I still can see the scene in my mind. I was on a school exchange to Germany. We were in a sunny wood somewhere, and there was a country lane in front of us. A very ordinary, very pastoral scene. Except that this lane was going nowhere. It led to a high wire fence that formed part of the huge Iron Curtain that separated West from East. Somewhere I still have the German guidebook to the wall that shows exactly how the watchtowers were manned, and the border so carefully guarded. It makes for chilling reading.
I was back in England on 9 November 1989. I had spent the previous year abroad in Austria near the Hungarian border. I had crossed the border several times as I had a friend studying in Kecskemet. There was however always the sense that I was entering a different world with different rules, a world marked by suspicion and paranoia.
But that day I watched the world changing. It is hard for the current generation to understand just how momentous it was when the crowds started hacking big lumps out of the wall in Berlin. The domino effect that swept across Eastern Europe was swift and it was dramatic, with previously untouchable regimes being overthrown. It is such a shame that these events have not yet reached the national curriculum. You need to understand the events of 1989 to make sense of the world today.
It would be good to report that the wider world has learnt lessons. But sadly it is one flaw of our human nature to build walls against those who are different from ourselves. I couldn’t help thinking of that sunny wood in Germany as we entered Bethlehem in 2011. The same barbed wire, the same watchtowers, the same minute examination of visas. I am not singling out the state of Israel, however. There are borders like this across the world, each one justified on the grounds of security and defence, each one seeking to keep people not like us out.
What does our Christian faith say to this? Paul writing to the church in Ephesus wrote this about the work Jesus accomplished on the cross: For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. In Christ there is no Jew and Gentile, no East and West German, no Palestinian and Israeli. We need to pray for and support those Christians who find themselves separated from each other by manmade walls, that by their lives they can testify to the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. Because ultimately the walls we erect do not work, and all of them in time will fall.