Us and Them: Can we break down walls?

[Transcript of the reflection from the Catholic Radio Broadcast on RTM FM91.9 on 15 May 2015. Audio is in the youtube video below. The audio was recorded off the radio.]

If we’re so civilised, then why do people fight and try to hurt each other so much?

If the world’s getting smaller and more connected, then why are we building more walls to keep people out?

I recently had the pleasure and honour of working with an immensely talented group of students from St Joseph’s Private school on a play entitled Us and Them: A Story of Ours. The play, which was written by British playwright David Campton over 40 years ago, presents a timeless story of how we tend to build fences and walls in vain attempts to protect ourselves only to see how these very walls become sources of conflict in future.

The play begins when two groups of people meet and decide to settle in an area. They are friendly at first but soon feel the need to have something to separate the two groups. With the refrain ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, they decide to build a wall to separate the groups. Initially happy with the wall, the two groups begin speculating about possible ill-will brewing on the other side. The speculation grows into suspicion and this gets made worse by the inability and unwillingness to communicate with each other. They finally decide to try to take a peek over the wall only to realise that the other side wanted to do the same. Their suspicions quickly turn into hatred for the other side. This culminates in conflict, war and the tearing down of the wall. When the battle is done, survivors of both sides meet once again, this time without the wall. However, the wounds of conflict are too deep and they feel that they cannot stay any longer and both depart.

Some scenes of the play drew inspiration from real historical and current events like the Berlin Wall and the current refugee crisis, pulling into focus how we have been building and continue to build walls that stop us from truly living well together. Our tendency to build fences and walls seems to be etched in our consciousness as such separators have been around since time immemorial. Very often, these walls would seem quite innocuous, separating property and people and creating neat spaces that are easy to take care of.

What we don’t realise is that walls and fences create a sense of distance and separation which would otherwise not exist. The concept of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ arise because of our apparent need to make a separation between myself and the other. Walls that separate physically are easily broken down as the experience of the Berlin Wall demonstrated but the walls that we build up in our minds, the walls that we are unable to climb over because they are so deeply fixed in our consciousness – these walls are the most dangerous and can cause the most harm.

What are some walls that we create in our minds that could cause and later worsen the feeling of separation between ourselves and others? Are there certain groups of people of a particular religion, ethnicity or minority group that we consciously separate ourselves from, thinking that we are so different that we cannot possibly get along? These are thoughts that we cannot afford to have, especially in our multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural society. The very fabric of our nation is based on the ability of everyone to live in harmony. Walls that are created in the minds of people are very dangerous in how they create suspicion and breed mistrust. These invisible walls are more insidious than physical ones because one cannot tell when or where they are built. A wall that blocks out a particular religion or that vilifies a particular ethnic group can start small but can very easily turn into a more serious prejudice or even persecution if this thought spreads to those who have the power to legislate or influence others.

We realise that separation breeds suspicion because we cannot see other people and this lack of contact and vision makes us believe that we cannot understand the others on the other side of the wall. This suspicion often turn into fear as the lack of understanding can make one misconstrue the words or actions of others. This fear can equally easily turn into hate as it turns one’s heart against those who are different. Should this hate be strong enough, it might even breed violence, both physical and psychological, as people seek to get rid of those whom they fear and hate. We’ve seen this countless times in our history and we risk allowing this to occur over and over again if we continue to build walls to separate us from ‘them’.

This reflection is not alarmist but preventive. I believe that the walls that do exist are not as high nor as thick yet but it’s important for us to realise that they do exist and that they can be taken down. We need to break the walls down not just for the sake of getting them out of the way but to allow us to see the face of the other and to recognise their humanity. The human face is a wonderful thing and for many, it mirrors the soul. Looking into the face of another person allows us to catch glimpses of our God and creator and when that happens, it would be almost impossible to respond with fear or hate. The result of truly looking at the face of another person is that of love.

If this is truly the case and if we understand what Jesus taught us in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) about who our neighbours truly are, then the line from the play that was quoted from poet Robert Frost ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ would not quite make so much sense. The parable taught us that everyone is our neighbour, everyone carries a glimpse of the divine in them and thus makes them worthy of our love. Good neighbours would not, contrary to what Frost says, want to make fences at all because that would separate us from being able to fully love our neighbours.

Being a good neighbour thus means that we need to recognise the common humanity of all those who are around us and doing that would truly allow us to love our neighbours. Furthermore, St John reminds us that God is not only love but that love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). The very act of finding God in our neighbours casts out whatever vestiges of fear that we might have and the same would undoubtedly happen with the others who might once have feared us as well. The fact that we’ve been building walls throughout history should not discourage us from working towards breaking these same walls down now. The important thing is to reflect and pray to discern where the walls continue to be in our lives and to make the effort to start breaking them down so that we can truly do what the Lord has always asked us to do – love our neighbours.

Thus, we learn that ‘Good fences don’t make good neighbours’ and neither would ‘Good neighbours make good fences’. The one thing that counts is this: Good neighbours love. And that’s all that needs to be said. Perhaps it’s apt to end this reflection with the prayer that we used during our play. It’s called a Prayer of Ours.

A Prayer of Ours
O God who writes our every story,
give us grace to give you glory.
Help us love our every neighbour
and with your mercy remove all fear.
Break down walls that come between
that in the clearing, hope be seen.
A hope to share with all around
that in our world your love resound.
Amen.

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