Walls, Freedom & God

November 15, 2009

Glynn Cardy

Pentecost 24     Mark 13:1-8

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Walls surrounded the Temple that Jesus knew, the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem. Inside were an Outer Courtyard, then more walls and an Inner Courtyard. Within that was the Holy Place, and within that – separated by a thick curtain – was the Holy of Holies. This was where God was said to dwell. There were lots of walls protecting God. There were lots of priests and guards protecting the walls. And there were lots of rules and regulations protecting the priests and guards. God was safe and secure.


“Do you see these great buildings?” said Jesus. “Not one stone will be left here upon another, all will be thrown down.”


Jesus, like other reform-oriented Jews, was critical of the Temple. The Temple was the dominant symbol of ecclesiastical power and authority. This was where the pious and their pet God ruled. This was where the chosen, those who had wealth and influence, could appease and please God. The Temple symbolized spiritual stability and protection. It was indeed an imposing and beautiful structure. 


Yet for Jesus it symbolized the imprisonment of God and the spiritual impoverishment of the common people.


In 70 CE the walls of the Temple came down. Imperial Rome destroyed it and killed all within. The Temple’s demise was a cataclysmic event for Judaism and the nascent Christian sect.


Although the inflammatory sentiment of wishing the Temple destroyed was backdated and placed upon Jesus’ lips, it was consistent with his theology. Jesus did not wish for the destruction of Judaism but its reform. He did not wish the priestly cast to give up their lives but to give up their power. He did not wish the rule of God to be cast down but to be a matter of the heart. He did not wish God to die but God to be free.


This week Europe remembered and celebrated the destruction of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. On November 9th 1989 East Germans poured through the wall into the West. On that cold night, years of separation and anxiety melted into the unbelievable reality of a new freedom. It was a potent symbol of the collapse of the Communist dream.


What toppled the wall was the build-up of popular discontent in East Germany, the example of passive resistance in Poland, a series of chance errors by the East German leadership, as well as the Kremlin’s refusal, or inability, to use force to preserve its empire. And so the wall came crumbling down.


The wall, 155 kilometres long, had stood for 28 years supposedly keeping East Germans safe from the advances of the West. To prove just how safe it was East German guards had over the years murdered at least 136 fellow citizens. Its real function was to protect the power of the ruling elite and the weakness of its pet God called ‘the greater good’.


It is convenient to forget though that for the poorest of citizens the support services under Communism were significantly better than the support services under a capitalist re-united Germany. Unfortunately the virtue of individual freedom does not favour the poor, as many millions in the United States know.


Yet ultimately the East German state died because it tried to fetter the human spirit. It had created a society where fear of difference, fear of criticism, and fear of free thought reigned. The fearful were in control. They believed it was their right to access and determine every facet of human behaviour in the name of the greater good. 


The greater good was a God that did not brook dissent. Any act of creativity, spontaneity, or random kindness was deemed potentially subversive. Spirituality was usually suspect too because it is so devilishly hard to control. Gods, like the Christian one, didn’t answer to the Party. They weren’t accountable to the greater good. Even if you could control church leaders the message of Jesus and the working of his spirit continued to be subversive. This is why churches were at the forefront of the desire for change.


So in time, after much protesting, suffering, and praying, the spirit of freedom triumphed over the spirit of fear. The wall came down. The wall that had meant to provide safety yet really symbolized control came down. Stone by stone it was dismantled. The God of the greater good was also dismantled, as was its priestly caste. It was replaced by the God of ‘my good, “I’m good”, and ignore thy neighbour’. This new God is that of capitalism.


There is an old Gospel story about casting out demons and new ones coming in. The God of ‘my good’ has significant advantages over the God of ‘the greater good’, yet at the end of the day both have demonic consequences. This is why the followers of Jesus need to always have a critical relationship with prevailing ideologies and political systems.


Coinciding with the anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall a group of brave Palestinians tried to make a dent in another wall. In the town of Qalandiya in the occupied West Bank, a group of masked activists using a lorry pulled down a two-metre cement block before Israeli security forces confronted them with tear gas grenades. 


This wall is called the Security Wall and it divides off much of the Palestinian population from its neighbours. This wall has further alienated people from their ancestral land, and provided fresh sites for Jewish Zionist setters to make new dwellings. The Palestinians have fiercely opposed it. Unfortunately though the hapless protestors won’t be successful in removing this wall in a hurry. 


Rather than increase security, walls are an indication that other methods of engagement have failed. Walls do not create solutions. Indeed all they create is resentment. The ferocity of that resentment will come, wave upon wave, to break upon those walls. And break they will. Only the hard and painful work of reconciliation, peace building, and forgiveness finding can create solutions.


Similarly a religion that is over-burdened with rules and regulations is indicative of a religion that does not trust the Spirit of God working in the hearts of everyone. A religion that only allows its knowledgeable elite to interpret God does not trust God. Indeed it sees its duty as containing God, leashing God. It is a religion that is wary of humanity, wary of public scrutiny, and wary of those who are difficult to control. Walled countries and walled religions have this in common: both are fearful.


Pope John Paul II once said, “What [Israel/Palestine] needs is not more walls but more bridges.” It doesn’t need more security, separation, and continued alienation of land. It needs the bridges of understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of difference. He could have also been talking about the Christian faith.


There is a parable told by Anthony De Mello called the Lost Sheep. In brief the story has a wandering and errant sheep that escapes through a hole in the fence, enjoys his freedom, and then is chased home by a wolf. The wise shepherd though, despite the advice of his friends [or is it the Sheep and Wool Control Board?], decides that the hole in the fence serves a good purpose and refuses to repair it. It serves the purpose of offering an escape. To remain with the flock is therefore a choice.


To be truly free one must have a choice. To have a truly faithful congregation one must encourage exploration, venturing beyond the fence, so that to remain is always a choice rather than a duty, compulsion, or threat. The God of Jesus is not a God who can be imposed or who controls people against their wills. Such a God is not the God of Jesus.


When Jesus died, so the Gospel of Matthew tells us, the thick curtain in the Temple separating off the Holy Place from Holy of Holies was torn in two. It is a striking symbol for the escape of God. Jesus’ God ripped open the barrier, ran out of the pen, and jumped over the walls of institutionalised religion to freedom. 


I wonder whether they repaired the rip, or left it as a symbol of the utter freedom and sovereignty of God. 

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