A Misunderstanding of Fences

A Misunderstanding of Fences
Rev Douglas Taylor
December 11, 2016

“Good fences make good neighbors” is an old saw comparable to other gems like “Haste makes waste” and “Fortune favors the bold.”  In some ways “Good fences make good neighbors” continues to be an ‘old saw’ because Robert Frost said it in his poem Mending Wall https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44266, or as some people know it: ‘the “Good fences make good neighbors” poem.’ Frost’s critique of the phrase has assured its alleviation in our common discourse. Still, the misunderstanding raises a worthy question, ‘When are boundaries important to keep and when are they important to cross?’

I was at a multi-day minister’s conference a few years back, the topic was on leadership and authority. There were a few dozen of us participating, and when we came in to the room after our lunch break on the second day, the presenters had set up a game for us.

There was masking tape on the floor dividing the room into thirds. We were each assigned a section with most of us in one section, a smaller number in the middle section, and about five people in the last section. We were given only one rule – don’t cross the lines.

At first, knowing the course was about leadership and authority, we played along. After about ten minutes, we started crossing the lines just to see what would happen. When nothing obvious happened, most of us roamed the room. Some people pulled up the tape and used it to make art or create new boundaries. I started at the big end, but over the course of the activity I occupied every section of that room you can be assured. Eventually I sat down and started a rousing hymn sing.

Some of what we learned while processing the experience is that when left with no direction or aim, no leadership, people tend to accomplish a significant amount of nothing in particular. We also learned from our experience the truth of Frost’s opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

We Unitarian Universalists tend to be ‘boundary crossers.’ We are iconoclasts. Our favorite stories from our history are the ones about the rebels, the heretics, the trail blazers, and tradition breakers. We are a people who do not love a wall.

I have noticed that for several years our two Unitarian Universalist seminaries – Meadville Lombard in Chicago where our ministerial intern Jo Vonrue is studying and Starr King in Berkley where Satya Tabachnick who grew up in our congregation is studying – both have an emphasis in their program for ‘border crossing.’ We are explicitly teaching our new ministers to be ‘border crossers.’

My colleague Rod Richards says

We humans are the line-drawers. We are the border makers … the census-takers. We draw a line to separate this from that, so we can see clearly what each is. We create a border to define our place, so we can take care of what’s there.

Rod goes on to say, however, that compassion does not have such boundaries, “God has no borders.” “The lines we draw,” he says, “disappear when viewed with eyes of compassion.” (From Falling into the Sky; a meditation anthology edited by Abhi Hanamanchi and Abhmanyu Janamanchi, p 49)  

A. Powell Davies, the Unitarian preacher serving in Washington, D.C. during the McCarthy Era, wrote “How strange and foolish are these walls that separate and divide us.” I have certainly echoed these sentiments over the years from this pulpit. I have lamented before that we dwell too often in the realm of divisions as a country, as a species, and that our work as Unitarian Universalists is to help cross the borders to meet the one we label as ‘other.’

With the election rhetoric from president-elect trump about building a wall along the US border with Mexico, I am reminded of the line in Frost’s poem:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,

Drifting for a moment into the practical element of Donald Trump’s proposal and Robert Frost’s response: what, exactly, is the wall supposed to accomplish? Most people in the category of ‘undocumented immigrant’ came into our country using an airplane and a temporary visa. It is a very small number of people who will be affected the way that border wall is intended.

I suspect since we have not heard much about the proposed border wall in the past weeks that this particular ridiculous and impractical idea has run its course having already served its primary purpose which was simply to fuel the fires of fear among certain voters.

And I will take this segue to note that Robert Frost’s wall is not intended by the author to be only a literal wall. The metaphor of the wall as a tool of division is the greater lesson.

And it is here that I really hone in on the point I am making with my title. The misunderstanding about a wall is the idea that it provides security. There are certainly literal ways in which a wall can provide security, but the deeper truth is in the meaning of a wall, in the metaphor of a wall. In many ways the purpose of a wall is less about security and more about identity.  The division of us vs them, the exclusion of the ‘other’ is too often what creates the ‘us.’

And this is the heart of why our Unitarian Universalist seminaries are teaching our new ministers to be ‘border crossers.’

I admit when I first learned about the focus of ‘border crossing,’ or ‘boundary crossing’ as it was called originally, I was concerned. I had spent my seminary training and the first handful of years as a minister navigating the impact on our ministry of inappropriate boundary crossing. My seminary training occurred in the shadow of the clergy sexual misconduct scandals. I learned the importance of ‘healthy boundaries.’ While I have never had a personal or direct connection to any such misconduct, the reality of it impacted the breadth of society. Not all boundaries are bad; there are useful walls that divide.   

In the poem, Frost allows that this wall – the one he and his neighbor are rebuilding – is not needed; but other walls out there can be important and useful, such as where there are cows. And so, metaphorically Frost is saying, there are walls that are useful and walls that are there for no use at all. Useful dividing walls serve for when we want to make the lines clear between what is mine and what is yours, such as with your bank account or my body. The whole conversation of consent and rape culture recently is a response to a type of ‘boundary crossing’ that is harmful.

Tearing down a wall can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing depending on the boundary and why it is being crossed. In our game at that minister’s conference, we tore up the tape boundary without establishing first what the boundary was for or clarifying if it was a boundary in the service of justice or of injustice.

Crossing boundaries is good and just when we are partnering with the oppressed, when we are meeting the ‘other’ across our differences, when we challenging a status quo that is unjust. Crossing boundaries is bad when we are abusing our power or other people, when we are taking advantage of the trust that has been given to us, when we see every boundary as just a challenge rather than as a guide to navigate the needs of the individual with the needs of the group.

Boundaries are a tool, how we use them is the question. Robert Frost’s poem is at first glance a poem in favor of getting rid of walls. But when we look closer we see that it is like most of Frost’s better poems – an ambiguous mix. The poem takes place while the narrator and the neighbor are together rebuilding a wall. The narrator initiated the activity. He says the “spring mending-time’ had come.

            I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
            And on a day we meet to walk the line
            And set the wall between us once again.

The poem on its own does not resolve the apparent contradiction of wall-building and wall- destroying. It highlights it, as I am doing. I read one commentary (by David Rankin) that Frost’s poetry was not clear hope and optimism, the closest he got was ‘yes, maybe.’ The Mending Wall does not answer the question about if we should build walls of tear them down. Instead the poem raises the deeper question, what is the purpose of the wall? What does it make of my identity, your integrity, our relationship?

When Jesus exhorted his followers “love your neighbor as yourself,” it was less about tearing down the division between Jews and Samaritans, and more about finding one’s integrity and compassion given the divisive social structures of the day.

“A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robber.” Priests refused to help the man, passing on the other side of the road instead of stopping to help; until finally, a Samaritan came by. “When he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” (Luke 10)

The parable of the Good Samaritan recognizes that humanity must find a way to deal with the divisive instinct within us. The deeper question is not if the wall should be held or torn down. The deeper question is how can you live with integrity given the reality of the walls around us. That is the discernment question to know how to respond to our walls, which to maintain and mend, which to challenge and tear down.

And perhaps there is a hint of this in Frost’s poem as well. The narrator and the neighbor came together in common cause – the mending of a wall was perhaps just the excuse to share work together as neighbors. Let your compassion lead you to know your response. Let your integrity lead you to your compassion.

Perhaps good fences make good neighbors, but I doubt it. Remember the invitation from the second reading, Labyrinth by Leslie Takahashi Morris:

Walk the maze within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves. This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.

I wonder if, instead, it is good neighbors who can come together with compassion and mend a good fence – allowing each person in the relationship to have their integrity. And when it is needed, good neighbors can also tear down division that harm so a bridge may be built instead.

In a world without end
May it be so