Yesterday, I was in a car parked in a lot, waiting for some friends visiting Panama City. They soon will return to the United States so they were busy in the lot getting the needed negative covid antigen tests. Passing the time, I was looking around and my eye came across a wall with glass shards embedded in a layer of dried cement. Immediately, my mind went to Ein Kerem (a Jerusalem suburb) where I lived for six months during my seminary training. The Franciscans there had the same shard glass topping on their wall. When I saw this for the first time, I thought that it would be quite a deterrent for someone thinking about climbing the wall! Through the months I saw many such walls in Israel and yesterday in the San Francisco neighborhood of Panama City.
I did not grow up with outdoor walls, but white picket fences. They were very pretty and fun to keep one’s balance while walking on the upper support beam, but they were also a nuisance to have to paint! They also allowed for a clear distinction of property lines yet permitted for over-the-fence chit-chat, the petting of friendly neighborhood of dogs, and old-fashioned seeing what neighbors are up to. As such, outdoor walls were friendly in nature to me.
I didn’t give much thought to walls until I was a monk at Saint John’s Abbey. The community was concerned about some degree of privacy in the front area of the monastery. The concern was not selfish because it also intended to provide more privacy for those who were lodged in the first-floor guest rooms. It was common that visitors to the campus would wander into more or less private areas, not to invade privacy, but just to see more. A wall was the agreed-upon solution, but the community was also very sensitive to any perceived violation of the Benedictine spirit of hospitality. The design therefore of the wall was to be high enough to say, “I am a wall”, yet the community elected to insert a large open space in the middle length of the wall. The open space said, “We’re here.” The main entrance of the wall did not have a gate and this said, “Welcome.” It was a good wall.
Being in the priesthood studies program at the School of Theology at Saint John’s University, I was privileged to spend a semester in Jerusalem. This is where I saw my first menacing wall. I also saw many more walls of such a nature in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Some walls were covered with barbed wire, some had razor-blade-like toppings. As I said, my upbringing never put me in contact with scary or mean walls. Although, I do remember visiting a penitentiary in Montana; That had scary mean walls!
When I moved to Phoenix, I encountered outdoor walls galore. Six-feet high walls were part and parcel of every development. I often wondered why walls were so prominent, especially in the newer areas of the metropolitan area. Surely, they provided a modicum of privacy and perhaps even safety? Some suggested that walls were a way of keeping blowing dust at bay. That also made sense, but Phoenix is not particularly known as a windy city unless it is in monsoon season which produced (at least in the old days before the city grew so large) rainstorms and huge walls of dust called haboobs. A six-foot wall could not protect any property from dust and debris. Alas, Phoenix is a city of walls no matter the rationale for them.
Above is a photo of a portion of the Great Wall of China. This wall is enormous, as high as it is wide and long. It was built during various centuries to keep enemies from the west out. Today, of course, it is a tourist attraction. Most people remember the misery of the Berlin Wall and its famous erection and demise in 1961 and 1989 respectively. Israel has built a wall, the United has built a wall and so have many countries, nations, and principalities. The basic idea was for protection, but walls also grew out of hatred, fear. A general idea about walls too is that they never deliver on their promise to protect. No matter the wall, people will find and have found a way to crash it.
There are lots of wall in the Bible. Psalm 18:29 indicates that God can help you leap over a wall…. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall (English Standard Version). Of course, everyone knows about the crashing of the walls of Jericho: By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they were encircled for seven days… (King James Version, Hebrews 11:30). Depending on your bible, walls are mentioned from 58-63 times!
I have no regrets about encountering walls in my life, but I have certainly known they are of various characters: protective; mean-spirited; delineating, and even aesthetically necessary. In the wend, the best walls eventually fail or get by in their duty without a gate.