This week I was in Berlin, Germany at the invitation of Welcoming International – a fledgling initiative and network that is seeking to bring together various national and regional partners across the globe who are focussed on welcoming and inclusion work – particularly in relation to migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum.
It was an amazing opportunity – only a dozen people in the room from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK. Good people, important and timely conversations and a clear commitment to developing a coordinated approach to this vital work of creating communities and a world that everyone can call home.
There wasn’t a lot of time for sight seeing but I managed to visit a section of the former Berlin Wall and an open air memorial.
The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin for 28 years (from 1961 to 1989). It was constructed by the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The wall cut off West Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany and East Berlin. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, accompanied by a wide area (later known as the “death strip”) that contained anti-vehicle trenches and other defenses.
Secret tunnels were dug under the wall and it’s estimated that more than 300 people were smuggled out of East Germany via that process.
In 1989 a series of revolutions in nearby Poland and Hungary caused a chain reaction and inspired civil unrest in East Germany. After several weeks of protests and activism, the East German Government announced that citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side. Over the following weeks, people chipped away parts of the Wall; and the governments later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which formally took place on 3 October 1990.
Walls can be important for safety and protection. However, walls by their nature, exist to exclude someone or something. Walls create barriers and silo’s.
This weeks reading comes from the Gospel of Mark 8:27-36 (NLT):
“Jesus and his disciples left Galilee and went up to the villages near Caesarea Philippi. As they were walking along, he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” “Well,” they replied, “some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say you are one of the other prophets.” Then he asked them, “But who do you say I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah. ” But Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. As he talked about this openly with his disciples, Peter took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things. Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, then reprimanded Peter. “Get away from me, Satan!” he said. “You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?”
I have a theory (about a lot of things), but my theory about walls is this. Walls, specifically working and thinking in silo’s, facilitate and maintain extreme ideologies and populist politics.
When ideas, issues, causes, challenges are considered and approached in a piecemeal manner – the simple reality is that only part of the problem is ever being addressed – you’re not considering the whole; and this facilitates exclusionary thinking, it facilitates thought bubbles, it allows the lazy politics of fear and division to pick off and attack whatever you propose.
An example of this, in the area that I work – migration, settlement, cultural diversity and inclusion – relates to the economic case for migration. Closed borders are bad for business. Bad for cultural vibrancy. Bad for economic prosperity. That’s a fact. There is a wealth of data and evidence that tells us that tourists, international students, migrants and refugees significantly contribute to the social and economic prosperity of communities. Both temporary and permanent migrants (including refugees) bring demand for services, create jobs, start businesses, add to the diversity and richness of communities etc. etc.
However, when we address migration and settlement in an isolated manner – within the confines of walls – we fail to address some of the broader challenges. The populist and ideological argument against immigration relates to the perceived quality of life of the dominant culture and receiving communities.
The Mayor of Hobart recently declared in a media statement that tourists and temporary workers were wrecking the city and destroying the local way of life. There was an immediate outcry from businesses whose entire livelihoods rely on tourism and migrant workers to exist. But his reason was this – housing availability (or the lack thereof) and the cost of living.
Rental vacancies in Hobart, at only one percent, are the lowest in the country. Increased tourism, greater demand for housing, AirBnB has created a housing crisis in Hobart, or has it?
I would suggest that what has created a housing crisis in Hobart is piecemeal, siloed, walled thinking.
Our planning, policy and practice considers most things in isolation.
How will we integrate migrants?
How will we fund education?
How will we reduce the pressure on housing?
There remains a limited intersection of ideas and conversation. And the polarisation of ‘left’ and ‘right’ further adds to this challenge.
Tearing down walls forces us to look at what else is going on and begin to join the dots. The housing crisis exists because of poor planning and the absence of a coordinated whole-of-community approach – it doesn’t exist because of tourists. Tourism and migration simply shines a light on the siloed thinking that has caused the problem. And we see that with Peter in this weeks reading.
Peter has a very limited view of who Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Annointed One is, and what his purpose might be. And Peter responds through the lens of his walled and limited worldview. Of course he does. We all do. Peter is outraged, and he tries to take Jesus to task. But Jesus isn’t having a bar of it.
Tear down the walls, Peter! The walls need to come down. You have limited me to this , but I am here for so much more … Your walls have completely distorted who I am, why I am here and how I work. Lift your head, look around you, tear down the walls, broaden your worldview, open your eyes to the possibilities…
This remains our challenge too. The more that our primary response is outrage, the more that we erect walls and align to binaries of left and right, right and wrong, in and out – the further we move away from the kingdom of God.
In a world where we are actively considering erecting more walls – lest we forget how many have suffered, how hard people have fought, and how much has been risked to tear them down.
Lest we forget that Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers – the people who tear down walls and bridge divides – for they will called the children of God.
And, so too, may we be called God’s children.
- What are the “walls” in your sphere of influence? Why do they exist? Is it possible to ‘tear them down’ and what would that achieve?
- How do (can) we create safe spaces that both protect the vulnerable and create opportunities to challenge binaries such as ‘left’ and ‘right’?
- What does ‘peacemaking’ look like in your world? What is something practical that you can do to be a peacemaker this week?