Walls in the Desert: Are They Worthy of Our Faith?

It's nighttime in Jerusalem, the Holy City, the monotheistic hub of Abrahamic traditions, the very footstool of the Divine, and, as I am still a little bit jetlagged, I go out for a stroll in the cool of the evening. I'm staying on the Mount of Olives at a hotel that is several high seasons past its sell-by date. The toilet doesn't always flush; the carpet is torn and stained; but what the establishment lacks in amenities it more than compensates for in location.

The view out the front of the hotel is breathtaking; indeed, it may be entirely unrivaled for someone like me, a person of faith fascinated by the interplay between religious traditions. From my room I look past ancient Jewish cemeteries, out over the Garden of Gethsemane and the Kidron Valley to the Crusader-built walls of the Old City. If my room were across the hall, I'd have an uninhibited view of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque. For Muslims Jerusalem is, after Mecca and Medina, Islam's third most important city. For Jews, it is the center of the religious universe, and for Christians, Jerusalem is holy because of its significance in the story of crucifixion and resurrection. Everybody wants a piece of Jerusalem.

I spend most of the day down in the Old City's warren of streets. The place bustles with locals, tourists, and pilgrims, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Aggressive shopkeepers sell everything from religious trinkets to tailored suits. The smells are wonderful, the colors are startling, and as far as I can tell, people are getting along with each other.

I'm not naive. I know that deep and complicated disagreements permeate Jerusalem's past, present, and future, but as one Armenian shopkeeper tells me after I compliment him on the broadly interfaith character of the merchandise in his store (he is selling icons, menorahs, stoles, and keffiyehs), "If you are from Jerusalem, you respect everyone. We grow up together and we are friends. Sometimes the politicians make trouble, and the press likes to write about the bad stuff, but here we are like family."

Those are hopeful words, and I mull over them in my head as I walk in the gardens behind my hotel. From here, during the day, a person can look out over the Kidron Valley as it wends its way into the Judean desert. The vista is spectacular, but it's bisected by the ugliness of a wall that snakes its way through the landscape, separating Israel proper from the West Bank and the people who live there.

A warm, gentle wind is blowing up off the Dead Sea, and I find myself wondering why humans put such faith in walls.

Last summer I visited another desert wall, the one that stretches, almost without interruption, across the U.S.-Mexico border between San Ysidro, California and just west of El Paso, Texas, where the Rio Grande begins the work of demarcating the frontier along the southwest flank of the Lone Star State. They're not so dissimilar, these barriers. Both walls were built on land appropriated by military might. Both walls were built to control the movements of people who had lived on the land and had moved freely through the geography of the place long before the current topography became a political reality. And in both places the walls were built in the name of national security. In Israel, as in the United States, pundits have proclaimed the walls to be a success, but I believe that all depends upon how one defines success.

There are practical problems with walls. No wall can be built higher than even the crudest of improvised rockets can fly, nor deep enough to stop a tunnel. Nothing built by one pair of hands can escape destruction by the hands of another, and the walls that humans do not destroy are breached, over time, by the forces of nature. The sands of the desert shift. The water that flows down wadis and arroyos will move anything that blocks its course. Walls are insanely expensive to maintain.

The spiritual questions posed by claims of the walls' success also are problematic: are walls worthy of the faith we put in them? Will they bring us peace? Do they make a positive contribution to common good? Do they in fact make us better neighbors?

If I were looking for success, searching for what it looks like when people live in healthy communities, I'd forget the wall in the Judean desert and look to Jerusalem's Old City, where people must live peaceably if they will live together at all, or I'd look to some of the smaller border towns I've visited where people tell me life was better when walls didn't separate families and communities. Before the wall was built in the Sonora desert, there was less crime, greater prosperity, and no one died of thirst and exposure out in the remote desert while trying to come north.

The walls in the Judean and Sonoran deserts both were built after an influx of new people migrated into a place and felt a need to control those already living there. Such migration is part of the human story. As long as there have been people, some of those people have moved and settled down in places where they were not born, and when new people move in, conflicts erupt -- often violently. It is a drama as old as the myths that define us. Cain settled down and became a farmer. His brother Abel chose the nomadic life of a shepherd. Things didn't work out between them, but our past doesn't have to determine our future. I have to believe that humans are capable of living next to one another without building barriers.

As I breathe in the holiness of the desert air and make my way to bed, Robert Frost's famous words come to me:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The hopeful part of me thinks that "something" just may be the Spirit of God.