Gilgamesh was a bully. Although the hero of the great Babylonian epic, he was badly behaved. His story opens with an account of picking fights with the young men of Uruk and bedding every young woman in town. In answer to the city’s pleas, the god Anu sends Enkidu to be a friend and to direct the manic energy of Gilgamesh toward a heroic quest. Together they trek to the mountains of Lebanon where they defeat the monster guarding the forest, then float down the Euphrates in a raft made of cedars.
It is interesting that these cedars are intended to be either a gate or door. That a gate would be the result of such an epic quest is puzzling, but makes sense in the context of ancient Mesopotamia. Most walls were built of sun-baked clay bricks, not the kind of material for a gate. And no matter how high or thick, the walls were only as good as the gates in protecting a city from its enemies. The story of Samson (Judges 16) carrying off the gates of the Philistine city in Gaza takes on greater significance when we understand the importance of gates in the age of city-states. A city without a gate was broken and defenseless.
Gilgamesh’s gift of a gate was therefore truly heroic and expresses our human desire for heroes who will provide gates and walls. This desire, I believe, explains some of the popularity of Donald Trump. He has promised to build a wall and to keep terrorists out. He has even promised to protect American workers and industries from the flow of cheap exports from other countries. He has tapped into our archetypal yearning for a hero, who even though a bully, will give our nation control over our gates.
I think Americans’ gut feeling that we need gates and walls is right. Although I think every nation has a right to control its borders and establish wise immigration policies, and that some trade-agreements have led to the plundering of American jobs and industries, these are not, I think, the areas where we are most at risk.
Greater threats to our nation come closer to home. On the right, we see a growing xenophobia and isolationism—a dividing of the world and the country into us and them. Some of this is poisoned with bigotry. On the left is a radical emphasis on cultural relativity and multiculturalism that makes it criminal to identify anything as American culture—even the values expressed in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Identity politics and envy of the rich on the left and bigotry and fear on the right are dissolving national unity. Who will shut the gate against these evils?
Even more important than walls and gates are the watchmen on the walls and the elders in the gate. The watchmen are the prophets that rightly identify the threats approaching our walls. The elders watch over all that enters and leaves through the gates. Sometimes we are threatened more by what leaves than by what comes.
For some time, we have been losing the shared values that unify us as a nation. When Martin Luther King declared “we are all God’s children” and insisted that we are all created equal, he appealed not just to the Bible, but to the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. But our fear of acknowledging the theistic basis of American liberty and equality has robbed us of the foundational truths that protect human rights. We need watchmen that warn not just against external enemies and terrorist attacks, but also against the deadly enemies that dissolve the ties that unite us.
We must oppose every religious test for American citizenship, but are wise and just when we insist on a Constitutional test. Those coming through our gates should embrace the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. At the same time, we must diligently guard against the erosion and distortion of the Constitutional rights by those who already here.
Yes, we need a wall but not the one Trump has promised us. A wall without vigilant watchmen is worse than useless because it locks us into our narrow streets and blinds us to the approach of our enemies. We are, however, most threatened by the enemies entering our hearts—hatred, bigotry, and envy.
Heroes like Gilgamesh can give us gates, but we need prophets to tell us when to open and close them. We need discerning elders to watch over what comes and goes. We need a hero to guard our hearts. Mine is Jesus.