Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Ezra 10:6-14; Nehemiah 13:23-27) transports me fifteen years back when Kim and I were in the initial stages of building our house. It was as close as I’ve come to a community barn-raising, as we engaged the know-how and good will of many family and friends in all phases of the construction. Our know-how was limited to the gopher and grunt work jobs, and this particular day we were water-proofing the back basement wall, getting it ready for the gravel back-fill. We were hell-bent on having a dry basement, so we read up on all the various materials and methods, and wound up hedging our bets by brushing on an extra coat of Thoroseal, covered that with a thick layer of tar, and then added another coat of Thoroseal for good measure. My Dad, who was always on site helping with whatever there was to be done, did a lot of whistling through his teeth and shaking his head at the enthusiastic intensity with which we sought to protect that wall. It worked well, up until a year or so ago, when an earthquake up in Virginia rippled its way down to our place and shook the foundations. I heard a noise downstairs, went to investigate, and saw a bold stream of water gushing in through a hole in the wall, where the mechanical closet is. The earthquake had moved the ground enough to break a water pipe at the place where it came through the wall. Our enthusiastic energy quickly returned as we scrambled around to get the breaker to the well pump cut off, and then called around to engage the know-how of plumbers to repair the pipe and re-seal the hole. Then we got to work on the water damage, and now we’re back to our normal dry and protected living space.
I can’t say that I’ve ever had the same kind of energy and enthusiasm for wall-building and protecting when it comes to culture and faith. I resonated deeply with a banner hanging from one of the churches I attended in seminary, illustrating the verse in Ephesians about Jesus breaking down the dividing walls that separate us. My spiritual kin were all about breaking down dividing walls of racism and classism and sexism and nationalism. I remember discovering my disdain for walls early in my college career, when in my first religion class, a survey of the Old Testament, Professor Page Lee assigned me a research paper on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These had not been high on my reading list for devotional time in my youth, so I was unfamiliar with the themes. Dr. Lee must have intuited something about my spiritual leaning, and suspected that the books might just make me mad enough to really dig in and figure out what they were doing in holy writ. I read these texts about the exiles coming back from Babylon and investing enthusiastic energy into building the walls of the city. Their fortress mentality was so strong that they doubled down on their efforts to keep the outsiders outside and reserve the inside for the insiders. They proceeded to tear families apart, casting foreign mothers and children out, grabbing foreign fathers by the beards and tossing them out on their keisters, leaving abandoned wives behind. I don’t remember much about the paper, other than it being my first glimpse of fundamentalism within the Bible itself. I was beginning to see that the Holy Writ was an ongoing conversation, an inspired battle for the hearts and minds as it were, between those who feared diversity and put energy into building walls to maintain purity, and those who celebrated diversity and put energy into tearing down dividing walls. Jesus, it seemed obvious to me, was a wall breaker, not a builder. He did more than whistle through his teeth and wag his head at the fundamentalists of his day, the border security obsessed heirs of Ezra and Nehemiah who put energy into protecting themselves from the impure and unclean. A righteous anger welled up in him as he spewed curses at the exclusionary Pharisees. Page Lee knew what he was doing; I found righteous anger welling up in me as I wrote that paper, enough anger to carry me well through a religion major and seminary degree ; it catapulted me into a lifework of dismantling the dividing walls that my fundamentalist brethren and sisteren were constructing in the raging culture and convention wars.
But something has long gnawed at me, telling me that there’s something wrong with this analysis, this demonization of wall building and beaitification of wall demolition. It has to do with diversity, one of the core values of liberals like me. The ecologists give us a counter-intuitive lesson: environmentally speaking, diversity requires the conservative work of wall-building, of creating ecological boundaries, to some extent permeable but distinct nonetheless, within which particular species can thrive. Culturally speaking, the same is true. There will always be tectonic shifts along the cultural fault lines of our world that make those walls permeable, creating cracks and crevices for the outside world to flow in to the inside. But if we simply did away with all those limiting spaces, those walls of protection, the world would likely head for a hyper-hybridized mono-culture, a la Monsanto and big cattle ranching and industrialized dairy farming. If you want to see some enthusiastic fundamentalist wall-builders, just go and talk with some advocates of local farming or some rare breed livestock preservationists. Ezra and Nehemiah have nothing on them. I suspect now that what is true in the natural world is true in the spiritual world: we need fundamentalists. We need Ezra and Nehemiah, preserving and protecting the thousands upon thousands of species of spiritual world views, to prevent a bland mono-culture spirituality from overtaking our world. It’s ironic, that by fearing diversity the fundamentalists protect it, and by celebrating diversity the liberals threaten it. I am coming to believe that God has designed it this way, for there to be people hardwired with fundamentalist leanings, and others hardwired with liberal leanings, to maintain a balance. Without the liberals, the fundamentalists of various tribes would eventually kill each other out of fear. Without the fundamentalists, the liberals would eventually hybridize all forms of faith until there was nothing left but a monoculture claiming to transcend all difference, which sounds pretty imperialistic to me. On the back wall of my basement is a bookshelf. Most of the books are on the liberal end of the ideological spectrum, written by feminists and liberation theologians and progressives of various ilks, all countering the phobias that keep us apart as humans. But without all that Thoroseal and tar on the wall, those books would long ago decayed from mold and mildew. Go figure.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.