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Why Do I Build the Wall?

The market’s Christmas liturgy ended, as is tradition, with a whimper, when our clocks, watches, and phones passed 12 a.m. on December 26th. Though I follow a liturgy that only kicked off on the 25th and just finished on the fourth with the feast of the Epiphany, I have to admit that by the new year the birth of Christ can feel like a ghostly memory. Putting away a crèche that began looking out of place days ago, it is easy to wonder whether I blinked and missed something essential. Something in its ordinariness is decidedly disappointing. With T.S. Eliot’s magi I know that something happened—there was a Birth, certainly—but exactly what this means now is not always clear.

Last December the community in which I live decided to follow an Advent devotional called God With Us. Given that the editor of Image Journal helped to arrange its contents it was no surprise to find a decidedly incarnational approach, with full page art reproductions, from classical to contemporary, juxtaposed with reflections on the readings by theologians, pastors, poets, and other spiritual wayfarers.

The reflection on the third Sunday read:

The familiar Advent song “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” speaks of Christ’s long-awaited coming to Israel, but we should not miss the important point that Christ comes to us again and again, not just in that historical moment of time. Emmanuel means “God with us,” and refers to all the ways that God becomes incarnate in our lives here and now. During Advent, as we remember the day that Christ was born, and as we look forward to the glory of his kingdom, we also come to the profound realization that God breaks into our lives even now.

For some these might be beautiful and weighty words to which we want to say yes, though perhaps are not sure how. For others these might be beautiful and empty words, bearing a nice sentiment but no correspondence to our actual lives. And then there are those who live in the tension between the two, who hear the words echo in an emptiness but sense a weight on which the words stand, a weight worth waiting for to reveal itself in that emptiness. This is the middle between the speaking and the actualization—the advent—of what is spoken, since we know it is one thing to verbally affirm that “God breaks into my life even now,” but another to experience the realization—the making real—of God breaking into my life, even now.

In a way, this tension was somewhat responsible for bringing us together in the same room, reading God With Us. We had all moved from various home states to eastern Kentucky to volunteer with an interdenominational faith-based organization serving the poor in Appalachia—certainly a mouthful of words that can ring empty if left at that. For my program this translates into making vital home repairs, from patching roofs to insulating walls, for families who do not have the means to make them themselves.

Last fall several of the counties in which we are active were hit by severe flooding and in the following days I was part of a crew driving up a mountain holler to the home of a man whom I will call Michael. Michael had a square, four-room home that he had built with his sons about 30 years ago. It was a simple structure, “the best they could do with what they had” as his daughter explained as she showed us around, and the creek flowing around three sides of the house had swelled over the bank and damaged the floor and walls, letting the cold autumn air in.

Michael’s daughter and her son worked with us while we were there, but Michael, who is in his 70s, did not leave the small adjacent building in which he was staying during the repairs, except on a few occasions. One of these was when my truck got stuck in a big patch of mud in the drive. As we stood around it arguing the merits of different ways to get it unstuck Michael came striding across the grass toward us, sized up the situation, and soon had it chained up to another truck and hauled to drier ground.

But it was the last time that I saw Michael that left the greatest impression on me. On the day that we finished we circled up in front of his home to say goodbye to his daughter and son. Michael came out, stepped into the circle and turned to each person, taking a moment to look at them, and simply said “Thank you.” That was all. Then a curious thing happened: We did not know what to say in reply. We said things like we enjoyed the work, it was fun, don’t worry about it, and the like, all of which were in some sense true, but also sounded strained. When he turned to me I stammered back, rather stupidly, not knowing what I was saying, “Thank you.” He returned a quizzical look but, mercifully, did not reply.

In Appalachia, where people have had to make it by their own grit for so many generations, self sufficiency is a highly esteemed thing. What Michael had spoken was difficult and uncomfortable, but he said it anyway. But it struck me later that the way I had replied did not come from discomfort as much as embarrassment, as if I had been fishing for reasons to make his gratitude unnecessary. Hard as it was to admit to myself, I realized that it was difficult to return his gaze because I was, at some level, embarrassed by his need. Driving back, and through the following days, a perplexing question nagged me: What was I afraid of?

About a month later I discovered an album that made great listening on my drive and, as it turned out, was asking the same question. It was the 2010 “folk opera,” Hadestown by Anais Michell. Something between theater and concept album, Hadestown retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in a “post apocalyptic American depression era.” Beginning “in the open air, in a world of poverty,” we follow Orpheus (following Eurydice, of course) and a pack of desperate characters on a rickety train that stops at Hadestown, “the walled city under the ground.” Here, word has it, there is work and security. It is an imaginative ride for sure, with a hell that has speakeasies, a trio of Fates singing cabaret numbers, and a river Styx transformed into “cinderbricks and razorwire / walls of iron and concrete, hound dogs howling round the gate.”

The whole album is a masterpiece of storytelling and folk music worthy of an entire essay, but it was track 9, “Why we Build the Wall,” that particularly grabbed me. In this song, Hades asks the worker-citizens of Hadestown, “Why do we build the wall, my children?” They reply, “We build the wall to keep us free.” He presses them, “How does the wall keep us free?” The response: “The wall keeps out the enemy / And we build the wall to keep us free.” The song unfolds in this way, as questions and answers build on each other until the citizens of Hadestown are thoroughly indoctrinated with the logic of hell, a logic that keeps its residents convinced that their freedom depends on remaining there.

Surprising as it was to imagine classical Hades as a town of willing inhabitants, the next line startled me even more. To the question, “Who do we call the enemy?” The residents shout, “The enemy is poverty.” And why is the enemy poverty? “Because we have and they have not! Because they want what we have got!” Now it would have been easy for Michell to stop there, at some version of a class war. Many songwriters of a similar vein have. But she is writing a story, not a protest, and so is not content with such an easy explanation. She pushes it further, and in doing so, reveals the absurdity of Hades’s logic:

“What do we have that they should want?

We have a wall to work upon!”

Here his logic comes full circle, or rather, is shown circular in the first place. The freedom that the wall promises is a freedom from the enemy, which is poverty, i.e. being in need. Yet the people who take the train to Hadestown do not find freedom on the other side of the wall but only find slavery to an endless, irrational work that depends on constant fear. And what is fear but the expression of insecurity, the conviction that our needs can ultimately never be met?

Around the third listen through the album somewhere along highway 80 it hit me. At one level we might be afraid of poverty because of the demands that justice will make on us if we face it. In fact, I remember that the readings from the mass the day we left Michael included the exhortation, “Say not to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give,’ when you can give at once” (Prv 3:27). Challenging words. But there may be a more fundamental reason why we build the wall. When I recall how strangely difficult it was to receive Michael’s gaze, it strikes me that it was not from a fear of what I owed him, but from a fear of who I had to become, and of what I had to let go of, in order to receive his presence.

In short, I was afraid of facing Michael’s poverty alongside him, of receiving him in his poverty, because in order to make room for him I had to acknowledge the poverty of the world that I can easily inhabit at times, a world where I imagine that I can be free from my own needs, on my own terms and by my own work alone, the Into the Wild world of “boundlessness for its own sake.”

But, fortunately, this is not the whole world, for as Caryll Houselander writes in The Reed of God:

The modern world’s feverish struggle for unbridled, often unlicensed, freedom is answered by the bound, enclosed helplessness and dependence of Christ—Christ in the womb, Christ in the Host, Christ in the tomb.

Fear does not have to end in running circles through Hadestown to escape our need. At Christmas we remember and keep looking for the one who broke through those circles by becoming need itself.

I do not want to buy that ticket to Hadestown, but I am certainly not above being tempted by the security that it promises. And yet here is this man in a single gaze, tearing down the walls of this world and breaking in, even now in January.


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  • What a wonderful piece, Mr. Atkinson. To be truly free, every person needs to step back and look at our own Hadestown. Why is the world we have, a world defined by lack, instead of gratitude? By where we intend to go, instead of where we are? Why is it is a world of fences, fences on the land, fences in the heart? Why is it a world of indirect violence, of remote control, of locks and partitions, of codes and symbols? It is all of these things, because as soon as we leave the confessional and say our penance, we turn our backs on the Lord.

    Let go of this other struggle people– you are not supposed to win on the economic roulette wheel. Put your time back into: faith, family, community, and life.

    • Gus


  • Patrick

    Great article, Charles!

    I couldn’t find copies of God With Us on Amazon, but you can buy it directly from the publisher: