Mother shall I build a wall? (with apologies to Pink Floyd)
In the summer of 1985, I was invited, along with other Further Education College chaplains, to go to Berlin and investigate their comprehensive and very effective chaplaincy set up. I was billeted, with a violinist from the Berlin Philarmonie, in a grand old second floor apartment of a large ‘Victorian’ (or whatever the German equivalent is!) town house, replete with creaky wire mesh encased lift and flamboyant plaster mouldings on the ceilings. It was in the days before the Berlin Wall came down, and our initial forays were to see the Ka De We (a department store, so dripping with opulence and all the goods the western world could offer that it faintly stirred one’s conscience, and called in full the ‘kaufhaus des Westens’) and thereafter some of the better known ‘sites’ of the Second World War, including a pig slaughterhouse in which thousands of dissident Poles were massacred in one night; the Jewish synagogue which was at the centre of ‘Krystalnacht’, the destructive attack which heralded the beginning of the persecution of the Jews and the Spandau Castle in which the sad figure of Rudolf Hess was imprisoned until his death.
After three days of experiencing the extravagant riches of the West, we travelled by U-Bahn (underground railway) into East Berlin to meet with some young Lutheran Christians. We were conscious straight away of the difference that the Berlin Wall symbolised: here, in the East, the buildings were un-reconstructed from the war period and shell holes still pocked the walls. There were few goods, if any, in the shops and miserly cuts of meat hung desolately in the butchers’ windows. We stopped for a cappuccino coffee, Communist style, in the main square to find that it tasted suspiciously of acorns. We were met by the young Christians, all dressed in very modern western gear, who quietly ordered us to split into three separate groups and rendezvous in the basement of a youth club. We were, you see, being followed and the young people were regarded as dissidents and malcontents: revolutionaries wishing to bring down Communism. To meet with us was dangerous, and we had to lose the ‘tails’ the authorities had put on to us. Eventually, we re-assembled feeling like John le Carre agents, and learnt of the group’s desire to bring about a just, equal and free State, and their vehicle to achieve this was the Christian Church, for so long proscribed and hidden, but now beginning, once more, to flex its muscles which had grown weak, but had not stopped exercising its psychological grip over the German people living under Communism (so steeped in the traditions of the Church were they that the Communist regime had to invent a ceremony of initiation into the Communist party at age 11 to mimic Confirmation). After hearing their story, we were rushed through the darkened and deserted streets of the city, with the eerie sound of distant sirens and the clanking of a Stasi style cavalcade of black limousines taking an unknown Politburo official to who knows where, and took the final pre-Second World War tram and subsequent U-Bahn to the unbelievably bright lights of the West. We heard stories of whole families who had been separated by the building of the Wall and of how the Communist regime had bled the East of the city dry, taking such riches as it had to Russia. Yet still, the only real light in those dismal, oppressive streets, was the light of Faith in the youngsters eyes.
Some years later, a German friend ‘phoned me excitedly at the end of the night of 9th November 1990 to tell me that the Wall was being demolished and that Germany was, at last, re-united. I entered into his excitement, although it meant little practically to me, as I contemplated that the World was probably just a little better as brick was parted from brick and stone from stone.
Life is full of walls: some we build around ourselves to protect ourselves from emotional hurt and harm, or to encircle some fondly held belief or position (religious people are very good at building walls, but we call them ‘principles’). We also build real walls: walls which protect the rich from the poor and actually create a fearful living hell for both. But perhaps the most obscene wall of all is the one built along the West Bank in Israel, separating Israeli from Palestinian: a modern-day attempt to solve our problems by cutting ourselves off from those with whom we disagree. This wall too will fall one day and, until it does, the World will remain a blighted place. There is hope! That warrior in art: Banksy, has shown us what may be. Along the length of the wall he has depicted idyllic English rural scenes, or pictures of cosy domesticity: as if we look through the unyielding starkness of the wall to the way the world could be.