My first house was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a quiet street that was woken up by big wheels and tackle football. It was the late 80s, just before the term helicopter parenting had been coined. According my (romanticized) memory, our street stretched eternally and we were free to roam while our parents remained indoors drinking coffee. We cast lines into the pond and played Super Mario 3 until the sound of crickets called us home and lulled us to sleep. Those years felt like one endless summer, though I suspect it’s because I hadn’t yet started school.
I learned this about neighborhoods: adults may construct the houses and streets, but the children are the ones who take the pavement and brick and build neighborhoods. The laughter in the streets, bicycle bells ringing, and basketballs pounding against the pavement are the sounds of a street birthing a community. My own kid reminds me of this when she drags me into small-talk and play dates. I think this is why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children—they’ve yet to ask the question, “who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is whoever happens to be walking down the street. And if you’re up for a game of hide and seek, then come, let’s be friends.
Fences were curious to me as a child—they were only good as a wall to scale. It's basic psychology, right, that if something is important enough to be enclosed, then it must be significant enough for another to find. These tall wooden planks arranged side by side as soldiers to keep others at bay. It must have been a grown up’s idea. Who cares about property lines, privacy, and protection? The kind of people who read John Locke, that’s who.
In other words, me.
How did this happen?
Every morning a Golden Retriever walks straight into our front lawn and takes a squat. Suddenly, privacy has moved to the top of my dream home wish list and I’ve begun googling “BB guns.” I wasn’t always a curmudgeon who complained about the neighborhood dog. Maybe it was hammered up one plank at a time from wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as innocence was lost. We so quickly change from happy, naive children into hardened and cynical adults in a mistrusting and fearful world. There is creation. There is fall.
The first wall must have been erected in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother. He took masking tape and planted a line right down the middle of the room. At last, He-Man, Skeletor, and GI Joe were safe from little brother’s hands. Then another: don’t go past the stop sign. My siblings and I were hedged in away from places like 37th and Bulloch or Bolton, Lincoln, and Duffy Streets. Another day, a childhood friend called and told me that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because a drug lord threatened our family. My dad later showed me a picture of said drug lord’s collection of assault rifles lined up against a wall in his house. Yikes. The only gang I knew about rode on big wheels.
New walls emerge, others grow taller—around a house, a heart, and a life—as we become cynical, guarded, paranoid, and fearful. The problem is that once you start building them, you might not feel safe until there’s a big, beautiful wall around your entire life. One can never feel too safe. What would this zoo become without its walls? All of these animals need to be in cages for their own good—and ours, too. Let’s impose some more order here, and some more over there. That's better. Now, I can rest with ease.
With so many walls, who has become the prisoner?
I wonder if these partitions are as effective as we hope, or if they make promises that they can’t always keep. In my first neighborhood one of our neighbors had a wooden fence, and to a six-year old boy it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. But the neighboring dog was a terror and we needed to be protected. One day my cat, Rags, well, she became an afternoon snack. I didn’t learn this until college. At the time, my brother and I were told that Rags had run away. Every evening for a week we went looking for her in thickets and holes in the ground. I came home from school one Christmas and asked about Rags. My dad snorted and then broke the news, “She didn’t run away. It was the neighbor’s dog.”
According to the Scriptures, God isn’t crazy about walls. God even takes a sledgehammer to them, starting with the one between earth and heaven. In Jesus’ own body, the walls of difference are broken down and a new humanity is created. He spent his life sitting at a welcome table shattering boundaries between enemies and friends, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. All of this radical hospitality persisted until a group of neighbors turned out to be hostile. He’s put on a cross, enclosed tomb, and the world is protected from subversion. But even the great wall of death was shattered when the stone was rolled away.
It wasn’t the safest way to make a living, but God, as it turns out, isn’t all that worried about ease and protection.
We learn from Jesus that every encounter is potentially harmful—hostility is etymologically built into the word hospitality. You can’t have one without the other. A philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term “hostipitality.” Every encounter with a stranger holds within it potential for hostility. This is true in our lives, in our country, in our hearts. Welcome someone into your house and something might get stolen; let another into your heart and it might get broken. So we hope to strike the right cord between welcome and security, or inclusion and exclusion. But we must decide whether encounters are worth the risk, or whether she are better off closing ourselves off.
Where’s the line?
I follow Jesus because I think he’s the one who might release me from the walls I’ve built and am tempted to construct. He offers forgiveness, which is about tearing down past fences I’ve built—grudges and resentment. Chains are broken and I am free to be the kind of person who sees the other as image of God. He grafts me into the vine and asks me to do the same with my life. Jesus imparts the love that opens up heart and life to create more space at the table for others to take a seat. I’m not sure I’d have the rationale or heart to live this way otherwise.
In the end, Revelation speaks of a holy Jerusalem and its gates will never be shut. People are free to wander in and out of the city, without fear and trepidation. One early theologian said that the end will be like the beginning. I hope he’s talking about the beginning of our lives— that one day we can return to a kind of childhood naïveté. We’ll play all night with no fear of being snatched and the street lights will never flip on because the sun won’t stop shining.
It’s a neighborhood without stop signs and old men telling you to ‘keep off my grass.'
If that's true, it must be heaven.