It isn’t remarkable to look at, this path I walk atop the stacked stones of Hadrian’s Wall–but it is an ancient border, an historic boundary, a demarcation of Empire. For 1900 years these stones have weathered the ebb and flow of human history.
Telling the story of the wall depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.
On the south side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called barbarians. Just steps behind you, a bathhouse and a granary, barracks and a temple are all the evidence you need to prove your superior civilization. Goods from what are now Spain, Italy, Germany–even spices from as far away as Turkey lie in your fort. It’s remarkable evidence of the travel and trade made possible by the Pax Romana, a peace which you have helped create by your might of arms.
On the south side, Hadrian’s Wall is the boundary of civilization, the last marker of all that is ordered and cultured and superior and good.
But on the north side, you would have looked across the wall at those you called oppressors, aggressors. For three hundred years those Romans have taken your land and ruthlessly killed and punished any of your people who showed any hint of independence. Your Picti and Gaelic culture is also rich, hundreds of years old.
On the north side, Hadrian’s Wall is the sign of theft and aggression, of those who want to eliminate your uniqueness and subjugate you, bending you to their way of life. You know they would kill or enslave you, ripping you from your home and sending you to another wall on another boundary of the empire to be their mercenary soldier.
The sweep of time brings more complexity. Those south of the wall eventually pull back and leave Britannia entirely as the Empire crumbles everywhere. And those to the north discover that even as Hadrian’s Wall wanes as a boundary, the coastline waxes as a new threshold, a new demarcation.
Telling the coastline story also depends upon which side of the boundary you stand.
On the shore, the Picti and Gaelic people see boats of barbarians arriving, pillaging, raping, stealing. But in the boats those Danish Vikings, with their equally rich tradition and culture, see new land in which to live, explore, colonize.
The former “barbarians” now decry new “barbarians” in the never ending us/them chessboard.
Nor does it stop as time marches on: Saxons, Vikings, Normans…wave after wave creating boundary lines and borders that ebb and flow, each side of the boundary telling a different story of the “other”.
I smile grimly and shake my head, realizing that all I’m really doing as I walk this ancient wall is musing on my own version of “history is written by the victors.”
I would imagine if you took a DNA sample from random people in Northern England and Southern Scotland, and sent it in to 23 and Me for genome testing, you’d find that the blood flowing in the veins of many of today’s people comes from those who once stood on opposite sides of the boundary lines. Some people today are the lineage of former enemies many times over through the centuries.
So which side of the boundary…upon which side of the wall do I stand?
Or perhaps a question that interests me more: given all the divides between people and communities, given the divisions and complexities within myself…can I become a person who tries to understand and value the people and the community who live and dream on the other side?
Our world seems to be abandoning that desire to find understanding, as the threat on the other side appears ever greater to us. Some of that threat is real. There are oppressors who come and pillage, who make impossible the best parts of life, the intellect and the arts and family and home. And there are oppressors who suffocate and subjugate with a smile, who enforce conformity to their “civilization” in ways that oppress.
A haunting truth lies rotting behind the veneer of civilized modernity: force and military might make civilization possible. We humans have an ancient history of not living into our best selves. Time has shown again and again that weapons and borders have almost always been required for humans to have the safety and freedom to compose verse, paint frescoes, stage dramas, create art. Whether it is Hadrian’s Wall backed by Roman broadsword, cannons fueled by gunfire, or Trident missiles on submarines, this is the world as we experience it.
I confess I have been naive enough in the past to not open my eyes to that truth. But even looking it in the face, I do not have to make the way of the world my way of living. As a Christian who follows Jesus, the one born as an outsider to Empire and who died crucified under Empire power, I believe I must not.
Christianity crumbles when wedded with empire, as the church wields power to civilize, colonize, evangelize. Fear of the barbarian or infidel is stoked to flame, leading the church to compromise the values demonstrated by the one who took up the cross. The examples could fill a gruesome book: Constantine, the Crusades, Reformation purging, Jim Crow, American Evangelicalism in the world of Trump.
Listen to the rhetoric, the language used for any outside the wall. Listen to the embrace of the word “Nationalist”. Listen to all the words focused on fear, on doing anything to stop those who would bring any change to civilization as we know it. Listen to the dehumanization done in order to justify the bloody-handed exchange, the exchange which gives the government permission to do the dirty work of exclusion and eradication of those who are feared–all for the perceived greater good of protecting the civilization behind the wall. It is compromise with the Empire.
Are we surprised a literal wall was the talking point of the 2016 election, surprised that sending more than 15,000 troops to the border is what we see in the 2018 election cycle? He stokes the fires of fear well, and draws the church into the chains of empire with illusions and promises of power.
I embody many markers of privilege (male, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, educated, owner of my home…not to mention someone with the ability to easily travel and walk Hadrian’s Wall and spend time reflecting and writing). Those who live under systemic injustice and oppression have never had the luxury of being naive about the way the world works. With an intrinsic and daily understanding of oppressive power, the desire to wield worldly power for good must be strong.
For myself, I do see the injustice within every empire, within every power structure, within every grouping of “us”. I also see the history of humanity’s greed and destruction in the chaos that comes when there is no structure to try and bring a check to power. I see both systems and persons in need of transformation, which keeps me from both utopian liberalism and simplistic personal piety as the answers to our human dilemma. I see no ultimate hope in trying to enforce our incomplete picture of justice on the world; to do so, without succumbing to the dangers of power and Empire, does not seem to be within humanity’s grasp. Using power to enforce justice warps and mars the end goal. Can we change the power structures without force? With sadness, I confess I see no hope that those in power will simply hand over the reins to the marginalized, just because we convince them it is the right and just thing to do.
Evidently the winds of Northumbria can dampen the spirits of even this eternal optimist.
I yearn for the needed transformation–transformation of both persons and structures.
I ache for the moral arc of the universe to hurry up already with its bend toward justice.
Though I sometimes push back against the demands of the cross, push back against surrender and sacrifice and the difficulty of laying down my power for the sake of the marginalized…deep down I believe it to be the way of transformation. I believe it can be a bulwark against my temptation to misuse privileged power, to be corrupted by it.
Though I sometimes anguish and rage and question why Jesus told Peter to put away the sword in the garden, why he didn’t call down legions of angels, why he submitted to unjust power instead of use it for good…deep down I recognize and respect the thread of consistency that runs from Christ’s temptations in the desert all the way through to the way he laid down his life.
And ultimately, my embrace of a faith with prophetic imagination to resist both Empire and the tools of Empire is a humble kneeling before the mystery of the Gospel. It is a bedrock of trust that Christian faith at its core is trust in Creator God’s redemptive, resurrection power. It is a recognition that only something beyond the ability of even the best of corporate humanity, only something outside of ourselves, will ultimately bring justice.
I still believe through my aches and questions that it is not within our power or grasp to bring justice and peace. We are powerless to make the waves of justice roll completely. There is a paradox woven into the heart of creation by which evil is overcome by yielding, not by grasping power.
Is there a place for action, for human agency? I can see clear paths to what might be called prophetic witness, acts which bring oppression and injustice and compromise with Empire out of the darkness and into the light. The paths to prophetic action, for me, are more challenging. I see the errors clearly, and the healthy part seems difficult to discern. The error on one side is for inaction to be complicit with injustice. The error on the other is to become a similar oppressor to the one I am trying to resist. I’m not advocating inaction in this embrace of yielding or submission. Rather, I long for the true transformation that I believe can come through following Christ’s example–resisting the temptation to use power for good and discovering a greater resurrection power on the other side.
It is not my place to expect that the oppressed will yield or submit. It is my place to yield myself, and to wait for a Power outside myself to transform me, redeem me, resurrect me. That life-giving, transforming, indwelling power of the resurrected Jesus is what makes my needed transformation possible, and grafts me into connection with others, a redeemed community who are the hands and feet of Jesus in this aching world today. The yielded ones who then are brought close to each other, who are joined with Christ, who experience God’s resurrection power in them to bring transformation to structures and society, incomplete though it may be.
This upside-down, illogical craziness is why it’s called a faith journey. And it is why the church is so easily and insidiously corrupted by the hard logic of Empire.
As I walk the wall, thinking of the ebb and flow of boundaries, recognizing the upside-down, illogical craziness of laying down sword and knocking down stones to understand those on other side…the thought occurs to me that Incarnation and Resurrection have their mysterious link. Out of desire to understand and know us, God laid aside power, went to the other side of the wall, and was vulnerably born into the margins. The Incarnation itself crosses boundaries rather than building walls. The act of drawing near in order to connect with humanity required the risk of laying aside power.
The God who set aside and risked all in order to draw near to humanity, the God who laid aside power, is the same God in whom a greater resurrection power rose up. That resurrection power now ushers in a new way of being for all creation. It is an outside-of-creation power to beat swords into plowshares. To make justice roll down like mighty waters. To bend the moral arc of the universe.
As I try and mold my life after Jesus, I will keep trying to remember the humanity of those on the other side, without discounting the reality of the need for some boundaries and walls for safety. I’ll ask for wisdom, insight, and courage to find humanity in all people as I resist the temptation to make the other “barbarian.” I’ll work to not misuse power as I take actions of prophetic witness. And I will hope for resurrection power to bring about my transformation and the transformation of unjust structures in this world.