Breaking Down Walls

Breaking Down Walls

One of the inherent dangers in celebrating the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in a mostly white church and in a sermon preached by a white woman, is that it is far too easy to sentimentalize and sanitize him, to sigh with rapture at his I Have a Dream speech, think how lovely that was, then just hold hands and sing and pretend that we live that way. But, as the Rev. Traci Blackmon whose words and thoughts influenced this sermon says, if we truly want to honor Dr. King, we cannot continue to let years roll on saying I have a dream because we refuse to wake up. We need to wake up and get on with Dr. King’s agenda of civil rights, of tackling poverty and an economic system that is wildly inequitable, of ensuring that all children have access to a good education, an agenda of peace in the face of our thirst for war, an agenda of breaking down walls and barriers.  An agenda with radical notions of fairness and inclusion that requires us to name and protest injustice wherever it exists and whatever the cost, but especially in this nation right now.

In Sept. of 1964, three years after the wall dividing East and West Berlin went up, two months after the Civil Rights Act became law, and a month before he received the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King was invited to speak at the wall in West Berlin. At the same time, Heinrich Gruber, a pastor at an East Berlin church who had been in a concentration camp for 3 years for speaking out against the Nazis, invited King to speak on the Eastern side of the wall. On Sept. 13 Dr. King spoke to a crowd of 20,000 at the wall in West Berlin, then, against the strongly expressed wishes of the US Government, crossed into East Berlin and spoke to a crowd of 4000 people. Here is an excerpt from that speech:

“It is indeed an honor to be in this city, which stands as a symbol of the divisions of men on the face of the earth. For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact. Whether it be East or West, men and women search for meaning, hope for fulfillment, yearn for faith in something beyond themselves, and cry desperately for love and community to support them in this pilgrim journey.”

While the wall that Dr. King stood beside did keep people separated for 28 years, and while many were killed trying to cross it, about 75,000 people succeeded in getting around it. Because, as history has repeatedly shown, the human thirst for freedom is so strong that we will risk our lives for it, no matter what barriers or walls exist.

And yet, on this MLK day, this nation is more deeply divided than ever. We are literally and metaphorically building walls intended to keep some out, intended to maintain and increase divisions. America is in trouble, we are in trouble.

Dr. King, in his book Where Do We Go From Here wrote that there were only 2 options for the nation: chaos or community. His words carry the same truth today. Where do we go from here? How do we live as Christians in such a time as now—how do we become community?

I think the place to start is with finding our courage. Despite our collective fatigue, we must find the courage to act from our Christian conscience—remembering that courage is not the absence of fear it is acting in spite of it. The courage to work to tear down walls and barriers, whether literal like the Berlin Wall and the wall we are building on our southern border, or the metaphorical walls between races, classes, religions, and genders. We need to remember that we are called to be a beloved community and that these walls make that impossible. Our divisions have overwhelmed our sense of our common humanity on a host of issues from war, the environment, climate change, and poverty—and we have forgotten that we are in fact all part of the same community.

But we Christians are called to be people of courage who dissent from the status quo of Empire in whatever ways we can and wherever we are. This is what we were made for. We are called to be people of a dream translated into action, because while he had courage in abundance, Dr. King also had a plan—a plan he was willing to risk everything to enact. He called for “a radical revolution of values,” emphasizing Love and Justice instead of economic nationalism, and he laid out for his hearers the moral consciousness within his own being that compelled him to do so. He did not challenge the negative effects of tribalism and nationalism on the most marginalized among us because it was politically expedient — no, he did so because “his conscience left him no choice.” And he worked tirelessly, fought for, sacrificed his life for, his vision of the reign of love and justice, for the beloved community.

Some 50 + years later, how did we become a nation driven by fear, as opposed to one accompanied by faith? Especially how did the churches, people of faith, stray so far from Christ who as Paul writes in Ephesians, “ is our peace, who has made us one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility”?

How is it that we have so many walls, walls of indifference toward one another that prevent us from empathizing with the plight of those who don’t look like us, or speak like us, or act like us — whatever that “us” may be, but especially among those of us who are white.

We have built walls of educational inequity by funding school systems through property taxes that ensure a substandard education for those who cannot afford to live in wealthy areas and that disproportionately affect people of color.

We have built walls of religious intolerance. Walls that make acceptable the lie that this country was founded upon Christian principles, as opposed to principles of capitalism cloaked in religious rhetoric.

We have built walls of economic injustice when CEOs are making more in ten minutes than some workers make a year, disproportionately affecting people of color.

We have built walls of unjust legal systems when there is acquittal for those who can afford freedom and incarceration for those who cannot, disproportionately affecting people of color.

We have built walls of inefficiency when the political party one represents has become more powerful than the unifying oath to serve all the people one takes to enter public office in this country.

We have built walls – barriers to justice and equality – that must come down. Because on the other side are children of God.

And with this kind of work it is easy to start by looking at others to do the work, but today, let us commit to begin by examining the walls we have erected around ourselves. The divisions, the stereotypes, the scapegoating; the ease with which we blame our circumstances on others. All of this distracts us from the common challenges we face – war and poverty; injustice and inequality. We can no longer afford to secure ourselves in lies or fear or hate. We can no longer afford to build walls to save ourselves.

We must dare to be vulnerable enough to be healed, we must dare to love enough to be healers.

But it is not enough to just tear down walls—We must also build bridges.

It is not enough to dismantle systems without building bridges of support.

Bridges of access to resources to fix our failing school systems.

Bridges of access to excellent and affordable healthcare so that we all be well.

Bridges to citizenship that honor the contributions of all of humanity in making this country great.

Bridges to living wages for honorable work so that the economic stability of all can be realized.

Bridges to responsible criminal justice reform that reduces recidivism and promotes rehabilitation.

We cannot allow fear to drive us to divide God’s creation into those creatures we deem valuable and those we do not, we must seek equity for each and every blessed thing God made.

In times of great fear and division, we must resist the urge of self-preservation and boldly declare justice for all—and those of us who possess the power and privilege afforded to us by our race, or gender, or religion, we must lead the way—our voices must be the loudest, the clearest, the most sustained.

Now I know this talk of tearing down walls and building bridges is hard—especially in light of the daily barrage of behavior on the part of this President and his White House to stoke fear of the other, to fan the flames of division. I want to be clear that I am not talking about making peace with this evil. But we must be careful that as we live into our call to be beloved community that we walk that line of naming injustice, naming evil and making no peace with it, while not demonizing others. We cannot become the beloved community of Dr. King’s dream, of Jesus vision, while declaring any to be less than human, less worthy.

Exactly one year before his death, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said these words at The Riverside Church in New York. He was speaking against the war in Vietnam, but what he said still applies

“This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us…We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our kindred.”

My siblings, the God’s honest truth is that no wall built to divide us will ever stand the test of time. God is the ultimate wall breaker and has a penchant for blowing gates wide open. And because the world is held in God, in every age, some find the courage to cooperate with God and break through all of the barriers we so fearfully create—maybe even us. So from Jericho to Berlin to our Southern Borders, the walls must come down. From Alabama, to Vermont, to Oregon, the walls of race, of class, of gender, of religion must come down. Because on both sides of each and every wall we build, GOD’S children are present.


The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter’s Church.

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  1. The breaking down walls sermon helped provide clarity and support in our country’s trying times. The words can be trusted.

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