The Wall Within

“Build bridges, not walls,“ urged Pope Francis on a visit to my neighborhood (Ciudad Juarez/ El Paso) last year. This is the fourth in a series of posts on implementing that thought.

So many people on the political right were genuinely surprised when Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election. So many on the political left were likewise amazed when Hilary Clinton lost in 2016. When the people you talk to, the TV you watch, the “friends” you have on Facebook, all agree on who the best candidate is, it seems almost as if the election has been stolen when your candidate loses. But what has really been stolen is the civil conversation in which America functioned and indeed thrived. We don’t talk to each other anymore, not about the things that matter for our society to work well.

It is not that Americans used to agree about everything. Far from it. But what is different is, we used to discuss it. My parents’ home was the scene of many a lively debate among neighbors, friends and family about politics, religion, society, morals, education, a whole gambit of subjects and disagreement was rampant…and it was tolerated, even appreciated. The same was true of the communities I lived in back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Sometimes, it was ugly and spilled over into violence and intolerance. But usually we managed to keep it civil, the conversation kept going and often a synthesis eventually occurred.

That has changed. Invisible walls have been built. For the most part, we only talk with the half of Americans who more or less agree with us. Of course, we still encounter the others in public places and the workplace. Conversations still take place about sports and technical subjects, perhaps. For a long time, the weather and cars were safe to discuss. But with climate change, even these can erupt easily into controversy. Thus, we seldom venture outside the invisible walls which lock us into our own self-imposed ghettos of ideology.

And if Sunday morning used to be (and perhaps still is) the most racially segregated time of the week, it is now also the most politically segregated as well. If you attend a theologically conservative church, when did your congregation last have a two-sided dialog about welfare policy or public education, let alone civil marriage for gay people or about contraceptive and abortion choices? When was there any serious question about which political party to favor? It may be your church studiously avoids such subjects as inappropriate for church, and that is commendable and to be respected. But if you are a real community, you probably know the viewpoints of the other members. My guess is they are rarely political liberals, not just on ethical issues, but on all issues.

Many are not only content to live in a bubble of the like-minded but would be appalled at the idea of “the other half” showing up at church. Perhaps the “all welcome” on your sign out front or ad in the paper has some invisible small print stating that the offer is not valid for certain people.

It must be admitted that the invisible walls around most churches predate the current decline in public discourse, so perhaps churches were pioneers in only talking with those who agree with you and look like you. Some churches are honest about the walls. It is made clear, either in subtle and polite ways, or with pretty overt rudeness or elementary shunning, that only certain people need show up. But many churches talk a good line about evangelism or being a “friendly” church, yet really mean they want to target only certain people. The invisible walls around the church are matched by those around the individuals in the congregation, so there is little chance for evangelism to the “wrong” people to happen.

Such behavior is normal enough for organizations of all kinds, basic sociology. “Birds of a feather flock together.” But it was absolutely abnormal behavior for Jesus. Even a casual reading of the Gospels reveals, over and over, scenes where Jesus deliberately reached out to people seen as outside the bounds of his own society. There were lepers, Samaritans, gentiles, tax collectors, women living “in sin,” (i.e. in non-marital relationships), all manner of people frowned on by “decent folks.” When challenged, Jesus commented that these were the people he specifically was reaching. This is the core of his message. He is about grace, the unearned and unearnable gift of God’s love to all of us who do not deserve or merit it. Those most open to that message were, and are, people who know they are sinners in need of spiritual salvation. They were, if you like, the low-hanging fruit of grace-centered evangelism, hungry and even desperate for help.

They are certainly not the target of an evangelism of and for the self-appointed righteous. Therein lies a problem. It would appear that an uncomfortably large number of churches today are composed of Pharisees and the new people they seek are Pharisees or aspiring Pharisees. Because this has gone on for a long time, churches are identified in much of the public mind with the party of the Pharisees, and all the walls which come with that ideology. It is very compatible with a public discourse which associates only with the like-minded. If such people were, in fact, righteous, it would be different. But they are not. None of us are, and the sins of “decent folk,” are more serious, not because they are worse sins, but because they are unacknowledged and therefore unrepented. There is no wall higher than the one a self-righteous person builds towards God. Thus, the ministry of reaching the self-perceived righteous is a much tougher evangelism.

Who among us, then, speaks for Jesus? It would be nice to tell people in need of God’s grace to turn to a church. But that church and the people within may have walls preventing grace.

Perhaps this can help us understand why the Holy Spirit does not intervene as church membership declines, not only in the U.S. but throughout the Western world. Out of this decline can emerge a new birth, a community of sinful Christians where evangelism is about grace alone, for sinners only. If the party of the Pharisees is forced to release its grip on the suffering Body of Christ, it will be unlamented by the Trinity. The Puritan heritage in America, a worthy heir of the Pharisees, has done incalculable damage to the message of the unmerited grace of God. The passing of that heritage is long overdue.

Perhaps the new birth of the followers of Jesus in our time will ignite an evangelism like Jesus’. Martin Luther comments that this evangelism is like one beggar telling another where to find bread. If the church of the past several centuries pioneered in building the walls of an institution segregated by a whole variety of conditions, the new community of the Body of Christ can pioneer a future church without walls, a church of grace alone, filled with a repentant people without walls, a people who, following the example of Jesus, can move comfortably among all categories of humans, knowing that where we are most equal is in our failure to be righteous and our absolute need for grace.

If we Christians started with that, our leadership in public discourse would look quite different, our congregations would act quite differently. The evangelism of sacramental love, without walls, is transformative. We ought to try it.