“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall …”

So begins Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall” from 1914 — musing on presumably his neighbor’s aphorism, inherited from his father, that “good fences make good neighbors.”

There is, to be sure, something wonderful about walls. My wife Kay and I enjoy a wall of brick and wood that surrounds the backyard of the manse in which we live. Above it peek the second stories of houses surrounding us, and within it we have delicious privacy. There are terraces and large oak trees (one of them sporting a swing). Elsewhere in the heavily Spanish-influenced architecture of this region, there are mossy walls that embrace urban patios, often richly decorated with sculptures and mobiles and covered in bright foliage. You can walk past blocks and blocks of such adobe walls and peek through iron gates that give a glimpse of joyful outdoor meals or happy hours. These are not menacing walls; they radiate domesticity and hospitality.

Some walls, though, are built to keep others (or maybe everyone) out. A pastor friend of mine once served an ancient church in Pennsylvania — a church that went back to the early 18th century. It sat near its own cemetery, and from its beginning the wall around it defined a definite territory in which some were welcome and others weren’t. There was a time when some persons were able to be buried within the cemetery walls and others were kept out. Was it Protestants preventing Catholics from being buried there? Or Union soldiers preventing the burial of Confederate soldiers? Or whites preventing African-Americans and Hispanics from burial? Honestly, I don’t remember particulars. Whomever was unwelcome in an earlier era of this church’s life, the matter of the wall’s exclusivity came to a head in this congregation, because some were buried inside the boundaries of the wall and others were buried outside of them, and this awareness created a crisis. A wise pastor suggested, “Why don’t we just move the wall?” And so, in a blessedly gospel moment, the church expanded the wall so that nobody was left outside.

I have in mind the “big, beautiful wall” being proposed in my region of this vast country. Some people (probably those not as likely to live in this region) may have decided that the argument for a wall makes perfect sense. But here, there is great consternation at the thought of a wall being built. What families will it separate and further impoverish? What environmental issues will it create? What ancient churches, or bird sanctuaries, or personal farms will it make inaccessible? Most of all, what good will it do? And what good will it make impossible? An argument about the wall protecting us from evildoers is woefully extreme, and statistics bear that out. That argument diminishes both its makers and its targets, and there is little about it that comes close to resembling the gospel of Jesus, of whom the writer of Ephesians once said, “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). If our gospel, by the way, is rebuffed because it doesn’t belong in this national conversation we’re having or because it’s not real-world enough to survive the rough-and-tumble of politics, then perhaps it’s because we have diminished it. Perhaps we need a bigger gospel — one bigger than walls, bigger than rhetoric, bigger than all the hostilities that divide us.

We need to expand our imaginations in this time when so many frightened lines are being drawn everywhere. We need to imagine that “other” as perhaps one we have not yet met, have not yet listened to, cried with, understood. We need to determine what we are walling in or walling out, and why. Only then can we “just move the wall” until it embraces us and no longer separates us. After all, with gospel eyesight, we know that walls do not necessarily make good neighbors.

Ted WardlawTheodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.