The wall on the U.S. – Mexico border seperating San Diego from Tijuana (Top) and two fragments of the Berlin Wall on display at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Bottom). 

Photographs by Joshua Kagi

What the Berlin Wall might teach us today

Dr. Marvin McMickle

January 31, 2019

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Those were the words of President Ronald Reagan spoken on June 12, 1987 as he stood in front of the Berlin Wall that had divided East and West Germany since its construction in 1961. Reagan understood that building walls was not the way to resolve disputes between nations. The Communist nations of the Warsaw Pact that were in the orbit of Soviet Russia’s influence used a wall to keep people in and to attempt to keep new ideas and differing cultural and political values out.

In an even more famous speech given at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri in 1946, Winston Churchill borrowed a phrase from Joseph Goebbels of Nazi Germany, who spoke about the Russians with the use of the term “the iron curtain.” Churchill said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind the line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.”[i] Churchill was referring to the “wall mentality” that preceded the actual construction of the Berlin Wall fifteen years later. Usually before actual walls are physically constructed, people are indoctrinated or frightened into believing that a wall was needed to protect the people inside the walls from the dangerous hordes that lurk just outside. Building walls, not tearing them down, was viewed as part of national security.

In 2017, I spoke at Westminster College, where Churchill had delivered his famous address. A large portion of the actual Berlin Wall is now on display outside the library of that college, and a small fragment was given to me as a keepsake and reminder of my visit. That fragment of the Berlin Wall that was torn down in 1989 is a reminder that building bridges of understanding is always better than building walls of separation and division. I think about the Berlin Wall as I watch our nation wrapped up over the question about a wall at the border that divides the United States and Mexico. I think about the dramatically different world views of two Republican Presidents of the United States.


That fragment of the Berlin Wall that was torn down in 1989 is a reminder that building bridges of understanding is always better than building walls of separation and division. I think about the Berlin Wall as I watch our nation wrapped up over the question about a wall at the border that divides the United States and Mexico.

This difference was on full display on January 3, 2019 when Nancy Pelosi, the incoming Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, resumed her role in that position. She quoted Reagan as saying, “If we ever close the door to new Americans, our leadership role in the world will soon be lost.”[ii] After she offered that reference to Ronald Reagan, someone with whom she or I or the Democratic Party had very little in common on public policy, she said that she was amazed that not one Republican member of the current House of Representatives applauded Reagan’s sentiments. What does it say about the state of American politics when Republicans in Congress do not affirm the words of Ronald Reagan because they are afraid of appearing to go against the views of Donald Trump?

I reference the words and views of Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan only in order to create a framework within which to consider the words and intentions of the current President of the United States. In the speech in which he announced his candidacy for the office of President, Donald Trump began talking about the need to build a wall at the border with Mexico to keep certain unwanted people out of this country. He said, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”[iii] The wall at the southern border and the promise that Mexico would pay for that wall was part of his campaign rhetoric from his first speech on June 15, 2015. The wall was going to be used to keep out the people that Trump referenced when he said, “When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best…They are sending people that have lots of problems, and they are bringing those problems with them. They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime. They are rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”[iv]

Contrast that view of the world and the desire to keep people out of the country with the words of Ronald Reagan in the final speech he made to the nation; words which Nancy Pelosi did not quote but could have to great effect. Reagan referenced John Winthrop, one of the early Pilgrims who came to this country in 1630 and thought of America as a “city upon a hill.” Using that metaphor, Reagan said “If there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”[v] Contrast Trump’s wall with the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty that stands in New York City; words that greeted millions of people fleeing poverty and oppression and looking for a better life in the United States:

            Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

            The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

            I lift my lamp beside the golden door![vi]

This dispute about building a wall to keep people out of the country is a distraction from many far more urgent issues. No doubt, Trump would rather have the nation focused on a border wall than on the investigation into possible collusion with the Russians in the 2016 election cycle. Drugs are largely not coming in through our nation’s unprotected borders. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, “the vast majority of heroin that crosses over from Mexico is smuggled through legal ports of entry – not in the vacant parts of the border that the wall would occupy.”[vii] The number of crimes committed by illegal immigrants is miniscule both in terms of absolute numbers and percentages in relation to the crimes committed by native-born citizens.[viii] Leading up to the midterm elections in 2018, Donald Trump talked about a horde of people marching on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. He dispatched members of the U.S. Armed Forces to defend the border once that horde arrived. However, once the election took place and the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives, there was no more talk of hordes from Donald Trump. Those people either turned around and went back to Central America—or more likely, there was never a horde to begin with. 

Meanwhile, over 800,000 federal employees went without pay and many others were simply furloughed from their jobs, because Mitch McConnell would not allow a vote in the U.S. Senate on a bill to fund the federal government. That is because he knew that Donald Trump would veto that bill; the very same bill he was willing to sign until he was criticized by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.[ix] The shutdown has temporarily ended, but it is possible that it could happen again in February if Trump does not get the money he wants to build his wall. Think about this scenario; a President of the United States punishing federal employees inside this country because he cannot get money he wants to keep other people out of this country. What’s wrong with this picture? Perhaps Donald Trump should consider this line from Robert Frost: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”[x]

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle is president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Rochester, N.Y.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Westminster College – Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech.

[ii] Clyde Hughes and Danielle Haynes, “Nancy Pelosi quotes Ronald Reagan in return as House speaker.”, January 3, 2019.

[iii] Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,, June 16, 2015.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Jon Meacham, “Ronald Reagan’s Hopeful Farewell.” New York Times, January 10, 2019.

[vi] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus.” November 2, 1883.

[vii] Abby Vesoulis, Tara Law, and Gina Martinez, “Here are the facts behind President Trump’s border claims.”, January 8, 2019.

[viii] Christopher Ingraham, “Two charts demolish the notion that immigrants here illegally commit more crime.”, June 19, 2018.

[ix] Michael Brice-Saddler, “’This is tyranny of talk radio hosts, right?’: Limbaugh and Coulter blamed for Trump’s shutdown.”, December 22, 2018.

[x] Robert Frost, “Mending Wall.”

Want the latest from The Christian Citizen?
Subscribe to Christian Citizen Weekly

Don't Miss What's Next

Get early access to the newest stories from Christian Citizen writers, receive contextual stories which support Christian Citizen content from the world's top publications and join a community sharing the latest in justice, mercy and faith.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This