Separate, Excluded, Foreigners, Far away, Hostility
These are all words Paul uses to described a “dividing wall of hostility.” In the context of Ephesians 2, Paul is metaphorically describing the spiritual barrier which exists, first, between God and mankind, and second, between Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s aim is to demonstrate that now both Jews and Gentiles can be reconciled to God through the cross – apart from the law – and are subsequently reconciled to one another as they form one new humanity, body, building, temple, and household.
But even beyond the interesting, though now far removed controversy within the early church, Ephesians 2 tells a much broader story about how we can be reconciled to God and to one another.
Our age – like every prior age – is marked by separation and conflict, by walls of hostility. They exist between nations, social groups, and individuals. They exist in every institution: at work, in churches, in families, in governments and the like. The wall of separation goes by other names such as loneliness, alienation, or exclusion. The wall of conflict and hostility comes in many forms: division, slander, verbal and physical abuse, and malice.
Because these problems are so pervasive and damaging, different cultures have
sought to deal with them in different ways. I see three major ways in which our culture has tried to overcome these walls, with limited success.
Tolerance: One way to overcome some of the walls of hostility is through tolerance, or overlooking differences and offenses which might otherwise be a cause of conflict. Tolerance in many circumstances is a virtue. It is necessary for most interpersonal interactions. But some differences are too major to simply be “tolerated” and must instead be “resolved” in some other way. If you believe that there are systems of police brutality, those systems need to be overcome through justice, not tolerated. If you believe that your close friend’s course of life will lead to her destruction, you might need to bravely move beyond tolerance and into love, seeking what is best for her, even though your response may sound intolerant. In other words, while tolerance is appropriate in many circumstances, it needs to be practiced only within the broader virtues of love and justice.
Diversity: Another key concept in our pluralistic society is “diversity.” Diversity seeks to overcome hostility and separation by celebrating differences and intentionally bringing unlike people together. Again, I applaud many efforts at increasing diversity. Understood with a theological lens it means recognizing the image of God in each person, along with the differences in their creation and histories, their unique and edifying gifts and perspectives. Christianity is the most diverse… anything in the world. Heaven is a picture of diversity. But diversity is not a solution which solves all problems. For instance, it only deals in cases where external differences are obvious. But, even when all external differences are gone, when we’re dealing with a completely homogenous group, we still have a remarkable capacity for violence, division, isolation, and exclusion. Second, diversity by itself assumes amoral categories such as nationality, language, or recipes. But moral categories – or more specifically moral transgressions – such as lying, theft, and hatred, lie outside the bounds of diversity alone.
Radical Individualism: A third way to cope with the divisions amongst people is through a radical individualism. Essentially, I mean the response “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, I will be true to myself.” There are two important truths in this response we shouldn’t ignore. The first is that it is certainly possible to find all of our worth in other people’s opinions of ourselves. This is a reaction against that mindset. Second, each of us must “plot our own course” as it were, to live as individuals, and part of that means a certain integrity of self (though my definition of “true to yourself” is different from its common usage). However, while this attitude might make us care less about the wall of hostility, it doesn’t do anything to remove it, simply for the fact that it ignores the reality that we are social creatures who carry social responsibility. To say, “I don’t care what anyone else thinks” is to proclaim a lie – or to be a sociopath. We’re social creatures who simple must give attention to others. To say only, “I must be true to myself” is to risk ignoring the social responsibilities we all have. Sometimes those social responsibilities require me to say “no” to myself for the sake of others.
Each of these attempts at removing walls of hostility and separation – at least on the interpersonal level – can have a role to play. Many small offenses or differences can and should be tolerated. Diversity can be a cause for celebration and can overcome some hostility between differing groups. Personal integrity and caring less about what other people think can help us feel the pain of those walls less acutely. However, none on their own, or even those three together, can ever really bring about the lasting peace or wholeness we long for.
That’s because the root of this wall is a moral failure. And at the root of moral failure is a failure of our relationship with God. What must be dealt with first, then, is the wall of hostility – conflict and separation – which exists between us and God. Once the roots have been weakened, only then will we begin to see the branches start to fall off.
That leads us back, finally, to Ephesians 2:11-22, with Paul’s description of the wall of hostility, and his proclamation that it is dealt with in Christ on the cross. And, that, is the topic of my sermon tomorrow morning.