CD cover

Why Do We Build the Wall?

EP endorser Tony Hunt offers this meditation on a theme from this past summer’s gathering:

Immigration, the Church, and Hadestown

Since the Ekklesia Project Gathering this summer, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on how immigration is explored by one of the better records of 2010: Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown, a folk opera that reinterprets the classical story of Eurydice and Orpheus.

The opera opens with anxiety over Eurydice’s and Orpheus’ imminent marriage. She’s unsure whether they’ll be able to pay for everything. Though Orpheus assures her that nature’s abundance will provide, she remains doubtful, plagued by fears of economic scarcity.

Soon, however, we’re introduced to Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Hades, the “King of mortar, King of bricks,” employs and controls “a million hands” as he builds a great wall. The building project stirs rumors above ground as Eurydice, Orpheus, and Persephone (Hades’ wife, out on vacation) wait for a train. Orpheus is skeptical and serious:

Everybody hungry, everybody tired
Everybody slaves by the seat of his brow.
The wage is nothing and the work is hard
It’s a graveyard in Hadestown.

But Eurydice, still fraught with anxieties about money, indulges in naive acceptance and wonder:

Everybody dresses in clothes so fine
Everybody’s pockets are weighted down
Everybody’s sipping ambrosia wine
In a goldmine in Hadestown.

The hope of a better life across the border proves irresistible, however. When Hades arrives to bring Persephone back to the Underworld, he seduces Eurydice with promises of great wealth and a full belly. She goes with him, leaving Orpheus behind. Orpheus learns of this from Hermes, and sneaks his way into Hadestown.

Here, midway through the opera, we hear the climactic song “Why We Build the Wall,” which most clearly addresses immigration. The call and response structure engages Hades in a conversation with Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the Underworld:

  Why do we build the wall? My children, my children 
Why do we build the wall?

  Why do we build the wall? We build the wall to keep us free
 That’s why we build the wall
 We build the wall to keep us free

How does the wall keep us free? My children, my children 
How does the wall keep us free?

How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy 
And we build the wall to keep us free
 That’s why we build the wall  We build the wall to keep us free

  Who do we call the enemy? 
My children, my children
 Who do we call the enemy?

Who do we call the enemy?
 The enemy is poverty
 And the wall keeps out the enemy
 And we build the wall to keep us free
 That’s why we build the wall
 We build the wall to keep us free
. . .

For Hades, the wall makes and keeps his people “free” by shutting out the poor. “Poverty” in the singular is quickly expanded to the plural and personal. The most obvious referent is the poor across the border.

There is a strange and complex relationship between the wall and everything else. It keeps the enemy out and keeps them poor: “We have and they have not.” Exclusion is what builds, secures, and maintains economic wellbeing, and only continued vigilance will guarantee the economic freedom of Hadestown: “the war is never won.”

In a climate where immigrants are increasingly considered a threat to economic growth and stability, efforts to solidify borders and punish “illegals” may be seen in an analogous fashion.

There are at least two responses that the Church may make to this situation. One was addressed at the Gathering: the Church offers itself as an alternative society. In the Church, baptism marks one as Christ’s own forever. This mark is, or at least ought to be, one of universal inclusivity, whatever local church one is a part of. Moreover, each member of the Body offers his or her gifts to the whole for the edification of all. Here, there is no need to secure wellbeing for some at the expense of others or to reject the labor and life they would be able to give. Rather, all have a place. There is no surrender to the myth of scarcity because what some lack or are weak in, others provide and strengthen.

The second was less directly addressed at the Gathering, and entails a critical examination of the economic and political policies that produce wealth for the US but keep our neighbors to the south – even those with whom we have a “free trade agreement” – proportionately much poorer. It is one thing to be critical of immigration policies, but it is also important to point specifically to the conditions that make large-scale immigration necessary in the first place.

What kind of economic habits and disciplines might America need to cultivate in order to correct this economic imbalance? What kinds of actions might begin to weaken the problematic economic and ethnic walls that we are addressing?

In the opera, Orpheus’s arrival introduces chaos to Hadestown. By challenging Hades, Orpheus incites a riot among the workers. This proves a serious threat to Hades, even larger than the blow to his ego should he let Eurydice go. Hades is resentful and confused: “All my children came here poor/ Clamoring for bed and board/ Now what do they clamor for?/ Freedom!, Freedom!” Reluctantly, Hades frees Eurydice on one condition: as the two lovers climb to the surface, Orpheus may not look back at the following Eurydice. (If you know the classical tale, you know how the opera ends.)

In order for actual Hadestowns to reflect Christian life, then, what is needed is a shift in the political situation; something that upsets what Persephone calls “the logic of kings.” We need an alternative ending to the tragic one offered in the opera. Instead of a true shake-up, Hades maintains his power with only a minor hit to his pride. The riot is quelled and life returns to what is was before. Nothing less than a demolition of the wall and a wider distribution of goods can begin to imitate the shape of Christian fellowship, where the Spirit distributes gifts and skills for the benefit of all without exclusion.

2 Responses to “Why Do We Build the Wall?”

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  1. […] was recently given the opportunity to write a piece on immigration for The Ekklesia Project. I approached it via contemporary folk music and classical […]

  2. […] in the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. I also support groups like The Ekklesia Project (see “Why Do We Build the Wall?”), which is busy in ecumenical efforts to sustain practices to form the Church in holiness. This […]

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