Outside the Walls

While for most people, the holiday ended with the finishing of the last bit of chocolate egg, this is the first week of Easter. Last Friday, Christians around the world remembered the crucifixion of Jesus, son of Mary. And on Sunday, they gathered across the globe to celebrate his Resurrection. Technically, the celebration continues for 50 days until Pentecost.

This year I am struck by a detail of the original story that parallels what is happening today.

As many people know, to die by crucifixion was not just excruciating but also shameful. Contemporaneous Roman accounts describe it as the summum supplicium (the supreme punishment) because of how it was intended to degrade its victim. Recent biblical scholarship has considered, unflinchingly, how the cross was a tool of State terror intended to dehumanise its victims and that it cannot be understood apart from the place played by ritual torture and sexual abuse in its implementation. The New Testament explicitly admits this. Hebrews 12:2 talks about Jesus as the one who “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”.

But rather than as an invitation to consider, in some Mel-Gibson-esque sense, the way in which Jesus’ death embodies the suffering of the world, I have been struck by a geographic detail of the Gospel accounts. The site of the crucifixion is well attested as Golgotha, a hill that was shaped like a skull, just outside the walls of the city (John 19:20, Hebrews 13:12). By tradition, and with some robust historical reasoning, that site is now associated with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The great French sociologist and theologian (and Resistance fighter, and Bordeaux city councillor), Jacques Ellul, wrote about this in his famous book, The Meaning of the City:

For it is well known that it was to accomplish the law that Jesus was thus crucified outside the gates. The scapegoat had to be sent out of the camp, into the desert. The bodies of animals sacrificed as sin offerings, whose blood was carried into the Temple, were also to be taken out of the camp, and burned outside the city (Lev. 4). It was therefore necessary that Christ the victim also be rejected, as a sign of his rejection by the law and by the power of the city.

(p. 123)

What Ellul is arguing here is that the wall of the city has a sort of theological meaning. The boundary of the city marks the point where civilization is distinguished from wilderness. For Ellul, who lived through the rise of the NAZIs and fought against the Vichy rule, “human civilization” is a deeply ambivalent term, to say the least. The city wall exposes this. It marks the space where law prevails and the space where law does not hold, but it is constructed and maintained by those who make the law to create a place where they can be lawless.

The Romans could not dehumanize their victims on crosses inside the city because to do so would expose their own brutality. By placing the violence outside the lines of sight, by obscuring how their peace gets made, they are liberated to be as vicious as they think they need to be.

These ideas take on a new significance as we mark Easter in 2024. As the Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem, Isaac Munther, put it in his Easter Sunday sermon, in these dark days Palestinian Christians are left to look at the cross, identify with the cross, and see Jesus identifying with them.

And where are those Palestinians who Jesus identifies with? Beyond a wall.

In development since 1994, the famous 7m tall concrete element of the Gaza Barrier Wall stretches almost 65km as it coils around the people of northern Palestine but it is embedded within a larger barrier system that covers over 700km. It plays a structural role in the great Colum McCann novel, Apeirogon:

The Separation Wall. Also known as the Separation Barrier. Also known as the Separation Fence. Also known as the Security Wall, the Security Barrier, the Security Fence. Also known as the Apartheid Wall, the Peace Wall, the Isolation Wall, the Shame Wall, the West Bank Wall, the Administration Wall, the Annexation Wall, the Seam-Zone Wall, the Terrorist Wall, the Infiltrator Wall, the Saboteurs’ Wall, the Obstacle Wall, the Demographic Wall, the Territories Wall, the Colonization Wall, the Unification Wall, the Racist Wall, the Sanctuary Wall, the Noose Wall, the Curse Wall, the Reconciliation Wall, the Fear Wall. Also known as the Pen, the Coop, the Trap, the Noose, the Protector and the Cage.

The defence for building the Wall is, literally, defence. Its function is to protect Israelis from Hamas. This need not be disputed. From a theological perspective, the problem with such a wall occurs long before we get around to a cost/benefit analysis. The Wall gets built to mark the civilized boundary. On one side of the Wall is the thing that must be protected and treasured. And on the other side is that which must be resisted.

The military justification of the Wall is that it protects peaceful people. The moral problem with such a Wall is that once it is built, the people are no longer peaceful. Instead of acknowledging that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, evil and threat is externalized and made concrete. It is made concrete around the Palestinian. Forever outside the walls of civilization, the Palestinian is forever to be seen by those within the walls as savage.

Those who built it will insist that the wall marks the space where law prevails over lawlessness but in building it, they created a place where they can be lawless.

What is happening – effectively being live-streamed into the handsets of anyone with the moral fortitude to watch – is the systematic and ritual dehumanization of an entire population, and increasingly, anyone who dares to stand in solidarity with them. It is impossible for Christians to seriously consider the cross of Christ this Easter without considering, condemning, lamenting, and opposing the genocide in Gaza.