Tear down the walls? No, transform them

Some unpublished thoughts on outsidedness, differentiation, and the transformative power of encountering the other

The most dramatic event in the life of my childhood church was the day someone fired a gun during the Breaking of Bread service and almost killed old Mr Foster. Mr Foster, who was famous throughout the north-west of England for being the only person ever to have pronounced the name of Welsh itinerant preacher Hugh Pugh as Hug Pug (“Hoog Poog”) while giving out the church notices, had a diagnosed heart condition. When the gun went off, Mr Foster was on his feet giving the announcements for the coming week. The bang was so loud, and so unexpected, that none of the thirty members of my small Brethren assembly noticed old Mr Foster grabbing his chest as he staggered from side to side. There were gasps, some people sprang to their feet as if to make for the door—but, whether seated or standing, everyone looked around in panic for the gunman. Not me. I knew who it was. He was sitting next to me on my pew. It was my little brother, Andrew, the “naughty one”, who for some reason had brought his cap gun to church and stuffed it, loaded and cocked, into his pocket. I can’t remember perfectly clearly, but I’m sure most people looked in Andrew’s direction straight away. If anyone was going to take a shot at old Mr Foster, one of the most likeable men in our fellowship, it was going to be Andrew. After all, everyone knew that it was Andrew who had intentionally dimpled and creased Rita’s brand new hat not that long before, an act that left her utterly devastated, weeping like she’d lost a parent in the cloak room where we kept our Believers Hymn Books. And it was Andrew who had crept out of bed one Saturday night and eaten the entire roast mum had cooked for Sunday dinner. And it was Andrew who had needed his stomach pumped after swallowing an entire bottle of Aspirin, for absolutely no reason other than they were there. Andrew was the type of younger brother oldest sons like me pray for. The type of kid they invented safety caps for. He was my foil. My stooge. Someone to blame when a stunt had gone horribly bad—or when we had been caught in the middle of one, like the time mum found us weeing on the coal fire in the living room. The cry “It was Andrew!”, if I got it in there quick enough, was practically guaranteed to divert any adult attention from me.

Not that I needed it on the Sunday morning in question. As everyone spun around, their hearts still thundering from shock, and old Mr Foster on the verge of cardiac arrest, a huge plume of smoke was rising from Andrew’s pants, his munchkin cheeks beetroot purple, his eyes darting from Dad, to Mum, to the now collapsing Mr Foster. It was a delicious moment. And one that our small congregation of very righteous believers thoroughly deserved.

See, if me and Andrew had not been sitting outside the circle of fellowship on pews behind our parents, the cap gun would never have been fired. Probably. This was Andrew, after all. The point is that the arrangement of our church hall during what was meant to be the most significant and inclusive service of the week, the Worship Service, symbolised the walls of segregation that characterised how this small community understood and expressed its faith, and the sense of exclusion that carried over into our lives. Andrew brought a cocked and loaded cap gun to church because he was not included in the purpose of the gathering. He, like me, was shut out, expected to behave, but given no reason why he should. Ours was a religious system that “set apart” the likes of me and Andrew. We felt this keenly week after week, as those “in” fellowship, mainly the adults, sat on pews arranged in a square around the communion table, on which was placed those most incredible symbols of inclusion history has known, the bread and the wine. The rest of us, those who were not yet in fellowship, sat behind the members, on rows of pews arranged as an outer square. We were raised to believe that the most significant indicator of real faith was acceptance into this fellowship (which meant that we got to move from the outer pews to the inner pews). This transition was based on whether or not we had been baptised. The right to be baptised was dependent on whether or not we could demonstrate to the elders, over a period of two to three months, that our “salvation” was real. And our “salvation” was based on whether or not we had asked Jesus into our hearts. From go to woah, the process of being saved and finally being allowed to take part in the feast of “inclusion”, the Lord’s Supper, conceivably took six months. From which point on your behaviour was closely monitored—for the rest of your earthly life—in case you had backslidden. Backsliding could be anything from missing two Sundays’ worth of meetings in a month, to … well, it was pretty much that. And if this happened often enough those people were visited by elders, who might resort to “reading” them out—in other words, excluding them once more. My family was no stranger to this process of exclusion. My mother was excluded from fellowship with the church when she became pregnant with me before marriage. She was just a teenager, but was already inside the circle. She fell pregnant out of wedlock—a little like the virgin Mary. Unlike Mary, Mum was no virgin—Dad saw to that. He was a drinking, gambling 17-year-old teddy boy from St Helen’s who had no idea that he was planting a seed of rebellion that would see her ostracised by the church for years—and which would eventually result in my brother Andrew scaring the bejeezus out of the congregation with a pinch of gunpowder and a tiny toy gun.
So, Andrew and I, and most of the other children, grew up being outsiders, while at the same time our mentors urged us on to do whatever was necessary to become insiders. All the while our experience of worship was staring at the backs of our parents’ heads, heads that they hung low in respectful, and very dull, reverence. My Dad’s teddy boy rebellion had been Bible-studied out of him many years earlier. My Mum had been accepted back into the fold after a suitable time in the wilderness and she, like the rest of the members, was watching how she behaved. But my parents were safely inside, and that’s pretty much all that counted. For them, outside was a place to be feared. When thirty or so people have in their possession God’s truth—to the exclusion of anyone who does not believe precisely as they do on any subject ranging from the meaning of certain Bible passages to what the Antichrist will look like when he finally turns up—not belonging to this group is the equivalent of eternal hell—quite literally. The division between inside and outside was symbolised not only by the set-up of the pews on a Sunday morning, but also by the bleak and foreboding exterior of the church hall. There was nothing that invited participation from the wider community. And had anyone dared to venture inside while a service was going on, which did occasionally happen, their outside status was emphasised by the demand that any women in the group wear one of the many hats that were hanging in our cloakroom. It was forbidden for any woman to sit in our hall without a head covering. Hats were another powerful symbol of division, which is why Rita wept uncontrollably when Andrew put his elbow into hers.

This small group of sincere believers was missing out on so much as it staunchly reinforced these divisions. The walls they erected to protect themselves from the disease of false doctrine were the same walls that sealed them off from the oxygen and the sunlight and the warmth of human connection that could have given them so much more of life. The belief that being “inside” was a privilege based on behaviour, and that “outside” needed to be feared, drew lines of separation not just around the parameters of the fellowship, but across it. Within the fellowship there were those who were more “in” than others, and some who were on the fringes of being “out”. This caused overwhelming fear, suspicion, cynicism and shame. One cannot talk about one’s struggles, particularly in areas deemed “immoral”, when there is the possibility such confessions will result in exclusion. So the fellowship became stagnant, sealed off from the outside, and starved of relational oxygen inside. As a result, its expression of faith was droll and banal—careful and predictable, following rigid tracks laid down long before I ever came on the scene. There was no effort to integrate belief with longings, or doubt, or disappointment. This lack of integration drove self-destructive behaviours underground. There was an affair between a married man and the wife of an elder that lasted more than five years. For all of those five years they sat across from one another on the inside of the square, he with his pious gaze cast to the floor in faux adulation, she with a skirt so short and legs so long it was difficult not to think of her as the Whore of Babylon come to lead us all into tribulation. There was an elder who walked out on his wife and two children to live with a woman from work, which, to be honest, was the first time he had shown any hint of relational passion. And there was a key leader and preacher who visited gay clubs in secret during the week. Years later he told me it was in order to experience a sense of belonging he had been denied in a faith community that would not have understood his struggles. And there was incest. There was child abuse. And there was that heavy blanket of judgment that always falls over fearful, exclusive groups who are constantly and cautiously minding how they behave as they cast sideways glances at everyone else’s behaviour for signs of slippage.

The behaviours, relational practices and styles of worship prevalent among my childhood faith community exhibited dysfunction and death because the walls dividing those “inside” and those “outside” were used to alienate rather than encounter. Hence, it was alienation and not encounter which came to dominate our ways of being. Walls of differentiation do not, in and of themselves, cause alienation and isolation. “Outside” must first be viewed as a threatening place. Walls are then turned into barricades, and those who huddle behind them do so fearing that the walls will be breached. But if “outside” is viewed as a place of opportunity, a place where encounter between those “inside” and those “outside” can occur in a way that generates a new and living experience that is not possible without such an encounter, then these walls become the stage for that event. Such a thing happened when Roger Waters took The Wall concert to Potsdamer Platz, the public square straddling the old East and West Berlin, in 1990. His vision of relational connectedness played to thousands where the Berlin Wall had stood as a symbol of seemingly impregnable alienation just a year before. The site of the toppled wall became the stage for a new experience of reconciliation.

Not all walls need to be toppled in the same way as the one bisecting Berlin—but walls do need to be transformed. They have to become something else. The walls cannot be merely dressed up. The UK street artist Banksy produces some incredible art on walls, even on the one separating the occupied territories from Israel. But even covered in art, it’s still a wall, as one old man reminded him regarding an art work at the Bethlehem checkpoint: “You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful,” to which Banksy said “Thanks.” The old man replied “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.” How can walls remain walls, but also be something else? Well, in the same way that ice cream can remain ice cream but be something else—something like Playdoh—with the addition of a carbohydrate found in particular wild orchids that changes its molecular structure. I’m suggesting the molecular structures of the walls that separate us relationally can be transformed in the same way ice cream becomes Salep Dondurma (stretchy ice cream).

There’s a wonderful line in The Matrix, during a scene in which the prophetic leader Morpheus attempts to help the messiah figure Neo appreciate the scope of his abilities once he has learned to “know” beyond the rules of the system. We can equate those rules with the conventions that limit us relationally, and the walls that we willingly, or unknowingly, allow to separate us. Morpheus, warning Neo about the system’s gatekeepers, the Agents, says “I have seen an agent punch through a concrete wall; men have emptied entire clips at them and hit nothing but air. Yet their strength and their speed are still based in a world that is built on rules. Because of that they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be. Neo, a revelation building in his knowing, asks, “What are you trying to tell me, that I can dodge bullets?” Morpheus, with a grin of hope and insider knowledge broadening across his face, answers, proleptically, “No Neo—I’m trying to tell you, when you’re ready, you won’t have to.” I believe that when true encounter occurs we do not walk through, scale, or pull down walls. When encounter occurs, we don’t have to. Because the rules change. The molecular structure is fundamentally rearranged. Conventions are transformed. Those “inside” can encounter those “outside” in a way that not only preserves established lines of differentiation, but requires them. I also believe that such encounters generate life, love, and innovation. They liberate those inside and outside to experience glorious new ways of engaging with the created world of humanity, of ideas, of relational connection, of creativity. Such encounters would have given life and purpose to my childhood faith community. Indeed, the “believers” would have recognised a divine hand behind such life-giving moments, since their scriptures, even the conservative translation they hung on to, were full of such events.

Outsidedness is the term I use to make sense of this experience. It is the event of two fully-differentiated people making an intentional choice to be with and experience each other, and to provide the space for the other to be other. “Walls” are actually the key to differentiation and otherness. The desire to be with is the key to those walls being transformed. They remain lines of differentiation, but their constitution is changed. Outsidedness is born as two people encounter one another across those lines of division, and entrust themselves to one another’s otherness. Outsidedness is an event of knowing, an epistemological event, in which knowing is discovered outside the individual minds of those in the encounter. Knowing occurs between them, around them. In these moments, something occurs that draws a curtain back on knowing that cannot be experienced without the other. It is an event, so it has time. But it feels like a room, so it has space. You could even say it’s the collapsing down of space and time into a moment of encounter, an event I often call the crucible. I think of outsidedness as the crucible because of its transformative potential. We bring into the encounter nothing but our selves, but everything of ourselves. This includes expectations, predetermined outcomes, job descriptions and business plans, plus fears, accusations, longings, and hurts. Outsidedness transforms all of these things, and in the process it transforms us.