IN The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, theologian Willie James Jennings argues that contemporary Christianity is haunted by the enduring legacy of its collusion with European colonialism. According to Jennings, the church has yet to reckon with the extent to which its theology generated and normalized early modern imperial logic, as well as the extent to which its theology has become distorted by this logic. Whereas a properly Christian social dynamic is founded on principles and practices of “joining, belonging, connection, and intimacy,” a colonial social vision is sustained by a “segregationist mentality” which divides and classifies people and societies according to racial, gender, and economic hierarchies. In the early modern period, this segregationist mentality became a kind of contagion, infecting the very architecture of the Christian imagination in ways that persist to this day. To adapt a phrase from the late English poet Geoffrey Hill, our colonial contagion is not a “manageable hypothesis” but an “irredeemable error in the very substance and texture” of the Christian imagination. However, though our colonial contagion is beyond redemption, we may yet recover an authentically Christian social vision by reconfiguring our imaginations around a new center.
In seeking a way forward, it may be instructive to consider artistic responses to one particular cultural phenomenon in which the enduring logic of colonialism seems especially transparent. Over the last few years, a similar kind of divisive logic has been revealed in our national discourses around border security, and above all in relation to the phenomenon of national walls. Border walls have been discussed ever since Donald Trump vaulted into contention for the presidency by announcing his blatantly xenophobic plan to construct a barrier on the US’s southern border. However, while the American president’s obsession with walls may be especially pronounced, it is by no means unusual. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that we are living in a golden age of wall-building. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, no more than fifteen border barriers existed worldwide; today, there are more than seventy “security” fences and walls spanning the globe from Belfast to Bangladesh, many of them heavily militarized. These walls were each forged for a specific purpose, tailored to the contours of unique conflicts, whether religious, ethnic, cultural, economic, or some confused amalgam of the above. And yet the principles used to justify their construction share a common xenophobic rhetoric, founded on dubious ethical claims about “the other.”
Like the metaphorical barriers we construct around our imaginations, these physical barriers instantiate a distorted desire to separate ourselves from others out of fear that we may be accountable for their suffering. If we are to dismantle these monuments to our diseased social imagination, we need to dig beneath their ostensible purposes so that we can uncover the physical, social, and psychological violence they inflict. In this effort, contemporary artists—accustomed to mining such territory and trained in subverting regnant ideologies—are invaluable. Long before authorities are prepared to tear down walls, artists help us see through them.
Unsurprisingly, the two most controversial and publicized national barriers—the US-Mexico border wall and the Israeli-Palestinian “security fence”—have attracted the most artistic attention in recent years. Interventions have taken many forms. To begin, both walls have become popular canvases for street artists: for instance, the anonymous Britain-based artist Banksy has left numerous iconic works denouncing the military occupation of the West Bank on the security fence, including at sections of wall near Bethlehem and other religious sites. In 2008, French street artist JR created a series of large-scale portraits of Israelis and Palestinians for his controversial work Face 2 Face. The images were hung on both sides of the separation wall in pairs, each featuring an Israeli side-by-side with a Palestinian, thus calling on members of both communities to recognize their shared humanity. Nine years later, the artist brought a similar message to the US-Mexico border, where he installed an enormous image of Kikito, a Mexican child he photographed while scouting locations for his intervention, peering over the wall with an expression of innocent curiosity.
Other artists trespass on the wall to create works which transform the structure itself, often with a view towards promoting unity across politically divided territories. Some of these works, such as the construction of seesaws on the US-Mexico border near Ciudad Juárez in 2019, echo the playful tone of Kikito, while others are more somber. For example, in 2015 the indigenous arts collective Postcommodity released a line of enormous helium balloons printed with “scare eyes” across both sides of the border as a symbol of Native interconnectivity with the land and its inhabitants over against a neo-imperial culture of walling.
Still other artists reproduce physical barriers in new contexts, exposing audiences to the spatial, social, and psychological impact of walls on border-zone inhabitants. Again, these artists employ a wide variety of tactics to address the diverse issues surrounding the practice of wall-building. Cosimo Cavallaro’s construction of an expired cheese wall at the US-Mexico border, Make America Grate Again, for instance, is more than comedy; it also provides a pungent commentary on the wastefulness of walling. Meanwhile, Marco Ramirez’s DeLIMITations marks the route of the original 1821 border on its way through Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states with steel obelisks designed to look like historical signposts, thus underscoring the arbitrary and shifting nature of national borders. And in a totally different vein, the performance artist Bosco Sodi installed an eight-meter long brick wall in prominent locations in both London and New York City, highlighting the dangers of isolation. Passersby were invited to help dismantle the wall, and so to participate in a shared task designed to foster unity in countries torn apart by divisive political campaigns.
For all their varied insights, what these cases all reveal is the immense failure of collective imagination on the part of those who have built these walls and propped them up, whether actively or indirectly. To put the point theologically, these artists expose the wall as an idol of a distorted social imagination.
The political theorist Wendy Brown suggests that the recent proliferation of border walls can be traced to declining state sovereignty under the pressures of globalization. In an era when the borders between nation-states are becoming increasingly fluid, those who ostensibly wield power are reverting to neo-imperialist tactics in order to shore up claims to sovereign jurisdiction. National border walls are one such tactic: they project an image of power and dominion amid crises of contested sovereignty.
Yet these obdurate physical barriers can only function theatrically, staging a performance of sovereignty which the state no longer wields by marking a hard boundary that no longer exists. In this absurd theater of border security, walls optically satisfy our desire for secure nationhood where the lines separating insiders and outsiders remain absolutely clear. It’s no coincidence that the chant “build the wall” plays best as the call-and-response of a demagogue’s campaign rally. Though Brown does not use the language of idolatry herself, I would suggest that her account of modern wall-building exposes the idolatrous nature of national border barriers. The wall functions as an idol, not only insofar as we project onto it salvific power that belongs to God alone, but also because the salvation it promises can only be accomplished through division, security, and control—the very idols of the neo-colonial imagination.
In an essay titled “The Desire of the Church,” Jennings observes that, “Idols live between us, facilitating distorted desire and distorting relationship.” No cultural artifact signifies this theological principle so pointedly as the modern border wall, which literally blocks the interstitial spaces where human beings must venture in order to forge their identities in and through the negotiations of mutually interdependent relationships. By trespassing on the “sacred” fence, by transforming the seemingly inviolable barrier into something different, artists invite us to imagine a different reality, one shaped not by division, hierarchy, and control but by connection, mutual support, and pursuit of the common good.
Over the last several years, I have been following an artist whose work extends an especially poignant summons to such border-crossing. Khaled Jarrar is a Palestinian soldier turned multidisciplinary artist based in Ramallah in the West Bank, whose works include film, photography, sculpture, and performance. A former member of Yasser Arafat’s presidential guard, Jarrar now uses art to encourage acts of civil resistance against the military occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, as well as other forms of geopolitical militarization and colonial aggression. His acts of resistance draw audiences into the liminal spaces of contested border zones, where each viewer is summoned to contribute to the reversal of borderland power dynamics.
Jarrar is no stranger to controversy. He has sold his blood on Wall Street to protest the US military-industrial complex; illegally appropriated portions of the West Bank wall for sculptures and installations; and documented the restricted mobility of Palestinians living under occupation in his film Infiltrators, which earned him the prize for best director at the Dubai International Film Festival. His mural of a giant rainbow on the Israeli-Palestinian partition was quickly painted over by fellow Palestinians who took issue with his support for the LGBTQ+ community. In 2014, the artist caught the attention of international media when Israeli soldiers barred him from leaving the West Bank. He was due to travel to New York City for the opening of a group exhibition at the New School which featured his work, and as a result of the ordeal, he missed his flight and the exhibition launch.
One piece has been at the forefront of my mind throughout the George Floyd protests. In January 2016, Jarrar traveled to the US-Mexico border, where he dismantled a piece of partition railing to create a free-standing ladder. In a documentary film about the making of Khaled’s Ladder, we watch the artist scale the eighteen-foot high fence, pry away a piece of rebar with his bare hands, then drag it away, leaving a line in the sand like a child with a toy shovel. Reflecting on this moment in an interview, Jarrar recalls the emotional response of the onlookers, who lived in fear of the fence: “as Mexicans, they never thought that they could touch the wall—it is untouchable. For them, this is taboo; this is something almost holy… But after I removed it…I broke this holiness behind the wall.”
In this act of trespass, then, Jarrar exposed the wall as an idol—and by shattering the myth which had built up around it, he freed its materials for another purpose. Traveling eastward along the border, he deliberated about what he should do with the piece of rebar; eventually, he opted to transform it into a ladder. He installed the completed work in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where it stands as “a monument to the global issue of migration and the struggle of marginalized and displaced people to rise above the physical and psychological barriers that surround them.”
Significantly, by repurposing the rebar in this way, the artist endowed it with a new theological meaning. In Jarrar’s own words: “The purpose of the wall is to separate people and to stop people and to limit people from moving. And that’s why I made the ladder out of the rebar that I removed from the border wall—the ladder is a bridge to the other side. When you climb the ladder, it’s like Jacob’s ladder. You have this ladder to go to heaven, to survive, to escape from misery. And people have the right to decide where to live or where to go, in spite of all these nations, territories, and divisions.”
In repurposing part of a border wall to create a new Jacob’s ladder, Khaled Jarrar uses biblical imagery to expose the ultimate modern idol for what it truly is—a chimera, a fantasy invented by our own impoverished imaginations. At the same time, the artist does more than simply unveil the idolatry of wall-building—he also reconfigures the social architecture of the borderland around a new center, and in so doing he invites the viewer to transcend the barriers of her diseased social imagination.
Importantly, Khaled’s Ladder serves no immediate practical purpose. Cemented into a clear tract of dry land at a considerable distance from the actual border fence, it stretches toward heaven rather than across any physical boundary. Nevertheless, the repurposed piece of the wall invites viewers to shift their imaginations away from the diseased dynamics of border security, and to recognize instead their shared task of bridge building. Where walls can only ever create division and fragmentation, Jarrar’s work reflects humanity’s essential interdependence. His is a summons to boundary crossing without evasion, self-interest, or fear.
Devon Abts is assistant director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion and visiting assistant professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she researches and teaches at the intersections of modern theology, Christian ethics, and the arts.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.