AS I write, the stand-off between the United States Congress and President Donald Trump over his campaign commitment to build a “big and beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico continues. Trump would not be the first leader to erect a protective barricade of this kind.
There have been many such structures across the ages.
Partially effective in their own day, they are now of little more than historical interest and, if they continue to exist at all, are often in ruins.
The best known of these walls is, doubtless, the Great Wall of China, a gargantuan structure more than 20,000km long (including its branches), designed to protect China from invading neighbours.
It was often breached, most notably by the Manchus who proceeded to sack Beijing and establish the Qing dynasty (1636-1912).
A partial list of other significant walls might include: the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down (Joshua 6:1-27); the ancient Walls of Troy, the Berlin Wall (Germany); the 117km-long Hadrian’s Wall (Northern England), which dates from AD 122 and is the world’s largest Roman artefact; and, in our own day, the Israeli West Bank barrier wall.
On a number of occasions, Pope Francis has used to good effect the image of a wall (contrasting it with the image of a bridge) to illustrate the divisions that can exist between human beings, collectively as nations and individually as people.
“Where there is a wall,” he says “there is a closed heart. We need bridges not walls.”
Applying his words to ourselves, we may have to acknowledge humbly that, metaphorically speaking, we may have erected seemingly impregnable barriers to keep out of our lives people with whom we are at odds or by whom we have been offended.
This state of affairs, where it exists, is even sadder and more unedifying when those we exclude are family members or sometimes friends.
Reconciliation cannot be achieved by wishful thinking.
Estrangement between people can be overcome only if one of the parties to the disagreement, taking the lead, sets about with good will to demolish the dividing wall and replace it with a bridge – a bridge that both are called on to cross, cost what it might to their pride.
The simplest of all bridges (the “primordial bridge” as Pope Francis calls it) is the extension of one’s hand in friendship; for one cannot hold hands and grudges at the same time.
An anecdote from my book, Attend unto Reading, illustrates this point better than any other words I might add at this point:
“John Adams and Thomas Jefferson worked together in 1776 on the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence and became staunch friends.
“They fell out badly in 1801, the year in which Jefferson succeeded Adams as President because, before leaving office, Adams had appointed some of Jefferson’s ‘most ardent political enemies’ to important positions.
“The 11-year silence which followed was ended when, on New Year’s Day 1812, Adams wrote to his erstwhile friend, thus initiating a lengthy exchange of affectionate letters.
“Fully reconciled to one another, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration.”
Deserving of our special admiration and gratitude, I believe, are conspicuously gifted people in high office (I have in mind the present Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres and his predecessors) who, often at great personal cost, have endeavoured to build bridges between warring nations.
They have not always received the credit they richly deserve.
I will leave the last word to the eminently quotable Pope Francis who told the young people attending the World Youth Day at Kraków in Poland in 2016, “You must decide in life: either I will make bridges or I will make walls.”
Br Brian Grenier is a Christian Brother in Brisbane.