trouble at the “borders.”

5 Jan

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.”

11 Responses to “trouble at the “borders.””

  1. Barbara Creasy (Morning Glory Books) January 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    there comes a point in which it is important to “be” in order to do significant at “doing.” Seems to me that one could “do” until infinity, and some of this doing would, indeed, be helpful, but until you take the time to look inward.. how do you know what to do? and how to do it? (where, when, etc) and again, you must take time away from doing to assess how it’s going… and importantly, to re-charge your own batteries in order to be an effective do-er. I liked the point about a rainbow being a spectrum, and that there are often no clear borders. It’s true – most of the time, there are few defining moments that change how/what a person does/believes. There are exceptions – I can think of a few epiphanies in my life, the ah-ha moments when something did actually suddenly make sense – but they were almost always after the moments of being still, allowing my inner self to absorb the quiet.

  2. Michael Tino (@revmtino) January 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    A wonderful reflection, Dawn. I wonder if it helps the case to recognize that just because something is socially constructed and ultimately artificial doesn’t mean that thing does not hold power. Race, for example, is a completely artificial, constructed category…but to pretend race doesn’t exist is to become complicit with racism. While I don’t think you’re saying that these borders don’t exist, perhaps the first step to transcending/eliminating them is recognizing them and crossing them. Maybe?

    • Rev. Dawn January 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

      Absolutely I am not arguing that constructs don’t hold power – they do. And recognizing them I can work with – it is the “crossing” part that I really struggle with, and I think that a part of that is that I think “crossing” them gives them more power. It reinforces them.

      Some of what I struggle with, too, I am beginning to understand, is a difference between secular language and religious. Part of how I see my call as a minister is to help name and honor our relationship with the Ultimate. There was nothing that felt (to me) religious about the “crossing borders” talk – it felt like secular social activism. Important, perhaps, but not religious. Some of the speakers alluded to a religious/Ultimate underpinning but didn’t name it explicitly as such.

      If we want people (including our own!) to understand that Unitarian Universalism is not a social club with activist leanings, I think we need to name where the Ultimate is in what we do. And name what is NOT of the Ultimate (like borders) as well. Transcending/Dissolving borders feels like it does that more than crossing them.

      To me, anyway!

      • Barbara Creasy January 5, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

        you said, “If we want people (including our own!) to understand that Unitarian Universalism is not a social club with activist leanings, I think we need to name where the Ultimate is in what we do. And name what is NOT of the Ultimate (like borders) as well.”

        This is VERY interesting to me, a non-UU, because from the outside, that is pretty much a good description of quite a few UUs. Obviously, I’m missing the involvement so could miss things, but to the “outside world,” many would indeed agree with that description. Some are different, but from conversations I’ve had with individual FU members, some are comfortable ONLY with the activist leanings and would strongly resist any suggestion of anything else. Seems there would be a fine line in teaching any viewpoint at the risk of insulting some, so depth could be hard to find. I imagine leading involves walking a tightrope at times since there’s not necessarily a common thread that binds.

  3. Josh Snyder January 5, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Dawn I think you have hit upon one of, if not the central, problem facng UU right now. Namely that we don’t really have a strong theological core, or even a general culture that theology is important. I think this is because historically theology has been a divisive force in UU for the past century plus. One thing that we know unites us is social action and perhaps liberal politics. The result has been a series of social justice efforts that may or may not have been effective, but have ALWAYS lacked depth of theological and spiritual reflection. Hence the experience of “doing” and not “being.” It appears that Augustine was right: salvation cannot be found in works alone. We need a faith that has a there there if we are to survive and thrive. May your call for renewed spiritual depth in UU not go unheeded! One would think that theology would be a point of interest at an institution calling itself a “theological school!” Oh how my once great alma mater has fallen!!!

    • Barbara Creasy January 5, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

      At the risk of replying too much, Josh, I found this to be very interesting. I recently had a conversation with a UU about death. Knowing that she’d previously shared her lack of belief in any theological type “being,” I asked what, in her opinion, happened after death. Is there a soul or spirit? Is there something that happens? I was just curious. She replied that she doesn’t believe in spirituality or that people have a soul; when you die, you no longer exist. Period. Nothing to fear – nothing to hope for – it’s just over. She was raised by a mom that had disagreed with HER religious training, so was essentially a 2nd generation that “resisted” any of that mindset. It wasn’t a conversation about what was “correct” or anything, with neither having any thought of affecting the others’ thoughts,… just comparing views.

  4. Jill Sampson (@farfoff) January 5, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    Interesting. When I first heard the border crossing meme at GA, it was the third thing in a list of three. Get Religion, Grow Leaders, Cross Borders. That lecture and the examples included were theologically grounded. The speaker called us to use our spiritual and theological foundation as the path to doing (not the other way around). He used both growing leaders and crossing borders as examples of ways to stretch ourselves spiritually. He alternately used the words removing borders when it was appropriate to the example. He was imploring us to take ourselves and our faith out into the world.

    Most of what I know about theology, I have learned as an adult from UU ministers and lay leaders. Your posting has made me consider what I have learned.

    We are a covenantal theology and a voluntary association. We believe revelation is not sealed. I think that is why maybe it feels hypocritical when we use our power, privilege and influence without opening ourselves with humility and gratitude to also be changed.

    Transcendence is what allows us to go beyond the limited confines of our daily world and our place in it. It is the faith filled recognition of our dependence and our obligation to act. I would agree, excluding transcendence when talking about crossing borders, means whatever motivations left, however noble, are secular, not religious.

    I wonder if you are also reacting to the “slogan” feel of the whole thing. Metaphors do not make a purpose filled person. Slogans do not make a purpose filled people. Mission statements do not make a purpose filled people. Purposeful people make powerful change the world.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  5. dailysalvation January 5, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Dawn, I’m the one who passed you at “Thank You” at convocation. I thank you again for this longer, very interesting train of thought and the ensuing conversation. I’m still cogitating on it, but you have helped me do so with better clarity about some of what has been bothering me in the conversations about border crossing. It does seem to have become such a buzz-word and catch-all phrase that, as you say, it is for me muddying the waters rather than helping me think more deeply about important spiritual and religious issues. Theological issues, even. So, another thank you and I look forward to continuing the conversation!
    Lyn Betz

  6. Michelle Fav January 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    Beautiful – thank you…

  7. coachrevmark2u January 6, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    As one also not there, confusing indeed. At least for some of those meanings it seems like additional metaphors would be “threshold” (a’ la Victor Turner) and “boundary.” Gladwell’s metaphors – “tipping point” and “outliers” – also come to mind.

    So what was the gist? Can it be stated in a Fred Craddock single sentence?

    • Rev. Dawn January 7, 2013 at 10:30 am #

      I sure can’t state it in a single sentence, as it was used in a variety of ways, and there were 4 different keynote speakers who all addressed it from different directions.

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