Walls and Bridges
“All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall.” Pink Floyd’s The Wall
“Like all walls, it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” So begins Ursula LeGuin’s 1975 novel The Dispossessed. This dystopian/utopian novel, set in a future where humanity has colonized beyond the solar system, features two planets in the Tau Ceti system.
Urras, a model of present-day Earth, is a world divided by competing nations, the two greatest being Ai-Io (capitalist and sexist United States) and Thu (proletarian dictatorship Soviet Union.) The other planet, Anarres, was itself colonized from Urras some 200 years earlier by a group of dissident anarchists; it is a society without government, police, courts or property. The novel’s protagonist, Shevek, becomes the first Anarresti ever to return to Urras in the hope of “breaking down walls” between the two planets.
The only wall on Anarres is the half-meter tall drystone wall encircling the planet’s spaceport. “The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and all the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free. Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.”
I recommend this novel as probably the most appropriable and entertaining critique of capitalism and socialism I’ve ever read. But that’s not my interest here. The novel came to mind as I have been thinking about section 231 of The Spiritual Exercises, the prelude to the “Contemplation to Gain Love.” First, St. Ignatius notes that love is better shown in deeds than in words. He then goes on to say that love consists in sharing, that is, in the lovers’ reciprocal giving of what each has.
When toddler Shevek is being delivered into the care of the Anarresti education center (for on Anarres children are educated and raised communally, families generally considered to be “propertarian” in nature) he finds a beam of sunshine in which he sits, delightedly. When a slightly older and heavier child plops himself into the pool of sunshine, moving Shevek out of it, Shevek reacts by shoving the bigger kid out and shouting, “Mine sun!” The worker admonishes him: ”Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share, it you cannot use it” and she moves him away from the sunshine. [The irony of the anarchist ideologue’s coercing Shevek is part of LeGuin’s subtle critique of the Anarresti “ambiguous utopia.”]
As the leader of our neighbour to the south proceeds to build his walls—both literal walls of brick and steel and armed guards, and figurative walls of narrow self-interest and confirmation bias— we might profit by pondering St. Ignatius’s comment about love.
Most of the time when we think about sharing, we mean giving of something we have in abundance to someone who has less of it. And, indeed that is what Ignatius means as he talks about the sharing of riches, honour and learning. But this sharing must be reciprocal. What does the student share with the teacher? What does the honoured person share with the lowly? What does the beggar share with the donor? For if they can’t reciprocate, it’s really not love, at least as I understand St. Ignatius to mean.
One of the harbingers of “liberation theology,” Paolo Freire, makes a stunning point in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He says that only the poor can save the rich from the trap of their riches. And so to apply Ignatius’s three examples: only the beggar Lazarus could have saved Dives if only Dives had recognized his brotherhood with Lazarus; only the despised and the desperate can save the exalted by stirring them to acts of humility and solidarity; only the student can save the teacher from the trap of pride and smugness. In all these instances, the so-called “weaker” party to the exchange offers an emptiness into which the seeming “stronger” party can pour over-abundance and thereby be saved, perhaps like a dam’s spillway allows a safety-valve by which the very dam is itself preserved from its abundant water.
For the few years students from St. Paul’s High School (where I used to teach) have gone for a few weeks to El Salvador to be with and work with very poor campesinos. Upon their return to Winnipeg, so many of the students commented with astonishment, “They are so happy yet they have nothing!” These middle-to-upper class Winnipeg students received from the impoverished Salvadorans a loving gift of emptiness which has changed their lives.
Wall-building is the antithesis of loving. Wall-building destroys the wall builders by cutting them off from the communal solidarity which is their only hope of salvation. Like Smeagol Gollum, they hold on to their “Precious” and hurl into the fire of Mount Doom cackling, “Mine! Mine!”
We need fewer wall builders and more bridge builders. The recent pictures of President Trump with Pope Francis, the Pontifex Maximus (“Supreme Bridgebuilder”) show the grim contrast between the gospel of poverty, inclusion and humility and the gospel of prosperity, isolation and pride. The “folly of the Cross” is indeed foolishness to those who are perishing but is the power of God to the elect. (1Cor. 1:18)