Robert Frost said in one of his masterpieces, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and further on in the same poem (“Mending Wall”) he adds, “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 offence.” That last word is one of Frost’s mischievous puns, not a spelling error, and it is even an alternative spelling in British English. Later, he repeats, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and this time he adds, “That wants it down.”
But his neighbor famously replies, “Good fences make good neighbors.” A too quick reading of the poem might lead one to think that the neighbor is delivering time-tested, good-old Yankee wisdom. However, this is is not the import of the poem — quite the reverse. The point of the poem is that building walls is a fruitless enterprise, “Oh, just another kind of out-door game, / One on a side. It comes to little more.”
As most of us know by now, Frost wrote about extremely complicated issues while clothing them in deceivingly simple farmhand work duds. He was a poetic genius of the first order and one of the greatest in any language. His poems are rarely overtly religious, but he called himself “an Old Testament Christian.” One of his best friends, who lived near Frost’s summer home in Ripton, was Rabbi Victor Reichert from Ohio. The two of them often ruminated on religion together, as is shown in a series of letters made public in 2013 and now housed at the University of Buffalo library.
Building a wall is, to a greater or lesser extent, an action that entails a certain type of ethno-religious foundation. Along these lines, the word “religion” descends from the Latin verb “religare,” meaning to bind fast, to place an obligation on, to create a bond. Building a wall means that the people building it think of themselves as being bound together against the “others” on the other side of the wall, from whom the wall builders are decidedly different and from whom the wall builders believe they need protection. The wall builders are bound together by particular ethnic, social and religious convictions.
The opposite thing from a wall is a bridge. A fascinating tidbit from the history of language in the West is that the ancient Romans employed the word “pontifex” to refer to a high priest in the Roman state religion. A regular priest or priestess was called a “sacerdos” (from which we get our word “sacred”). The word “pontifex” means, literally, “bridge builder.” Around the year 700 BCE, the king of Rome created the office of the “Pontifex Maximus” (literally Supreme Bridge Builder) to oversee all the pontifexes and temple priests in the city. Clearly, the aim of the Pontifex Maximus was to “build bridges” between the myriad collection of religious officials connected with myriad gods and goddesses. (In the 400s CE, the function of Pontifex Maximus passed on to the Bishop of Rome, when the official religion of the Roman empire became Christianity.)
A few days ago, the current holder of the ancient office of Pontifex Maximus, Pope Francis, spoke in Panama and called upon Catholic youth to be builders of bridges and not “builders of walls that sow fear and look to divide and box people in.” Despite what a fair number of those on the Religious Right in the U.S. might claim, from its very inception Christianity has been a bridge-building and not a wall-building religion. The Rabbi from Nazareth used his encounters with the Samaritans, whom the Judeans despised, to demonstrate the unity of humanity — these are the narratives of the Samaritan woman at the well and the good Samaritan on the road.
The simple fact is: Christians who deserve the name cannot be wall builders, especially in this day and age. Wall building was most especially a pre-Christian and non-Christian enterprise. Think of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England; think of the Great Wall of China; think of the Berlin Wall; think of the Nazi walls surrounding the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps. Another simple fact is: If you need to build a wall, you’re doing something wrong, both in building the wall itself and in doing whatever it was in the first place that caused the need for a wall.
This raises a closely related question: Can Christians who deserve the name be nationalists, or worse, white nationalists? This answer is emphatically “no.” Like it or not, the answer is “no.” This is why, for example, the Nazi Party in Germany and the Communist Party in Russia had to shut down (or totally pervert and impoverish) Christianity in those countries. A frightening corollary is now taking shape in the secularized First World: Can secularized, post-Christian countries overcome the ancient, primordial urge for societies to become virulently nationalistic? It is no accident that with the decreasing role of Christianity in Europe we are seeing increasing levels of right-wing, populist, nationalistic rhetoric and politicians of that ilk winning seats. The two things are connected.
And, in the United States we have a relatively new form of Protestantism (the Evangelical Right) that has turned its back on many of the most fundamental principles of the Christian religion, including the crucial, keystone principle of the universal brother- and sisterhood of humanity. The current president of the United States and the current GOP, by their actions, are proving beyond the shadow of doubt that they are not decent Christians. Of course, this would not matter in the slightest (to me or anyone) if it weren’t for the stark fact that they shout over and over that they are the Christian party. You can’t have it both ways, boys. And they are boys, by the way — hardly a single female in the batch.
The current president and the GOP have also shown that they are willing to ignore the important Christian value that laborers should be paid for their labor: Deuteronomy 24:15, “Pay them their wages each day before sunset,” and 1 Timothy 5:18, “The worker deserves his wages.” Again, these men have absolutely no obligation under the laws of our country to obey Biblical teachings, but there’s the fact that these same men loudly claim to all that they are the ones upholding “Christian values.” Something about hypocrisy comes to mind.
This business about the wall on our Mexico border is about things that are larger than immigration from Central America. This wall has become, with poetic justice, a stumbling block tripping our country’s government (and soul?) into revealing its deepest foibles and flaws — one might even say sins. How far is the Right willing to go, how many people — citizens and potential citizens — is the Right willing to traumatize in misguided worship of a golden calf in the form of a thousand-mile wall? How is this defensible?
We can build walls or we can build bridges. It’s our choice.
To return to Mr. Frost’s poem: His final, poignant image is of his neighbor approaching from his side of the wall, “Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top / In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.”
Is this what we want to become?
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.