Over the coming days, in preparation for Good Friday and Easter, many churches will be echoing to the sound of a familiar hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away, without a city wall.’ As a child I was intrigued by these words. ‘Why should a green hill have a city wall in the first place?’ I wondered. Eventually I discovered that ‘without’ meant ‘outside’ and all became clear. However, at a time when President Trump is agitating to complete a wall at the Mexican Border, when the wall erected between Israel and Palestine continues to provoke violence and when the UK is considering what kind of wall it will be erecting between itself and the European Union (EU), these words from a hymn written for children in the nineteenth century provide and point to rich metaphors for inclusion and exclusion, membership and separation. But walls are not always bad news. While they would be ineffective against modern weaponry, walls have, in the past, protected inhabitants against physical attacks when special measures are required to protect citizens. Walls also have a role in boundaries and identities. But what exactly is happening when walls (real or otherwise) are erected? Intriguingly, the dynamic of walls, cities and gates in the Hebrew and Christian tradition provides significant insights into human relating and flourishing and sheds light on the issues currently facing the UK and EU as there is negotiation about a future relationship.
The ‘city wall’ to which the hymn refers is Jerusalem’s and the hymn’s subject is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The crucifixion took place outside the city wall, in a place where the rubbish and impurities of the city were cast. This is in contrast with inside the city wall, with its Temple, which was regarded by the established religious authorities as the place of purity and order. With the crucifixion happening in a place of impurity and disgrace, the small and beleaguered group of Jesus Christ’s followers were being told that the most important events in his life, his death and resurrection, transformed a place of impurity and disgrace into a place of heavenly blessing. There were no exclusion zones for God. They were also being told something quite shocking and countercultural, namely that it was inside the city, rather than outside, where the real impurities lay. South American theologian Orlando Costas argues the point powerfully, ‘Salvation lies outside the gates of cultural, ideological, political and socioeconomic walls that surround our religious compound and shape the structures of christendom.’ In other words, there are greater riches outside the city than within it and it is from there that liberation comes, often from those on society’s edge.
The Bible sheds light on another insight about walls. Generally, cities are regarded with ambivalence within the scriptures – they can be loved and hated. However, both the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, and New Testament, in the book of Revelation, share a vision of the city of Jerusalem (referred to as ‘new’ Jerusalem in the book of Revelation) in a future age as being the city of God. The writers were saying that this is where where people would be freed to live life in all its fullness. Revelation’s description draws on Isaiah’s and so there are similarities, but one striking feature in both accounts is that the gates of the city are always open, day and night (Isaiah 60.11 and Revelation 21.25). With the gates open day and night, there will be constant and open dialogue between what happens within the city walls and what happens outside. With the gates constantly open, the function of the walls changes. They no longer protect citizens from the outside since there is a freedom to come and go. Citizens are not prevented from leaving. Neither are those on the outside prevented from entering if they choose to do so. In these circumstances the walls become boundaries. When the gates are closed, the walls are barriers. Boundaries are, by their very nature, flexible and moveable: barriers are designed to prevent entry and exit.
Human beings need boundaries. They flourish in a boundaried space. But they diminish in a barriered space. Boundaries enable identity to be developed: open gates provide opportunities for women and men to draw on resources beyond those boundaries and enrich their identities. Barriers, on the other hand, prevent communication and growth except in very controlled ways. While they may encourage close fellowship to those within – a looking back to a golden age (the ‘good old days’) and an enthusiastic regard for traditions (traditionalism) – barriers restrict and trap.
These are considerations when building walls around ourselves, whether they are real or metaphorical, whether they are to surround a church or a nation. Bearing in mind the struggles around the UK and the EU discerning their future relationship, let us briefly highlight some issues identified here.
Are the walls boundaries or are they barriers? In order to flourish, everybody needs to belong, to feel safe and at home in their relationships and in the primary place they inhabit: this requires a boundaried space. At the same time, in order to grow and for life to be enriched there needs to be engagement with people and influences beyond the city walls: this requires open gates. All this raises questions about the ways in which the gates are managed and by the attitudes of the gate-keepers, who may be political or religious leaders. Are those outside the walls regarded as potential friends and allies and even saviours or are they regarded as threats and enemies and even potential destroyers? Recognising the needs of safety and recognising too that the arguments for safety can be ruthlessly exploited, are the gates open (even partially) or are they closed?
I recently returned from a visit to Seville in Spain where I was struck by the fact in medieval ‘Spain’ of collaboration between Islam and Christianity over several centuries produced vibrant art and culture still apparent and enjoyed in contemporary Seville. However, it would be naïve to think that love and tolerance miraculously broke out between groups, often at loggerheads, to give birth to this creative heritage. There were disputes and fights arising from local interests and regional reorganisations that were later described as religious, but were not, in essence, at all religious: religion came to be the language of conflict, but rarely its cause. In the middle of dispute and untidiness, there were points of contact and collaboration between people of divergent view-points which has continued to influence Europe today. There were differences across the Iberian Peninsula, but even in the midst of difference and of complex circumstances, the gates of the city were not permanently closed. There were certainly more boundaries than barriers and many open gates.
My book, Unofficial God? Voices from Beyond the Walls develops the metaphors in this blog.
Image 1 by Foto-Rabe from ‘Pixabay.’
Image 2 is the Separation Wall in the West Bank.
Image 3 looks towards the Cathedral from the Alcazar (royal palace) in Seville showing a mixture of architectural styles.