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Beyond the walls


One of a few remaining guard towers rising from a corner in the Xi’an City Wall. At one time, 78 such towers studded the wall with 120 meters between them.

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a group more than 20 terracotta chinese warriors arranged in rows
In the past, thousands of Terra Cotta warriors were replicated to assure the Emperor’s defence against enemies and the continuation of his imperial rule in the afterlife.

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September 30, 2011
-Philip Bender

Dazhou, China — When it was evening…and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…as the father has sent me, so I send you.” - John 20:19-21

Visiting the historic city of Xi’an (She-ann) in July, we were struck by how much a strong defence against enemies was on the mind of the ancient Chinese. First there is Xi’an’s old city wall. Built in 1370, this 14-kilometer-long fortress of masonry and brick is an imposing site. It looms 12 meters high and 18 meters wide at the base, with massive wooden doors sealing its multi-arched gates.

In the old days the wall was studded with 78 four-story guard towers set 120 meters apart - the length an arrow could travel. Several of those towers still stand. Climb up to where sentries stood, above three floors of weapons storage rooms, and you can peer out through the same narrow window slits they used to survey opposing armies across the moat.

A visitors’ sign on one tower states the obvious: “Very functional whenever the enemy circled the city.”

To residents living inside the wall, it must have felt like a secure and impregnable citadel. Walking or biking along the 12 metre wide top of it today feels like gliding down a North American highway.

And then, an hour outside Xi’an, are the Terracotta Warriors. Unlike the city wall, this vast underground army of life-size ceramic statues served to protect not the living but the dead.

Over 2,000 years ago thousands of these replica soldiers were interred in pits near the tomb of the deceased emperor Qin, to assure the Emperor’s defence against enemies and the continuation of his imperial rule in the afterlife.  It is said that 700,000 workers laboured on the fortified burial site

Enemies are also on the minds of the disciples, when we meet them in John 20.  Somewhat like the ancient citizens of Xi’an and Emperor Qin, they too are living in a defensive mode. They’ve been traumatized by the death of their teacher and friend Jesus.

Despite just hearing Mary’s report of Jesus’ resurrection, they are cowering behind hard walls and locked doors. Outside those walls are the Jews who crucified Jesus. Inside the walls – inside their minds and hearts – they are assailed by bewilderment and fear arising from their crushed hope in Jesus as God’s Messiah.

And then Jesus enters that walled, locked, fear ridden room. But how? John doesn’t say, though we know he does not enter as an invading army would, by breaching city walls, using catapults and scaling ladders and fire bombs. There is no violent assault on the doors and walls behind which his disciples hide. Somehow Jesus just appears, and stands among them. And to get inside their walled hearts, Jesus’ assault weapon is a simple word: peace. “Peace be with you,” he says. It’s the same word God spoke to ancient Israel in times of danger.

But Jesus’ infiltration of his followers’ defensive fortress to bring a word of “peace” is not the end of the story. He has a second word for them: “Go. Get out from behind your walls. Step beyond your fears. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

And then Jesus breathes on them his Holy Spirit. Note carefully: Jesus does not allow his followers to stay huddled behind their security walls, clinging to each other and savouring his presence. Reassuring them with his word, and bolstering them with his Spirit, he points them outward, toward a world that trusts in armies and walls.

Walls, of course, do have their place. Life would be difficult without them. Walls of stone and wood, of family and friendship, of language, culture, and nation, give necessary structure and shape – and, yes, security – to our physical and social life. These same walls can also quickly divide, generating distrust and fear of those living outside, sometimes becoming cages that lock us in.

That’s when Jesus shows up. He gently penetrates the locked doors and thick walls behind which his followers hide. He addresses, touches, and reassures their trembling hearts. And then Jesus sends them out to where “the Jews” are, out into China and elsewhere, out with his word of “peace.” And he gives them his Spirit as their companion.

That’s a security that not even fortified city walls and armies of thousands, be they ceramic or flesh, can guarantee.

Philip and Julie Bender are Mennonite Church Canada workers with Mennonite Partners in China, teaching English and sharing Christ’s love with students at Sichuan University of Arts and Science.