Culture At Large

Remembering the Berlin Wall

Randall L. Bytwerk

The Berlin Wall went up 50 years ago - Aug. 13, 1961, to be exact. Although its builders called it the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall,”  its purpose was not to protect the citizens of East Germany but rather to be sure that a planned economy could plan on the number of citizens it would have. It stopped a population hemorrhage, as about a quarter of the country’s citizens had left all they had behind to escape a society dedicated to building a socialist utopia in a “better Germany.”

The Wall served its purpose for the 28 years it stood. As many as 200 people died trying to cross it, but most East Germans, with little choice in a bad situation, turned their small nation into the most economically successful of the Soviet bloc states. Even so, once the books were opened it turned out that East Germany was hopelessly in debt.

Twenty eight years is a moment in human history. Some past walls stood for centuries, even a millennium or more. Yet every major wall ultimately failed or lost its purpose. Some were overcome by invaders. Jericho’s walls came crashing down at the Lord’s command. The walls of Jerusalem, despite divine orders to build them, did not keep invaders out. Some walls became romantic curiosities. The walled city of Carcassonne was not intended as a tourist attraction. St. Peter was told that the very gates of Hell (which presumes Hell has walls, I suppose) will not prevail. Walls are transient, excepting perhaps the wall of the New Jerusalem that John saw, but I think he was seeing metaphors, for what need will the New Jerusalem have for defense?

Yet even vanished walls cast shadows. John Rodden, the Studs Terkel of East Germany, writes in his recent book, "The Walls That Remain: Eastern and Western Germans Since Reunification," that tearing down walls of concrete did not cause a millennial unified Germany: “Long after the Wall has fallen, the so-called Mauer im Kopf — ‘the Wall in their Heads’ — remains.

Scripture knows about such mental walls. In Ephesians we read that Christ “is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.” The two groups Paul is talking about are Jews and Gentiles, but surely he did not think only they had dividing walls of hostility. Galatians extends the campaign against mental walls to those separating men and women, slaves and the free, Jews and Greeks.

On the one hand the Church has a history of following Paul’s advice, of breaking down walls. On the other hand, it has built and defended them.  Sometimes that has been good, since walls can serve proper ends. But think of the walls between Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews, conservative and liberal (or progressive) Christians, the Reformed and the Christian Reformed (to bring it down to my direct experience).  How many of these walls will survive the Second Coming?

During this memorable anniversary I will think of the walls in my head, some of which have stood for a long time, and perhaps if I find even a portion of the courage of those who brought down the Berlin Wall (who knew well that its builders were prepared to kill to preserve it), I may even chip out some of the mental mortar that holds those walls together.

Got any walls of your own?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, World, North America