And it came to pass at the seventh time, when the priests blew with the trumpets, Joshua said unto the people, Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city….
And it came to pass, when the people … shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat.
Joshua 6: 16-20
A recent article in USA Today commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall characterizes the event with this headline: “Presidential words helped bring down Berlin Wall.” The sub-headline of the article declares that speeches at or near the wall by JFK and Ronald Reagan “proved the power—and the limits—of rhetoric in putting Cold War on ice.”
The article reflects the conventional narrative that has been adopted by U.S. political culture: Kennedy acquiesced to the building of the Berlin wall with words that seem quite sane: “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” To make amends, he visited the wall in 1963 and told the world to come to Berlin if they did not understand “the great issue between the free world and the communist world.” He added: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Not quite a demand for the wall to come down, but rather an expression of solidarity with the West German people.
Ronald Reagan visited Berlin in 1987 and pronounced the memorable phrase: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Not quite the poetry contained in the King James Bible, but a good example of the presidential rhetoric associated with the Great Communicator. One former deputy chief of staff believes that because of Reagan’s speech, “it was inevitable the wall would come down.”
Thus the U.S. narrative about the Berlin wall: it allows no consideration of historical and political forces at work behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War; no notice of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, or the reforms that triggered the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; no agency is awarded to Mikhail Gorbachev, or importance given to the glasnost and perestroika movements in the former Soviet Union. Like Linus traveling to the pumpkin patch Halloween night for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin, two U.S. presidents visited the Berlin wall to conjure the arrival of a free world.
Like the thieves in Ali Baba’s story from the Arabian Nights, they pronounced magic words that opened the cave to a treasure (“Open Sesame!”) and suddenly the wall came down, bringing along with it Communist Europe. It is not surprising that the author of the USA article poses the question: “What happened to the kind of inspirational presidential oratory that helped bring down that wall—and Soviet communism?”
Even Joshua, at the wall of Jericho, needed the aid of seven priests blowing trumpets of rams’ horns.
In our day, conservatives who praise the sorcery of Ronald Reagan for making the Berlin wall crumble are frantically demanding the raising of a Great Fence in our southern borders. Less magical but just as politically shrewd as JFK and Reagan, John McCain won re-election to the U.S. Senate two years ago with his mantra: “Build the dang fence!”
But the Lord who delivered Jericho into Joshua’s hands cursed the man that “riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho.” (Joshua 6:26) In our arrogance and sense of exceptionalism we forget that the Lord looks askance at walls, towers and even fences. He forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil: “I the Lord do all [my italics] these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
And if His word be not enough, we have the great American song—truly exceptional—by Woody Guthrie to remind us:
As I was walking
I saw a sign there
and on the sign it said
But on the other side
it didn’t say nothing.
That side was made
for you and me.
(“This Land is Your Land,”
as sung by David Carradine)