The Great Wall of China. Hadrian’s Wall. The Berlin Wall. The Iron Curtain. The Korean Demarcation Line. The Israel-Gaza barrier. These are just a few examples of physical barriers people have put up to separate themselves effectively from others. I believe there’s another one planned along the Mexican-American border. When such a massive construction effort is undertaken, it’s usually driven by – and justified by – one big idea or an ideology. Such projects are almost invariably divisive, not merely in a literal sense, but more notably both culturally and mentally. They create a sense of superiority on one side and inferiority on the other, consequently fostering attitudes like derision, mockery, disregard, contempt and so on. In the extreme, those excluded can effectively be dehumanised, as we saw in the Jewish ghettos established by the Nazis. Instinctively we feel that putting up barriers is wrong but, on the other hand, fencing of this kind offers a sense of safety, even if it is only illusory.
Of course, physical barriers are simply projections of those existing in the mind. Putting up a concrete wall is the ultimate, tangible act of raising a mental barrier. The number of physical walls is nowhere near as astronomical as those erected in people’s minds. These barriers run along various fault lines: racial, religious, national, gender, financial, cultural… the list is virtually endless. Jesus in today’s gospel seems to encourage and praise such an attitude in his followers: ‘They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.’ They are separated from the world and, by default, are better than the world. For centuries such self-perceived superiority of Christians has been the driving force behind the active and passive persecution of non-Christians as well as of those denominations deemed erroneous within Christendom. Following the Reformation, the upshot of the latter was the religious wars that raged to and fro across Europe. The wars lasted for nearly two centuries and petered out without a clear winner. The legacy of the conflict lasted into the late 20th century, and in fact can still be detected here and there.
That’s not at all the kind of separation Jesus had in mind for his followers. In the gospel of St John ‘the world’ is a specific term that summarily describes all kinds of corruption: moral, spiritual, social and so on. When Jesus talks about his followers as ‘not belonging to the world’, what he means is their proactive refusal to adopt various corrupt attitudes and to replace them with a comprehensive term ‘love’, better translated as ‘charity’. Jesus’ teaching doesn’t support any kind of boastful, superior separation. On the contrary, it advocates exactly the opposite. In his great final prayer he says to the Father: ‘As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’ The way we are to ‘separate’ from the world is for us to continue Jesus’ mission of healing and of liberating those affected by any form of corruption. The only significant difference between us, Christians, and ‘the world’ must be our active charity, shown to those near and far. Paradoxically, it means our being immersed in the affairs of the world to make it a better place. For everyone.