Dividing wall won’t reach to heaven

  • December 21, 2007

Somehow over the Christmas holidays, I become more aware of world conflicts and turmoil. Maybe it’s because our world slows down and I have time to notice. For example, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell starting Nov. 9, with the Brandenburg Gate opened on Dec. 22 of that year. Over those Christmas holidays the changes in the Eastern bloc dominated the news, especially with the demise on Dec. 25 of Ceaucescu in Romania. 

What an image: the dissolution of a wall that had come to represent violence, oppression, conflict, opposing ideologies standing toe to toe, separating families, dividing a people, a nation, a world. Born a year before that wall, I could feel its destruction.

In the ecumenical world, the movement that works and prays for unity among all Christians, there’s a favourite saying: The walls that divide us don’t reach to heaven. True, but difficult to see that truth where two churches can’t come together, two people from two traditions can’t receive Communion together, two families united by marriage but divided by denomination can’t meet. The Berlin Wall didn’t reach to heaven either, but many died trying to breach it. Many, far more, have died because of the walls that crisscross the Christian community. Thomas Cranmer, first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, under Queen Mary signed a recantation of his Protestantism in order to avoid burning at the stake. When he denounced that recantation, it’s said that he stretched out to the fire his right hand, the hand that had signed the recantation, that it might burn first.

What is the wall that separates human from human, Christian from Christian, sister from brother? Isn’t it, doesn’t it seem, merciless, inevitable and unbreakable?

Some 21 times in the Gospels, the word “peace” appears on the lips of Jesus. Peace, His gift. He has dissolved the wall of enmity, St. Paul tells us (Eph 1:14). He has brought peace. He is hailed Prince of Peace.

What meaning can this have? How can he have brought peace, when conflict and violence, unmet forgiveness and bitter enmity are so prevalent — among nations, within family homes, among and between those who bear Christ’s own name?

Perhaps understanding lies in the bold 1968 declaration by Pope Paul VI of Jan. 1 as “World Day of Peace,” and his 11 January peace messages before his death in 1978. His earliest messages recall post Second World War disgust with war and its effects, determination to build a new world order, founding of international institutions designed to change the things that incite war: “At the end of the war everyone said: Enough! Enough of what? Of everything that gives rise to the human butchery and the appalling devastation” (1971). Yet in the 1970s, conflict not only continued but grew worse; violence might have been more suppressed and hidden, as in the Cold War, but it was growing nonetheless. It’s as though Paul wanted to call on that spirit that cried “Enough!” before it was too late, before those who had experienced the butchery forgot or were forgotten. He urged his hearers not to give up, but to work for a new way, leading not to armed truce and oppression by might, but to real protection and support of one another. Therefore, he insisted that “peace is possible,” and the world ought not to resign itself to anything less.

His messages were addressed to all humans, to the people of his era. He saw peace as first of all an interior reality, a change of mentality, deep and strong enough that actions also change. Humans are dynamic, in a state of becoming; instead of becoming more cruel and warlike, they can harness their energy towards peace. He insisted that peace is creative and dynamic, a work humans can and must engage in; if they don’t act, it won’t happen. As he cried in his 1974 message, “peace depends on you, too.”

And peace has no foundation other than justice. It’s not “a lie made into a system” (1972) but stems from the recognition of the equal worth of each human person. “If you want justice, work for peace.”

An underlying message is addressed specifically to Christians. Work for peace comes from knowing that all humans are my own sisters and brothers, from bringing this knowledge to the way we act. When we give flesh to this sense of human family, we come to the truth that we’re sons and daughters of God; that’s why we’re family, because we’re children of the one whom Christ called Father. That’s why peacemakers are to be called children of God (Matthew 5:9). 

Peace, it seems, is a human vocation. At the same time, it’s a divine work, leading to life in God. Peace can be with us if peace is with me, if I am just towards my neighbour and my sister. Perhaps the wall of enmity, even between Christian churches, dissolves when I no longer support it.