I just spent two days at Meadville Lombard Seminary for their annual Learning Convocation. The topic this year was “Power at the Borders: Stories of Change, Vulnerability and Solidarity.” During these two days, we explored a metaphor that I have recently been exposed to: The border as a place of change and transformation. We were encouraged to be border “crossers” rather than border “guards.”
I found myself chaffing against the various ways this metaphor was used during these two days. Since I was sitting in an airport with some time to kill, I thought I would explain my discomfort more than I could during convocation itself.
Before I do, though, I should be quite clear that Convo was addressing what I assume is a particular school of thought in the world of ministerial formation. I have not done background reading, I could be horribly misunderstanding the concept. My response is based solely on my experience in the past 2 days. I am not advocating any use/disuse/action/reaction/etc. I am simply sharing my own thoughts and perspective in an effort to spark further conversation and reflection.
And I want to add that exploring my own reaction and response to the concepts put forth at Convo has been a transformational experience for me – connecting dots that needed connecting, and encouraging me to go deeper than I usually do. So although what follows may be a critique, I am deeply, deeply grateful to have had the experience.
So. First, a part of my frustration is what I feel is a lack of clarity around the usage of the metaphor of being “border crossers.” It was used to describe any/all of the following:
- moving towards what we personally or system/institutionally find uncomfortable
- making room for personal/spiritual/emotional growth experiences
- allowing ourselves to become vulnerable
- standing in solidarity with people who are oppressed/marginalized/excluded
- something that takes an individual or community into a new place or new way of being
This broad usage of the metaphor seems to obfuscate rather than illuminate. The application was too broad. Indeed, there was even someone who was there because he thought the Convo topic was a continuation of the conversation about immigration that was held at General Assembly in Phoenix this year!!
Second, it bothers me theologically. Which is an interesting thing for me to say, as I do not generally think of myself as much of a theologian. However, I do believe that we are all “of a piece” – connected at an ultimate level. Whether it is because we are all made of star stuff (ala Sagan) or that you are mine and I am yours and that even if we are strangers we are not alien to one another (ala Merton, whose Epiphany, I should note, occurred just 3 blocks from my congregation), or because we are part of the interdependent web – the logistics of how we are all connected do not matter to me as much as the fact that we are.
This is the basis on which my efforts in social justice ideally reside – in my understanding of intertwined fates, and that at our core, we are one.
With this perspective, I understand borders to be artificially constructed by those who have the power to do so. They are a way of delineating “us” versus “them.” Borders between countries, between states, are all constructs…a way of making something discreet out of something that is really continuous.
When we cross a border, rather than dissolve it or transcend it, we are reinforcing the borders existence. We are recognizing it as valid. If you can cross a border without dissolving or transcending it, that means you can cross BACK to where you came from, because the border still exists. Which continues to perpetuate “us” vs “them.”
If we are talking about crossing borders as a euphemism for personal or institutional transformation, this is troubling to me. Transformation is a spectrum, like a rainbow. In a drawing I might make of a rainbow, there is a red stripe, an orange stripe, a yellow stripe, etc. There are distinct borders between the colors – clearly delineated lines. But if we look at a real rainbow, we can see how the red and the orange are a spectrum – we can not point to a specific place where it is no longer red but is now orange, or no longer orange and now yellow. It is a spectrum.
Transformation is a spectrum as well. It is rare that we wake up one morning and are suddenly totally different people – it is a process that happens over time. I didn’t become an adult the day I turned 18, or 21, or graduated from college. It was a process that occurred over time.
Saying transformation is a spectrum does not deny differences – there is a place where orange is truly neither red nor yellow. I was definitely not an adult when I was 10 but I was by the time I was 30. There are not hard, fast borders in a spectrum.
If we are talking about crossing borders as a euphemism for moving toward solidarity with a population that has been oppressed/marginalized/excluded, the metaphor is even more troubling to me, as it seems to discount the theological possibility of the unity of our core experience (described above) and to again, reinforce differences rather than transcend them.
Which leads to the question of power, which is another issue I have with the idea of being border crossers. Most of the seminarians and ministers present for the discussion were people of privilege. It was patiently explained to me that being border crossers is a way to recognize that privilege and to use our considerable power for the greater good. I see that point. However, there was nothing in the conversation about opening ourselves to allow our own borders to be crossed. In addition, there seemed to be an assumption that we are able to cross whatever borders we feel “need” crossing. This continues to reinforce an unbalanced power dynamic.
I am not encouraging us to stay put and wait for “them” to come to “us” – I am saying this is not a healthy metaphor to be using at all! If, however, we must continue to use the metaphor of borders, then I believe it is more appropriate to talk about “dissolving” or “transcending” borders, rather than crossing them. I believe it is our job to name their artificiality (a theological statement) and, as such, work to remove them as a means of sharing our considerable power and privilege.
And finally, I am concerned because, particularly without the theological reflection piece, we are urging our ministers in training (and their future congregations!) to engage in even yet still more social justice activism without taking the time to reflect on the whys of the matter. This is a personal concern to me, as I struggle with the concept that if I just do more, I am more worthy. I spend too little time as a human “being” and too much time as a human “doing.” I remember a sermon I heard from a UU Social Justice Coordinator many years ago. He was relating a story about how he was telling his mother all the different projects that he was involved in. He was busy, busy, busy. His mother, who must have been a very wise woman indeed, interrupted him and said to her beloved son: “What are you running from that you keep yourself this busy?”
What am I running from? What are we running from? I fill my life with important things to do because deep down, in a place beyond conscious thought, I struggle with my own sense of inherent worth and dignity. I know that I am not alone in this. And I see this in congregations as well as in individuals. We go out and try to save the world because we feel, inside, that we are not enough on our own and that our lives will be judged by what we accomplish.
Social justice work can come from at least two places: this sense of not being good enough if we don’t do it (we “should” do it, or it is “our responsibility” to save the world, etc), or from a more holistic, theologically grounded understanding of our own inherent worth and dignity, and that of our connectedness.
If we are being urged to get as many stamps on our passports as possible, we are using busy-ness as a badge of honor. I believe that, instead, what we truly need is to enunciate a holistic, integrated theology of social action and power sharing. To see that, at our core, we each have an inherent worth and dignity, whether we serve meals at the homeless shelter or not. To trust that we are connected to one another and our fates are intertwined, and that our social activism comes out of these two theological experiences rather than out of a need to be busy. Crossing Borders is not that theological underpinning, at least not for me.
No metaphor is perfect. I am well aware of that. But we must choose our metaphors with care and intention, and that does not feel to me like that is the case when it comes to urging us to be “border crossers.”