As I write, the US government is shut down, locked in a political stalemate for nearly three weeks over the President’s promise to build a solid wall along the 2,000 miles of the southern border with Mexico, an easy promise made endlessly during the campaign, and reiterated in the two years since then, right up to his televised address this week, which painted a grim dystopia of international terrorists, drug dealers, and criminal and diseased immigrants flooding across the Rio Grande.
Supporters embraced it with relish; the wall promise was a linchpin in Trump’s win, with throngs of supporters at rallies- before and after the inauguration- chanting ‘Build the wall!’
The wall was always going to be a hard sell- outside of Trump’s hardcore base- as facts on the ground didn’t point to its critical necessity:
In September 2018, a detailed US State Department report found ‘no credible evidence indicating that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico, worked with Mexican drug cartels, or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States.’ As to the drug cartels, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has repeatedly reported that the most common- and easiest- method for traffickers to smuggle drugs across the border is by hiding them in cars that legally drive through official border checkpoints. Why walk them across the desert when it’s far simpler to drive them in an air-conditioned SUV?
Furthermore, undocumented immigration across the southern border is in fact dropping and has been for years; in 2000, 1.6 million people were caught crossing from Mexico illegally. Last year, the number was 310,531, the lowest figure since 1971.
In fact, there has been a decline in undocumented immigration overall since the economic recession of 2008… and almost none of it comes over the southern border. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants in the US overstayed a legally-granted tourist, student, or work visa.
What all this points to is that there is no ‘crisis’ of illegal immigration from Mexico, and the solution offered to undocumented immigration by the President and his supporters- longer, higher, and more fortified walls- doesn’t address the immigration and security issues that the US does face.
This begs the question: Why is the President so passionately committed to his wall?
To begin to answer that, we need to look at Trump’s wall theologically.
I believe Trump’s wall is an idol. It is a false god, promising much, delivering little, and demanding a heavy and cruel price.
In modern Christian doctrine, we tend to think that an idol can be anything. We particularly focus on an idol being something that preoccupies our attention away from spiritual pursuits. If we think about football more than our daily devotions, we might conclude that football has become an ‘idol’ in our lives; if we spend more time at work than at church or with family, we begin to wonder if the job or the salary might be an ‘idol’; if we obsess over a new car, a new phone, or expensive clothes, we worry that materialism is becoming an ‘idol’.
However, the ancient Hebrews didn’t think like this; for them, an idol was something very specific.
In the commandment against idols in Exodus 20:4 (‘you shall not make for yourself an idol’), the Hebrew terminology of ‘idol’ or ‘image’ (פֶּ֫סֶל, ‘pesel’, ‘hewn’) specifically denotes making, crafting, or building. An idol was something made, something specifically constructed. The ancient Hebrews of the biblical text weren’t interested in abstract mental images, inward desires, or emotional passions…
An idol was something you built.
From the biblical text we can see that an idol’s purposes were very specific- to give people a sense of control, to be a source of security and to reinforce a community’s identity.
Exodus 32- the account of the Golden Calf- is probably the most well-known and it is here that one of the most important purposes of an idol is seen- a community afflicted with fear and lack of trust seeks a sense of security and identity outside of that provided by God.
In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh had made it clear to his people that he was invisible, nameless, and unknowable, only discerned through his own self-revelation. This is why the commandments were so adamant that no image of him could be made. To do so implied that Yahweh could be made visible and knowable; that he could be located, placed in one place or another solely on a human’s desire; that he could be made present and available, attributes Yahweh had made clear were absolutely beyond the Hebrews’ control. The constructed image gave the people the ability to worship Yahweh as they desired- it allowed the possibility of naming God, controlling God.
Thus, in Exodus 32:
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him."
Moses was gone, disappeared up a mountain covered with fire and cloud (Ex. 24:17-18). The one man on which they have become entirely dependent has disappeared. When was he coming back? Worse, was he dead? No one knew. The unreliable Moses- and Moses’ God- had to be replaced with something tangible and reliable. The people demand ‘gods’ to do what Yahweh and Moses have, for whatever reason, stopped doing.
These new gods would ‘go before’; ‘go ahead’ (‘asher’; ראֲשֶׁ), as into battle. A nameless, invisible god was indeed an interesting novelty, but was it wise to persist in this notion, alone, surrounded by enemies, and with a military campaign to occupy Canaan drawing ever nearer? The people want to meet their adversaries on an equal footing; they wanted something that they could see and that could be seen; something that would announce who they were. In the face of physical threat, something more tangible than what Moses or Yahweh offered was required.
Another example of this idea is the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Though this passage is not normally associated with idolatry, in light of what we see in the Exodus passage, particularly the emotions and situations that might lead people to build ‘idols', this text again speaks to humanity’s propensity toward idolatry, the constant struggle with the desire to build ‘gods’.
And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
In this text, we again have the building of a structure out of fear, to provide security and identity, but once again outside of the relationship with God.
The people desire to ‘make a name for themselves’. Once again, the desire to ‘make’ usurps the role of God as well. It is God who creates and names humankind; now humankind declares that they will name themselves; just as the Israelites seek the name of God (Ex. 3:13) in order to possess God’s name- God’s identity- and therefore have a measure of control over him. Once the people ‘name’ themselves, they believe their destiny will be their own. The builders’ city and tower are their creation, their power base from which they will make their name; their identity and their works will endure.
This then reveals their fear: ‘...otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth (11:4).’ Without their self-made identity, they would be dispersed, and their identity- their self-made identity- destroyed.
In light of this reflection, we’re left with a grim picture. Since Trump’s wall has no practical application, we need to start dealing with what it represents- and that is where its idolatry truly lies.
Given that Trump’s wall solves none of the complex and admittedly serious immigration issues that America faces;
No member of congress from border districts supports it (including members of Trump’s party);
No one with any knowledge or expertise in immigration or national security agrees with him;
All we’re left with is fear, a false sense of security, and an ever-more desperate need for Trump to make a name for himself… all the reasons for the construction of an idol.
This would all be bad enough if not for the most disturbing aspect of idolatry in the biblical text- that idols always demand sacrifices.
The practice of idolatry in the ancient Near East was closely related to the idea of human sacrifice, specifically that of children. It would appear that this was at least common enough that the Hebrew prophets saw the need to continually stress Yahweh’s abhorrence of it. Jeremiah 19:5 is a perfect example; the prophet has Yahweh describe child sacrifice as ‘a thing I never ordered, never mentioned, that had never entered my thoughts’. For the prophets, it was not simply the practice that was abhorrent, but the intimation that Yahweh ever actually desired it. It was false gods who demanded sacrifice, not the God of life and liberation.
Two children have already died in US border patrol custody, sacrificed as part of a useless and cruel policy based on fear, lack of trust, and misplaced nationalism, designed to deter thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the poverty and violence of Central America- a region that has seen the blunt end of US foreign policy for over a century- from seeking asylum in the US…
These people have had their humanity and dignity sacrificed. They have been relentlessly demonized as lazy, scrounging, diseased criminals by the President, his administration, and his supporters, despite the fact that under US and international law they are perfectly within their rights to seek asylum in the US or any other country.
If Trump embodies anyone in the biblical text, it is the litany of kings who led God’s people into idolatry.
If Christ is who he said he was- a stranger, either invited in or not-
He is languishing, right now, in Tijuana.
American Christians have a choice; the same choice that every age has had to make: to serve Christ or an idol…
To bow down to one or the other...
But make no mistake, it can never- ever- be both.
But make no mistake, it can never- ever- be both.