Trump’s Pathological Devotion to Border Walls Isn’t Political, It’s Theological

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Religion Dispatches History/Theology

Trump’s Pathological Devotion to Border Walls Isn’t Political, It’s Theological

Alana Massey

His hollow performances of Christian piety are so illegible because Trump's object of worship isn't the God of Abraham, or even the United States. To Trump, land borders themselves are holy, worth honoring with menacing shrines and protecting with the blood of innocents.

It was just two days shy of the 3rd anniversary of Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency that Sarah Huckabee Sanders asserted, following Jeff Sessions’ remarks earlier that week, that separating and detaining families at the southern border of the United States was indeed “biblical.” The understandable outrage of decent humans across the world sent them flocking to BibleGateway.com to prove the claims ludicrous, mostly by referring to The Sermon On The Mount, pitting the words of the apostle Paul against the words of Jesus as some sort of moral mic drop. But Huckabee Sanders and Sessions were right. It was decidedly not Christ-like, merciful, pious, or loving toward the people of God, but it was biblical.

I will return to this moment (and these verses in particular) but Trump has been behaving biblically for years—not as a man of faith but as a prophetic witness to his own barbaric vision of the human family broken apart and a world disfigured by more walls.

Last month, Spain’s Foreign Minister Josep Borrell reported that, in a June meeting with Trump, he had suggested building a wall across the entire Sahara to cull immigration to Europe. As border detentions continue climbing—and with far less visibility—Trump has threatened a government shutdown ahead of the midterms if the border wall isn’t funded, tweeting

“’When will Republican leadership learn that they are being played like a fiddle by the Democrats on Border Security and Building the Wall? Without Borders, we don’t have a country. With Open Borders, which the Democrats want, we have nothing but crime! Finish the Wall!’”

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In one tweet, he reveals first that he does not consider himself ‘Republican leadership,’ and then he contends that we don’t have a country if we don’t have borders. But we do have borders. We just don’t have enormous, vulgar structures thousands of miles long devoted to them. The chronicle of his rhetoric on borders reveals a more sinister threat to the country and to the world: his pathological devotion to borders is not political but profoundly theological.

Appealing to any ethical framework or set of principles as if they might correlate to Donald Trump’s worldview has been absurd for some time. His political convictions and hollow performances of Christian piety are so illegible because Trump’s object of worship is not the God of Abraham, nor is his duty to the United States. In the dizzying incoherence of his policies and moods, a thin thread of consistency in Trump’s positions endures: land borders themselves are sacred, holy, worth honoring with expansive and menacing shrines to their glory, and worth protecting with the blood of innocents. He doesn’t believe that God put them there, but that the borders themselves are divine entities. It is the idolatrous faith of a brutal and morally vacuous coward, but it is a faith.

***

In what was then the comfort and home turf of his own Trump Tower in New York City, the 45-minute speech was a reliable cascade of derision aimed at President Obama and half-formed nonsense plans to Make America Great Again. It wasn’t the first time he had mentioned a border wall, but it was his most portentous delivery to date.

“I will build a great walland nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

It was the kind of doomed proclamation an Old Testament king or emperor might have made, unaware in all his pride that neither God nor his messenger traditionally takes kindly to builders of towers (Babel) or giant defensive walls (Jericho)—to say nothing of your garden variety gold enthusiast (see fates of: money-changers in the temple, Judas Iscariot, etc.)

***

As Twitter lit up with real-time news and updates of a coordinated terrorist attack in Paris on November 13th of 2015, there was little time to digest or confirm the information overload. I kept refreshing my almost entirely English-speaking timeline in the vain hope of just one credible update from Paris that told us more than we already knew, which was that we knew close to nothing but kept yelling it over and over again at ourselves. Watching mass shootings unfold in real time had been such a regular part of American life that we had grown comfortable in their formula: if there was still active shooting, it was almost guaranteed by one gunman and that even if his weapon was among the more obscene military-grade automatic types, he could have only carried so many bullets with him. Americans knew how to watch the number of reported casualties go up, but we lost our collective minds when we watched the number of confirmed active shooters in Paris go up. The images coming out of Paris in the immediate term were of a city devoured by chaos and fear rather than the stillness of carnage, more terrifying for their uncertainty.

There was a brief lull in the digital noise when an official government action was announced from France: the state of emergency declared by President François Hollande would include the immediate closure of the French borders as part of the protocol. In the wake of this announcement, I read the most decidedly and blessedly un-American (in the best way possible) reaction I recall from the whole night, from my editor at the Guardian, Jessica Reed, a French woman living in the United States. She wrote a series of tweets calling the measure outrageous and mocking her own head of state as only the French know how, before tweeting, “also which borders? We are Europe. there are no borders.”

It shook the clarity out of my own instinctual American hysterics momentarily, having forgotten that there are more ways to react to an assault on one’s country than to defensively recoil into paranoid isolation. I knew that the European Union’s border policies had not magically erased centuries of unresolved intercontinental grievances, because everyone knew that. But what I did not know until it happened to me is that we are all susceptible to the contagion of our own country’s particular policies and dominant discourses about borders. I had grown up walking easily in and out of Mexico along the pedestrian corridors of the San Ysidro Port of Entry. Watching my country erect fences against so generous and faultless a neighbor as Mexico in the wake of 9/11 committed me to their abolition ideologically before I could even vote. I did not even see that this personal commitment had been so wounded by a terrorist attack while watching it unfold from my own country—which was not under attack—until I saw the commitment reflected back, with such firm resolution, by someone whose country actually was.

On the night of the attack, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted the uncharacteristically solemn (if toothless) message: “My prayers are with the victims and hostages in the horrible Paris attacks. May God be with you all.” In hindsight, it’s surprising that he didn’t preemptively blame Muslim immigration for the attacks. But by the following morning when the French and Belgian identities of the attackers was released, Trump was out blaming the too-strict gun control laws of France for the scope of the attack.

Within a week, he was back at his obsessive border talk, this time on the Syrian refugee crisis. “We all have heart and we all want people taken care of, but with the problems our country has, to take in 250,000—some of whom are going to have problems, big problems—is just insane. We have to be insane. Terrible,” he said at a rally in Beaumont. It was noted that the 250,000 number was seemingly pulled from thin air, a ghastly specter of invasion at a scale larger than most of our cities. There were later comments about poisonous Skittles made by one of his idiotic children.

***

Consider the travel ban clearly targeting Muslim-majority countries (and notably several majority black countries), the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the ongoing attacks on and suspicion of all immigrants that come into this land. Where Trump has easily cast out his inner circle of white nationalists and Yes Men, he absolved the most notoriously brutal believer in the holiness of the border (and the necessity of violence and humiliation to protect it). Referring to Arpaio’s well-documented criminality as a duty, a calling beyond the law, Trump was simply absolving a holy man doing a profound and sacred duty. And I wish I was kidding when I suggest this, but seeing as the fixation is on land borders, it sort of explains why he couldn’t wrap his head around Obama’s birth in Hawaii as truly American, and why he still doesn’t really understand that 3,000 Americans died on his watch in Puerto Rico.

Consider his visit to North Korea, a nation whose leader, a similarly pompous but far superior troll than Trump himself, whom he’d all-but-challenged-to-a-dick-measuring contest on Twitter months before, resulting in an apparent change in attitude. North Korea is the only sovereign nation with a ghost as the official head of state. A head of state whose image is embossed and ensconced and enshrined to maximize his visibility to the enslaved and starving who cannot leave, and might not choose to if they could considering their lack of access to information about (and from) the rest of the world. Think about the fact that the DMZ, with its elaborate rituals and vigilant military guarding, is notorious for how swiftly it created such enduring hostility and distrust of the people on the other side of it; that it’s a profound loss for the human family and for very real and living humans whose families were divided by it.

***

In the wake of the scandal over “biblical” talk, the particularly unsavory history of Romans 13 being used to justify atrocities was splashed across media and many were quick to appeal to the better known words of Jesus. Michael Harriott of The Root gave the most comprehensive and damning chronicle of the passage being used to justify slavery as ‘Christian’ to slaveowners, to slaves themselves; of how it was invoked in churches across Germany by pastors to rally citizens to the cause of Adolf Hitler; and of how it was bandied about in the 1960s to oppose civil rights. He was also one of the journalists to warn against using Bible verses against Bible verses and he noted that the apostle Paul was executed precisely for disobeying the laws of the Roman government by a deranged and paranoid emperor Nero. Pitting Jesus against Paul in a political discussion is not just wrong-headed because these men were important to a religion and we are not a theocracy, but because they are long-dead. Jesus would probably have been a nicer head of state than Kim Il-Sung (who is indeed, still the president of North Korea) but he would still be a dead head of state in a wounded but still living world.

A CNN story on the use of Romans 13 that focuses on its use to spread Nazism focuses on the opposition to the violent interpretation of it by famous theologians of the time. It concludes:

“Jeff Sessions may also want to consider that his invocation of Romans 13 might inadvertently backfire. If the political opponents of the administration start to read Karl Barth, they may, in fact, become more, not less, likely to stand up to the administration’s policies.”

The irony is that the more damning text to this brutal plan would be the actual Book of Romans. Theologians almost unanimously agree that is was the apostle’s most sublime and transformative masterpiece. (They never do that.) I don’t think we should use it as political instruction but as evidence of the fact that the divisions between the human family of thousands of years ago are still tearing us apart.

In Romans 11:16-18 Paul appeals to humanity’s warring nations as branches of an olive tree:

“For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.”

Now, Paul is appealing to God as the holy ancient origin for this metaphor that we all might be reconciled, but I want to talk about actual olive trees and living people who are presently divided. In 2002, Israel constructed a wall dividing not only itself from the West Bank, but Palestinians within from each other, disrupting their ability to transport goods effectively and devastating several economies. The 10-sq mile city of Qalqilya was particularly affected as the mostly agricultural city was nearly surrounded by the wall, cut off from water supplies that nourished their harvests and with only a single and congested route out of the city. Within the first year, the UNDP estimated that the wall had already destroyed 83,000 olive and fruit trees and 37 km worth of water networks. Devastated but not destroyed, some olive trees kept growing in the West Bank. As recently as August, Israeli civilians and on-duty soldiers of the IDF alike have been discovered destroying these olive trees.

Walls and borders don’t just divide people physically, they destroy parts of us if we do not resist their imagined divine power. “It is ugly and it create[s] this huge division, this hate and anger from both side[s],” says Mohammed Othmann, gesturing at the expansive wall from atop a hill in the West Bank. Othmann is a Palestinian activist whose work is devoted to programs that develop resilience and imagination for Palestinian children so they might not be subsumed by the anger that such isolation brings.

***

Trump’s idolatry is self-serving and violent but many on this planet unwittingly enable it by continuing to beieve that borders are real or decent or worth considering as anything but wounds in the earth and cages that separate the human family, now more literally than ever. But unlike the invisible deities of the religious faiths, borders do not pretend to contain moral or ethical instructions. Borders are the jagged seams of so many emperors’ clothes.

National borders are locations of surrender or massacre following state-sanctioned violence: a map with national borders on it is a snapshot of nothing more real than the present coordinates of winners and losers in war.

Like gods, belief in borders manifests most vividly in the unsightly monuments we build to them with high-tensile wire and concrete—unsightly temples honoring phantom differences. More subtly we see them in the banality of airport procedures that, if looked at closely, are not dissimilar from those upon entering prisons. Hands above your head. Empty your pockets. Please open your bag. What business do you have here? What address can we find you here? It is not by accident that we call these “customs.” We need to think of new customs and resist the insistence that imaginary lines that separate people make us safe and special rather than sick and ever more suffocated.

It’s not uncommon to believe that borders are the result of political processes alone; that borders are the talk and work of elected officials and law enforcement, maintained by taxpayers, and delineated on official government documentation. But it is more accurate to say that borders are the work of mathematics and magic. For example, borders at bodies of water are determined by the distance from a baseline, calculated as the mean of the lower low tides on large-scale nautical charts created and maintained by the National Oceanic Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).

Like layers of sediment stretching outward into the sea rather than downward into the soil, there are demarcations that indicate the amount of sovereignty a nation has over that particular stretch of water. From the coast they start with internal waters then move onto the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, and the exclusive economic zone before they’re international waters. But you don’t even have to believe in climate change to know that such borders are impermanent. Anyone who has ever seen a wave crash at different tides can tell you that the edge of a country is not set in stone—and certainly not set in sand or concrete.

***

Othmann, the Palestinian activist mentioned earlier, co-founded Skateqilya, an expanding organization that uses skateboarding as a way of empowering children to know a different freedom of movement. He wanted to create a new way of feeling and seeing that physical walls and barriers meant to stop them can actually just challenge them to reimagine ways of navigating around barriers, making them part of play and not pain. At the parts of the US-Mexican border where there are already walls, it has become a canvas for playful and defiant artwork that mocks the very idea that it could stop the human spirit from soaring over it.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall was an incredible transformation of an intimidating barrier that signaled isolation and difference, first to a little act of civic disobedience, then to a party, and then to the most inspiring live-streamed concert in history (headlined by David Hasselhoff). There’s an enduring myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from space, though that’s only true in extremely low orbit… and who cares what can be seen from space when we live right here on Earth?

We look at images of Planet Earth and our first thoughts are the names of continents and countries and seas: Africa, Italy, The Bering Sea. But these are words that live on paper and tongues, not on landscapes. What we’re looking at is water and mountains and grass, green and blue and grey. Yet we still see invisible lines on it, dividing it into shapes with a different name in nearly every tongue. What a loss this faith has brought our world, that even when we see it with our own eyes and hear it reinforced in nearly every origin myth that it was a single creative project, we still call it by the many names we built into it and that are tearing it apart. And this, when even from far out in space its most detectable feature, and the one that renders it legible, is that it’s a place where things are meant to grow.