Walls of Hostility

Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation / InterVarsity Press

By David P. Leong

Throughout high school, I worked in our family photo lab in Vancouver Mall, and on breaks I would walk around to see other store displays nearby. In the early to mid-’90s, there was a particular trend in a lot of the poster and gift shops, which would display large, patterned images with a “hidden 3D picture” out in front of the store. People walking by would stop and stare to try to find the hidden picture, some for just a few moments and others for much longer.

A fortunate few could see the three-dimensional image right away, and they would often smile or laugh when they discovered it. Others would become so frustrated because the only thing they could see was the flat, patterned background, totally unable to discern what was seemingly hidden right in front of their face. Some frustrated types even dismissed the illusion as a hoax, insisting that people were just imagining the hidden picture and playing along for social reasons. It was all quite fascinating to watch.

These computer-generated images are called autostereograms and use a visual illusion of depth perception to hide a three-dimensional image inside a two-dimensional pattern. Because of the ways our eyes are conditioned to look on the surface, at first most people just see the flat pattern and nothing more. One trick to seeing the hidden picture is to look through the pattern by shifting your point of focus behind the image, and then the 3D picture springs to life, often in a pleasantly surprising way. Once you’ve shifted your focus, the whole thing looks different: the pattern on the surface drops to the background, and the 3D image becomes the new subject and focal point.

When most of us look at cities—and their systems, structures, and patterns—I think there’s something similar happening. Without the right perspective, the patterns look flat and rather meaningless. Sure, there’s some vague familiarity with the general shape and layout of things (buildings, roads, people), but nothing really important or interesting stands out to us. Nothing grabs our attention, so we walk right on by, disregarding the pattern as insignificant.

Housing, schools, transportation, social spaces, and more—together these patterns point to something more meaningful that may not leap off the page in an instant but can come into focus if we concentrate and know what we’re looking for.

“Patterns of exclusion”—structures that divide—can seem hidden at first. It may look like there’s nothing there at all, but in fact there are outlines, contours, and images of something deeper going on. Housing, schools, transportation, social spaces, and more—together these patterns point to something more meaningful that may not leap off the page in an instant but can come into focus if we concentrate and know what we’re looking for. These patterns are not only in the built environment, but they are also in our histories, social tendencies, hopes, and fears.

Walls, fences, borders, and boundaries are all around us, and they generally serve a common set of purposes: to divide, define, and demarcate. Geographically, walls and boundaries can be very important for the design of the built environment or the standards of public safety. For example, I’m usually grateful for the fenced areas in parks where my young children play; they can run freely without the danger of cars, and their exploring can be contained lest they wander too far. But walls can also divide to the detriment of a place; borders can create tension over contested ground or exacerbate violence that builds on either side of a physical or metaphorical boundary.

While the ordinary walls among us mostly go unnoticed—a landscaped retaining wall or a friendly neighbor’s fence—sadly, there is no shortage of the contested and divisive type of wall. For example, Donald Trump’s well-publicized desire to build a huge wall along the Mexican-American border is only the latest proposal in a long history of wall building. These “walls of hostility,” as the apostle Paul refers to the cultural divide between Jews and Gentiles, remain active and entrenched barriers in our world today. Some of them are more obviously constructed, such as the security wall around the Israeli West Bank (known as the “Apartheid Wall” by many Palestinians). But these days most of them are harder to see at first, especially when so many suggest these walls have all come down and are relics of an uglier history now past.

Many of the walls are both historic walls that have had lasting and unforeseen effects on their communities and invisible walls that have formed along racial and socioeconomic lines. Keep in mind that physical boundaries are not necessarily more imposing or damaging to the common good, though at first it may seem that way. In fact, many of the symbolic walls we face—cultural boundaries, color lines, class barriers—are actually more dangerous to the flourishing of communities precisely because of their intangible characteristics. In a sense, it’s their invisibility that protects and reinforces their power. When we fence a group in physically, the moral dilemma is clear. But when we create a boundary that’s less apparent or obvious on the surface, its divisiveness may be contested.

When we fence a group in physically, the moral dilemma is clear. But when we create a boundary that’s less apparent or obvious on the surface, its divisiveness may be contested.

Ultimately, as we identify and interpret these boundaries and the places they shape, I hope we bring the deeper meaning of these walls to bear on how the places we inhabit have in turn shaped us. If the church is ever going to summon the courage to transgress these walls of hostility, then we must understand the walls we’re up against.

Taken from Race and Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation by David P. Leong. Copyright (c) 2017 by David P. Leong. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426 / www.ivpress.com.

David P. Leong is associate professor of missiology at Seattle Pacific University and Seminary, where he also serves as the director of the Global and Urban Ministry minor. As a scholar and practitioner, Leong examines the theological meaning of the city in an increasingly globalized and urbanized world. At the intersection of intercultural and missiological discourse, he sees the city as a rich context for theological reflection about topics ranging from hip hop and the built environment to multiculturalism and missional ecclesiology. He is the author of Street Signs: Toward a Missional Theology of Urban Cultural Engagement, and he lives in Seattle’s Rainier Valley with his wife and two sons.

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