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Blogpage D. (12/29/16) Story # 2: WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN

This is a story about walls - walls going up and walls coming down. I remember there is an old law of physics: what goes up must come down. It may not be true about everything, but it is certainly true about walls.

Every time we build one, we have to learn the same lesson over again: walls do not work. Most of them, sooner or later get torn down. One exception I can think of, The Great Wall of China - one of the world’s oldest walls - is still standing as a tourist site, but it no longer keeps people out. The most famous modern wall, the Berlin Wall, went up in 1961 and came down in 1989. The story I’m going to tell in a few minutes is about my being in Berlin when the Berlin wall went up. And then I was in South Africa 30 years later when it came down.

But first, before the story, I have a question: Why do we build walls? The answer, I believe, is either to keep people in or to keep people out, in order to keep others from acquiring what I already have. The reality is, walls do not serve the purpose for which they are constructed. It is not true that good fences make good neighbors; and they don’t make good national borders either. Even prison walls don’t accomplish their intended purposes. They don’t change the lives of the people who are imprisoned inside them, and they don’t make people on the outside any safer. Someone please tell Donald Trump that walls do not work.

Let me be clear – I am not talking about the purpose of walls in the conduct of war. I don’ know anything about war other than it shouldn’t happen. I am talking about the purpose of walls in the conduct peace. As far as I am concerned, the first rule in conducting peace is that walls do not work. The uselessness of a wall may not at first be obvious, but inevitably the law will prove to be true: what goes up must come down.

My story: I was in Berlin about a week before they began building the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. I was attending a big church event called a Kirchentag, which roughly translates into English as a big church event. The event became dramatically important because at the very moment it took place, it seemed clear that Russia and East Germany were about to do something stupid – like build a wall. They had already passed a law that no one could go back and forth between east Berlin and west Berlin without a permit - a law that was disobeyed by almost everyone. During the prior months of June, July and August - the 2 ½ months before the wall went up - about 70,000 people went from east Berlin to west Berlin without asking for permission. Not only that, they didn’t go back. They stayed in the west as refugees. As a matter of fact, during two years before that, more than two million east Germans had come to the west as refugees. The Russians and East Germans were getting increasingly upset because of the brain drain. So, it wasn’t at all surprising when they made the stupid decision to build a wall.

The Kirchentag was held in Berlin just before the wall went up. It was held on the west side of town and thousands of people came – without a permit, of course – from the east side of town to take part. Now here’s the point of this story. The east Germans who came to the Kirchentag could have stayed in the west as refugees, but they didn’t. Instead, they went back. When the Kirchentag was over, they went back to their homes in East Germany to do the dangerous work of challenging the East German government’s injustices. They could have stayed, but they went back to work for change.

I had never been so impressed with a people’s bravery as I was on that day. In the closing ceremonies at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, attended by more than 80,000 people.  About a third of them came from the east, and there was public recognition and celebration that they were going back, going back to fight for justice. During the ceremonies, they were asked to stand and identify themselves, and they all stood. The secret police could take their pictures, they didn’t care. Then the person at the microphone asked them if they were staying or going back. They roared with a common voice: “We’re going back! We’re going back! We’re going back to struggle for freedom!”.

That night I rode the train to the border between east and west Berlin, and I watched them going back. I saw many of them being arrested as they walked off the train. They knew that was going to happen. But it didn’t stop them from going back.
The next night I went to east Berlin to attend Berthold Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children (Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) at the Schiffbauerdamm Theater. You could feel the tension everywhere - in the theater and on the east Berlin streets as well. Less than one week later, the east German government permanently closed the borders and the building of the wall began.

But that’s not the end of this story about the Berlin Wall. For the next thirty years, people on both sides of the wall fought to tear it down. Then on November 9, 1989, it came down. The world celebrated the truth of that law about walls: what goes up must come down.

I was in South Africa at the time, where another wall was about to fall. The end of a long struggle to dismantle the wall of apartheid was about to come to an end. The two walls – the Berlin Wall and the wall of Apartheid - crumbled almost simultaneously. By November 9, 1989 many of the leaders of the ANC (African National Congress) had already been set free from Robben Island prison. Then three months later, on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela also walked out of the prison.

Walls do not work. Somebody needs to tell that to every tyrant in the world. No wall can be built that has the power to stop humanity’s march to freedom and justice. Somebody needs to tell Donald Trump that walls do not work.