Build the Wall/Renounce Christ

Our town, Moberly, contains the dynamic of a nearly invisible internecine hostility. The large minority are of an underclass, consisting of the underemployed and unemployed, in which the stigma of poverty, drug addiction, and mental illness are centered. The wall which separates this dispossessed underclass from the possessed and empowered is not merely money but it is an order of religion which is the religion of this place. This was recently illustrated in the fight over Medicaid expansion. Extending health care to the poor is a “moral issue,” but not in the Christian moral sense of helping the poor. As one local politician who touts his practical, conservative, Christian faith, implied, this is a moral issue because these people are undeserving of even basic health care. Though the initiative for Medicaid expansion passed, the vehement opposition to helping 300,000 in the state of Missouri who live below the poverty line (including a disproportionate number of single mothers, those with mental illness, and those most likely to suffer from the coronavirus) revealed the deep antagonism.

There needs to be a line of separation from, and hostility toward the poor and minorities as these people somehow deserve this treatment and their dispossession implies a deserved possession. One would not want to identify with or be mistaken for such people as these are the excluded. The confederate flag is flown by the almost dispossessed, so that they might clearly demarcate themselves (in this area called “Little Dixie”) but the evangelical faith sometimes functions very much like a confederate flag for those more financially able. The religion serves to create a degree of separation (a bubble of division), which with its undercurrent of racism and classism, depends upon literal and metaphorical walls.

Paul describes Christ as breaking down the dividing wall of hostility, but to grasp the significance of this broken wall, it is necessary to understand how hostility constitutes our world. It is not just that we require the immigrants be kept on the other side of the wall, or that we require the barrier to sustain the identity on this side of the wall. We live and move and have our being in identities provided by walls of hostility. This hostility resides within and is the vortex by which we are surrounded. The wall, in Paul’s explanation, is an identity which would use the law/wall as its primary mode of identity for God and for self. Where we identify with the law, there is a part of us which would become the law and a part of us against which this law is enacted. The force of the law, which we would take up into ourselves, becomes at the same time a force against us. To occupy the place of hostility, to enact the law and its ethic, is to enact the division. The divide defines what is included by what is excluded. Jews are not Gentiles but the law of the mind is set over and against the law of the body. The ego is over and against the superego. The desire of the flesh is over and against the desire of conscience. The feeling of inferiority is enacted from a supposed agent of superiority. The more the inferior is ground into the dirt the more the superior is made to feel power and position. The more the slave is made to feel the lash, to that degree the master is empowered (whether within a singular individual or between individuals). The masochistic pain is enjoyed by the agent enacting the pain. The policeman, as the agent of the law, is afforded the pleasure of inflicting the power of the law in the currency of pain. This is a psychology and a sociology.  

This wall, as Paul describes it, is not of divine construction but is constituted by human hostility, though the human tendency is to project this hostility onto God. In this, it is not a problem of the law but it is what we would do with the law. The Jewish law may be holy and good but we are not, and what we would do with the law demonstrates we would make a religion of the law as we would make a religion of hostility. In the religion of Lamech, for example, he is the embodiment of the law and presumes to enact the vengeance of God promised to Cain. Lamech puts on display the notion of a law immediately enacted within himself, in righteous murder, which is the presumption of the murderous generation of Noah. Righteous killing describes the deep satisfaction of those who have inured themselves to murder and war, those who have learned to enjoy their work (as soldiers, politicos, or enforcers of righteousness), those who have completely identified with the purposes of the state, the purposes of the mob, or who presume to embody the avenging power of the law.

In religious myth, death or hostility is the power of order and division and typically depicts the death of a god (Tiamat, Izanami etc.) as the birth of the world (see my explanation here). For example, in the Babylonian myth the cadaver of the god forms the canopy of heaven. The stars themselves exercise this power of hostility, causing sickness, disease, plague, and death, and even a sophisticate like Aristotle, presumed the stars were divine and unfriendly. The world is constituted in hostility and we might try to redirect the violence (scapegoating religion), explain it (we have been stricken by God and need to appease him), or succumb to it or embrace it by identifying with the hostility. To identify with and redirect the hostility on those who deserve it, is the religion of law and order. The identification of God with the law makes hostility the power of his presence so that war (as in the worship of Mars) is worship and service. We can witness the strength of his power through the division, through the exclusion of others, and through the violence that falls upon the objects of his wrath.

Maybe in American literature and imagination it was Mark Twain, in his depiction of Huckleberry Finn, who comes closest (in spite of or due to his antagonism to the accepted religion) to describing the gospel, which would dissolve the religion of division. Huck knew from his “slender Church goin,” just as Samuel Clemens knew from his, that the weight of the religion was behind slavery. The Bible itself, the mores of the religion and the community, informed Huck that the Christian thing to do would be to turn in the runaway slave, Jim. Huck knows his soul is damned to hell should he help Jim escape. He pens a letter to Miss Watson (Jim’s “rightful owner”), explaining where Jim is and figures in this way to save himself. Then he begins to have second thoughts about the two of them “a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing” and he weakens in what he knows is his Christian duty. As he examines the letter, he knows he must choose forever between two things: heaven and hell. He pauses for a minute, then declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter to pieces. Helping Jim means a betrayal of the society of Hannibal, a betrayal of the law, and ultimately a scorning of his religious duty. This is the Christian moment in the story, the moment when the wall of separation between Huck and Jim is torn down.

The problem, as Paul explains, is not with the law but with this orientation to the law. It is only the Jew who ceases to cling to the law delineating his Jewishness, the Gentile who ceases to refuse the Jew, the master who can embrace his slave as an equal, the man who can love his wife as Christ loves her, that can enter through the broken dividing wall. Those who would sustain the laws of normalcy take it as obvious that one man must die, that sacrifices are necessary, that some must be trodden on, that evil must be done that good will abound. Living within the domain of the law is intellectually satisfying as the worst evil can be accounted for and it is existentially satisfying as it separates one out, as a law-keeper or even law-enforcer, from those who experience evil. This is not God’s wall but a human wall. It is this wall of human hostility that separates from the reality of God. This is the wall Christ has torn down and to confuse this wall and its maintenance with the Christian faith must be a form of blasphemy. 

That Building a wall on our southern border mixes so easily with evangelical belief must mark a characteristic form of this faith.  It is a religion which seems to depend upon walls and is not the faith which Paul describes as breaking down this wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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