Knowing when to open doors

Building a wall can protect people, property, and cultures. Tearing a wall down can promote human progress.


It is perhaps no longer shocking to hear that tens of thousands of people from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa are hazarding their way across Europe. Or that more than 6,000 migrants are now jammed into the sprawling shantytown known as “the Jungle” outside the French port of Calais, with another 100 to 150 arriving each day. Or that human traffickers are victimizing the vulnerable in North Africa, that lives are regularly being lost in the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean, or that border crossings in southeastern Europe are the scene of daily confrontations between desperate refugees and wary soldiers.

The epic refugee migration of 2015 has become so much a part of today’s landscape that it might by now seem that the crisis has passed. It hasn’t. The human flood is huge, ongoing, and packed with consequences that will take years to play out. For migrants, the big question is whether the risks they are taking for themselves and their families will bring safety and a fresh start on a continent that has not always welcomed strangers. For Europeans, the growing concern is about preserving culture and community as more and more immigrants crowd in. Strains on Europe’s sputtering economy, religious tensions as Muslim populations increase, fears of terrorism and of xenophobic backlash – the issues surrounding the refugee influx are serious and will not be resolved overnight.

Little surprise then that in the balance between openness and order, compassion and control, the mood in Europe is now shifting toward order and control. First in Hungary and soon, it appears, in the Balkans, and eventually in other parts of a Europe that once sought to be borderless, border fences and walls are likely to rise. And Europe is not alone. As a team of Monitor reporters explains (click here), border barriers are rising worldwide – from North America to East Africa, Morocco to China. 

It is easy to dismiss walls as selfish, the product of an I’ve-got-mine mentality. Robert Frost famously knocked them as unlovable, as fencing people in as much as out. But humans have always found walls and fences necessary. Primitive stockades fended off marauders. Mottes and baileys, moats and drawbridges, rivers and mountains – barriers let a community evolve on its own and grow without interference. Today’s gated subdivisions are more elaborate forms of protection than are locked front doors, but both have the same purpose.

So, yes, walls work. They preserve gardens, protect property, and keep children and pets from running into the street. Every nation is essentially a walled compound in which its own unique culture is able to thrive. That’s good. But it’s also good when a community opens itself to new and perhaps uncomfortable challenges. Unexpected possibilities arise. For both natives and immigrants, conflicts are inevitable. But when different cultures merge, the cuisine and the music improve; sciences, business, and the arts progress.

Communities are safe when their doors are shut. Humanity is better when its doors are open.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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