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Trump's wall and the challenge of vulnerability

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Editor's note: Michael Sean Winters is on vacation through March 1. Filling in for him are various writers from Millennial, a journal featuring the writing of millennial Catholics. Winters will be back next week.


Whether one agrees or disagrees with Donald Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, just about everyone has to be wondering how he intends to make good on his promise to get the Mexican government to pay for it. At Thursday's Republican debate, Wolf Blitzer raised the question, and Trump didn't so much provide an answer as double down on his promise, vowing, "I will [make them pay for it], and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me."

People have questioned not only the feasibility of Trump's proposal but also its morality. A week earlier, in response to a reporter's question about this plank of Trump's platform, Pope Francis said:

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

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Trump immediately responded by calling the pope "disgraceful" for questioning his faith. Several U.S. politicians echoed Trump's sentiments in the days following.

Why would a pope who famously declined to pass judgment on gay persons of good will now make a categorical judgment about persons who hold a certain view on immigration issues? Was Francis indeed out of line, as Trump and others assert?

I would argue that the pope stood on solid ground in evaluating Trump's position as he did. Jesus taught in no uncertain terms that those who fail to welcome the strangers in their midst will be separated from him (Matthew 25:43) and he modeled border crossing (figuratively and literally) in his outreach to Samaritans and Gentiles.

Notwithstanding, a war of words about who has Jesus on their side in the U.S.-Mexico immigration debate distracts from the deeper point the pope was making. His primary concern was not a particular wall or person but rather an unchristian mindset of wall building. This mindset, embodied in the assumption that our nation's problems can be solved by walling ourselves off from our neighbors, is a modern manifestation of a temptation that human beings have faced in every age.

We first see this temptation arise in the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, God created human beings to be gardeners (Genesis 2:15), a task that requires both trust in God's slow, creative work and a connection with the world around us. However, the first humans tried to take matters into their own hands and then, realizing their sin, placed a barrier between themselves and God. As humanity continues to fall farther away from God in subsequent chapters, the text describes this downward spiral in parallel with humanity's fabrication of ever more tools. This sequence culminates in the building of the Tower of Babel, a project undertaken with aspirations of reaching the heavens without God's help.

The temptation portrayed in these stories is one we all know too well. We desire peace and security, which are good things in themselves, things that God wants for us. The problem is that, in our weakness, we find it easier to take matters into own hands than to trust in God. We find it easier to build walls that make us feel secure than we do planting seeds of peace, compassion, and mutual understanding and trusting that God will bring those seeds to fruition. The wall looks different for each of us. It might be a wall of money or professional conquests or Facebook friends. But whatever the wall looks like, we are tempted, like Trump, to build it higher when we feel threatened or insecure rather than open ourselves to what lies beyond.

At the root of our insecurity is the frightening realization that accepting our vocation as gardeners puts us in a vulnerable position. It means accepting that we are both sower and seed and that a seed only bears fruit by being broken open (see Jn 12:24). There is no greater threat to our sense of security than death, and yet, as Pope Francis has pointed out in Evangelii Gaudium, our greatest fear should not be about worldly security but rather "the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security."

No one knew the risk of this vocation better than Jesus, who trusted God unfailingly in life and in death. I think it is not insignificant that Jesus began his life as a builder (tekton in the New Testament Greek), but at the end of his earthly ministry, after his resurrection, he is taken for a gardener (John 20:15). In this sense, Jesus models the path God calls us all to take -- from builders of our own security to gardeners who cooperative with God's creative work. The first step along that path is tearing down the walls we have built up around ourselves, whether we have built those walls to separate ourselves from our neighbors to the south or the neighbors among us (like Trump) with whom we disagree.

[Patrick Manning, Ph.D. teaches in the Perspectives Program at Boston College.]

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