days, as she painted for us a picture of her students drawing pictures about their fear of walls, about their fear of the Wall that the adults have convinced them is going to bring about the end of the world. Nothing good, she seemed to be suggesting, could possibly come of a wall. One of the men made a joke about drawing birds flying over the wall, but even he didn't seem convinced that it was possible to take away the power of the Wall. Walls, my new friends seemed to agree, are bad.

Medieval Europeans, particularly town dwellers, would most likely have heard this as crazy talk. Walls are scary? No, they would insist, walls are about protection; walls are about creating places of refuge against attack. Walls create not just cities, but citizenship, as well as exemptions from taxation and the jurisdiction of local feudal lords. Walls are good. So good, in fact, that in the Song of Songs, the bride compares herself to a wall: "I am a wall," she says, "and my breasts are as a tower since I am become in his presence as one finding peace" (Song of Songs 8:10 Douay-Rheims).

Mary as city
Wellesley College, MS 19, fol. 319
As one early twelfth-century Christian commentator on the Song of Songs read this verse, it is the Mother of God who is speaking here. "I will be a wall for them," the Virgin Mary promises her people, the Jews, at which her Son assures her, likewise in the words of the Song (8:9): "If she [that is, the Synagogue] be a wall, let us build upon it." In the year 1100, most likely the time that the commentator Honorius Augustodunesis was writing, this was no idle promise. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, in A.D. 1100, "such anxieties were terribly, horrifically raw...
Only four years earlier, in the spring of the year 1096, roused by the call of Pope Urban II to go to the defense of the Holy Land, certain knights setting out through the Rhineland stopped along the way, intending, it would seem, at least initially, to exact money for the expedition from the noncombatants in the towns; tragically, their demands soon escalated to insistence that the Jews of the Rhineland accept baptism or die. In some instances, the Jews were afforded more or less effective protection by the bishops and burghers--and walls--of the towns; in others, most notably at Worms, Mainz, and Cologne, they were not, and thousands died."
Not all, it should be noted, died at the hands of the crusaders. As Christian chroniclers recorded to their horror, many Jews killed themselves and their children rather than be defiled by the waters of baptism. I talk in detail about why they killed themselves in my book; it has to do with theology, which matters. In the context of Honorius's Sigillum beatae Mariae or Seal of Blessed Mary, Mary becomes a wall for the Synagogue, standing for the Jews until the end of time when no man should despise [her] (Song of Songs 8:1) for all would by then come to believe that she gave birth as a Virgin--and thus be saved. But until then, Honorius made clear, Mary would protect them--as, indeed, the walls of Speyer protected the Jews of the town in 1096, so that they were not murdered by Count Emicho of Leiningen, the leader of the worst band of crusaders, and his men.

To judge from my friends' and neighbors' responses over the past year to now-President-elect Trump's proposal to build a wall--more properly for much of its length, most likely a fence, much as Senators Obama and Clinton agreed should be built in 2006--along the southern border of our nation, walls are instruments of war, not peace. Walls hurt people rather than protect them. They split up families, make neighbors enemies, incite violence, and deprive people of jobs. They are the first step in sending in murderous robots with penis-rockets to kill everyone who would seek a better life on the other side of the wall--robots which can only be defeated by the Virgin Mary and a sacred chicken. (Mary doesn't mess about when she is protecting her people; she has rockets, too. And chickens.)

Which tends to suggest that the people on the southern side of the proposed wall agree: they have something to flee, if their only hope of a good life is on the U.S. side of the border. What, then, does the Wall actually mean? In the M.A.M.O.N. video, the Wall is depicted as a way of keeping people in Mexico so that the Trump-robot can come kill them, much as the crusaders following Emicho broke through the walls of the towns along the Rhine so as to kill the Jews. But the walls of the towns along the Rhine were built specifically so as to keep people like Emicho out so as to protect the towns and their wealth (the proximate reason for Emicho's going after the Jews--he wanted to steal their money), not by the crusaders so as to keep the people in.

Imagine a wall. Where are you standing? Are you standing in front of the wall, looking up at it? Or are you standing on top of the wall, looking down? How does where you are standing change the way you feel about the wall? My guess is this: standing in front of the wall, you feel threatened, shut out; standing on top of the wall, you feel safe. At least, that is, if you are imagining a city wall. There are other kinds of walls: prison walls, the Berlin Wall, Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Prison walls are designed to keep people in. The Berlin Wall was designed to keep the people of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) out of the Federal Republic of Germany's (West Germany's) half of the city. (The East German government built the wall, not the West.) Pink Floyd's Wall was built in his head by Pink to wall himself off from human interaction, including the education, a.k.a."thought control", that he and his classmates didn't need. (In the video of the song, Pink fantasizes about the students trashing the school that has been turning them into sausage meat.) Can it be a coincidence that Roger Water's touring production of "The Wall" lasted for three years and is coming back? (Here's my take back when I saw it in 2010; I would be harsher now, I suspect.) Israel is building a wall along the West Bank, as are the French and the English around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel at Calais.

Border Wall-enthuisiast, Trump-advocate, and gay German-English Catholic Jew Milo Yiannopoulos likes to say that the election we just experienced was fought not on the level of politics, but rather on the level of culture. That Trump won, he insists, is because people care more about culture than they do about politics because politics--that is, the policies that we argue over through our representatives about how to apportion the necessarily scarce resources of our polity--is always downstream from culture. Which might seem rather silly, until you realize that culture here means more than just food, clothing, home furnishings, music, and language--all of the things that it is fun to adopt coming from another culture--but rather, and more importantly, the ideas we carry about in our heads about what is valuable, worth living for and possibly, if necessary, dying for. Ideas, as Milo likes to list them, like private property, democracy, capitalism, and human rights. The problem is (pace Milo, who likes to tell people who try to shame each other into changing their ideas by talking about how offended they are, "Fuck your feelings!"), people do not live by ideas, they live by feelings, specifically feelings about the ideas by which they justify their feelings. Feelings about things like mercy, justice, and walls, which are almost always embedded in their psyches so deeply they don't even experience them as feelings, simply truth.

Trinity Apocalypse
Trinity College R.16.2, fol. 25v
Walls are powerful things, they tug at everything we believe about civilization. Because, when it comes right down to it, without walls, there is no civilization. No cities, no culture, no politics. Walls do not just surround cities--at least, they used to surround cities, now we just have city limits. Walls make cities cities and their inhabitants citizens, as every ancient and medieval political theorist understood. This is why, when the seer of Revelation described the heavenly city, he focused above all on its great, high wall, with its twelve gates, three on each side. While the city, or so the seer says, was of gold, pure as glass, the wall was of jasper and its foundations of twelve precious stones, while the gates were made of pearls and the streets of pure, transparent gold (Revelation 21:10-21). This holy city was the bride of God, adorned for her husband with beauty and light, that he might dwell in her with his people. As the seer heard a loud voice from the throne in the midst of heaven cry out: "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:3-4 RSV).

One of the things that people in America have a hard time understanding at present is the degree to which almost all of our deepest ideals, whether we are secular humanists, Christians, atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or culturally of any other faith tradition, come from this Christian vision of the city of God: lit by the Lamb, its gates always open, inhabited by peoples of all nations, free of pain and death, all fed by the fruit from the Tree of Life standing beside the throne of the Lamb. To suggest to an American that someone does not belong in the city of God is quite possibly the worst sin imaginable, even worse than voting for Donald Trump. It is to deny others their humanity, their possibility of salvation, their very life. No wonder we get so anxious when someone suggests that we might build a wall around our country, even for the sake of protecting our borders against the work of the drug cartels, never mind terrorists. It is inconceivable that we might find it just to think we could close off our country, that City on the Hill, founded to be a light to the nations; it would be as if we wanted to close our country off to God.

And yet, even the Heavenly City beheld by the seer had walls. Does that make the Heavenly City evil? No, as everyone who has ever fought with a neighbor over what belongs on whose side of the fence knows. Walls may be offensive or defensive, but their primary purpose, as the bride of the Song put it so well, is not war, but peace. "I was a wall," she says, "and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace" (Song of Songs 8:10 RSV). That, after all, is the meaning of her name: Jerusalem, "City of Peace".

h/t Paul Halsall for the M.A.M.O.N. link.

Popular posts from this blog

Risus et bellum

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

Notes from the Electric Underground: A Mosaic

Mask Addiction

“There's a fencing analogy for that"*