What Is Theologically Significant About National Borders?

“What is theologically significant about national borders?” “What might the Christian theological tradition have to offer on the subject of national borders?”

That was the question posed to me by Sandy Garcia as part of an assignment at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis where she is a student. Sandy is one-half of the husband-wife pastor-team (Martin Garcia the other) at Amistad Cristiana Center, a bilingual Presbyterian church on the southeast side of Fort Wayne, the home now of Dar Al-Sumud (Sumud House), the new office of Indiana Center for Middle East Peace.

This question, of course, is raised in the midst of a dramatic upsurge – in places of political and religious power – of a toxic and dangerous white, Christian nationalism in our country. And in the background we hear the cries of children and their families on our southern border (with language of “border control”), Russia and Ukraine, Israel’s bombing of Gaza and its apartheid regime throughout Palestine (without any defined borders); and even the post-9/11 creation of a new department with the morally dubious name of Homeland Security (“homeland”?).

What follows here is not a comprehensive theological discussion of nationalism or borders but some of my own random thoughts/questions, more of a prolegomenon.

  • What does it mean to be a nation?
  • To ask about the nation, a national ethos, a national identity, presupposes the question: What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be human? Because that presupposes that human beings become human, know their humanity, live out their humanity best in community. So the question really becomes about the kinds of communities in which one lives, and the bonds that members of the community have and the responsibilities that they owe each other.
  • It also recognizes that each individual in that community has a multiplicity of identities, that they are part of various communities at the same time, nation being but one of them (and maybe, probably, not the most important one). What is the identity that defines you at your deepest level?
  • The bonds between members of the community are multiple, too (class, socio-economic, political, family, religious, ethnicity, value systems, other).
  • We must remember that nationalism is a rather recent phenomenon, arising in the late 18th, early 19th centuries with the rise of urbanization and industrialization, the “national consciousness,” the national identity primary over tribe, village, and the like. The development of national consciousness began in the Western Hemisphere — in the United States, the former Spanish colonies, and Europe (eg. the French Revolution) in the late 18th century and from there to the former colonies of Europe in Africa and Asia.
  • A nation’s ethos and identity is much more than borders often artificially drawn; it’s a mixture of self-identity, pride, shared history and values, and national purpose, reinforced or imposed by the state, media, religion, and others to further its own economic and political national and global power interests.
  • Political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson called nations “imagined communities” and national identity a social construction created through symbols, rituals, myths related to territory. They could only arise in the modern period because of the communication processes that allow people who would never meet or know each other to identify with each other in a national consciousness.
  • Thus, this national consciousness, this shared identity, this “civil religion” necessarily uses language of devotion, submission, and other religious images, narratives, myths, symbols, anthems, and rituals to reinforce, legitimate its history, traditions, and actions.
  • So we return to the original question? What does it mean to be a nation? Which presupposes, What does it mean to be human? And what does it mean to be in community? Does the nation serve the human being in her and his quest to be fully human in community or does the individual serve the interests of the state? That question lies at the heart of this conversation.

Further, then, the question of borders.

  • There is a competition among communities, a tension between our various identities: on the one hand, particular identities are important; we are rooted in space and time that give us a sense of place and belonging. Nations have become one of those identities. On the other hand, we also recognize a universal bond to all of humanity, indeed, as a part of creation itself, with the sense of responsibility which that brings. How does one find the appropriate moral balance between them?
  • Stated differently, it is in the particular that we discover the universal, but there is a danger that the universal can be lost with too much emphasis on the particular.
  • Stated differently yet again: It is a balance between the common good and the universal good. The common good is ideally universal, yet the universal good is only known through the particular.
  • Here’s where we get to the crux of the issue. The question: “What do we owe each other?” Here, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel is helpful:

Who is the “we” here? and what does “owing” look like in real life? and Who is the “each other” to whom the question refers?
Are we citizens first of a nation-state, through which we fulfill our responsibilities to the other? Does the nation-state help in caring for the other? Or are we first citizens of the world, the state often an obstacle to caring for all? And who is the other, the neighbor? Is it our fellow-citizen, like a family member, to whom we owe our first allegiance? Or do we owe anyone before us – citizen or not, immigrant, refugee, legal or not, does it matter – our help?
And what is it we owe – social and economic safety net, a job, help from charitable institutions (like churches, food banks, shelters, etc.), other?
What is the definition of community – the same root as “common”? Is it family, neighborhood, city, nation, humankind, another definition? Is your idea of community limited to humankind, or does it include more?
What are the advantages of citizenship within a nation-state? What are the limitations of nation-state?
Depending on your answers to the above, what does this suggest about your view of human nature, about human freedom, what it means to be fully human? And others?

What’s called for is a complex balancing of both the common good and the universal good. If nothing else, climate change and the encroachment of ecological calamity renders any kind of nationalism that ignores global realities naïve at best and dangerous as worst. The universal good must not be ignored when developing national domestic policies.

The nation is important, only insofar as it defends the rights of the minority, protects the interests not only of the strong but also the vulnerable, preserves the freedoms of its citizens and holds them accountable through laws, promotes the general welfare of a democratic state, and creates a community that not only tolerates but celebrates the rich tapestry of a diversity of cultures, languages, ethnicities, and values and finds a way to create a strong, common human bond between them all.

Both are true – our identities are shaped and formed by the narratives, memories, and people that place us in a particular time and space, and yet we are also summoned beyond these boundaries to a larger, more universal belonging, a human family in a world, on a speck in the universe that we call home. Multiple allegiances, identities, belongings (family and friends, town or city, state, nation, world, the Earth) – it all begs the question of how we identify our citizenship. For Christians throughout their history, there has always been a tension (sometimes creative, sometimes not so much) between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Citizenship and the common good; citizenship and the universal good – sometimes they overlap, sometimes they conflict. To what, finally, in the end, ultimately, have you pledged your allegiance? And what does that look like in your life?

Just like Linus tells Lucy, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand”, it’s much easier to love “humanity” than it is your neighbor. But Jesus doesn’t urge us to “love humanity.” No, instead he says, “Love your neighbor.” And that’s much more difficult because who is your neighbor is out of your control, you don’t get to decide who’s your neighbor and who isn’t. They appear, the stranger, the uninvited guest who shows up in the most inconvenient times, and in those fateful moments, you must choose to love them. Love them. Love them!

We can only love humanity by loving individuals, the friend, the stranger, even the enemy. But we only know what loving humanity means through loving individuals, the friend, the stranger, even the enemy. The universal is realized in the particular, but we can only know the universal through the particular. That’s why it’s so difficult.

It’s in the particular, with real individuals that we practice the virtues we espouse (or not) that make the communities in which we live work more harmoniously – patience, honesty, humility, compassion, forgiveness. What do we owe each other as fellow citizens? What do we owe each other as fellow human beings? What do we owe the stranger, the sojourner? What about our obligations, not only to those we know and love – family, friends, co-workers, those in immediate proximity – but also to the other, to the larger “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson), to the nation, to those beyond our national boundaries?

The Christian theological tradition offers many resources here that can be helpful. One is the imago dei understanding that all human beings are created in the image of God, citizen or wayfarer in the land, rich or poor, etc. It is the core Christian principle underlying human dignity.

Another would be reflections from the Good Samaritan. On the one hand, some might argue that tougher security measures (tighter border controls) might have kept the thieves from waylaying the man on the Jericho road in the first place, but that misses the point, doesn’t it? And some would say it’s about the charity of the Good Samaritan, but that would miss the point, too – it’s not about charity. The fact that the Good Samaritan is a Samaritan, contrasted with the Jewish religious leaders passing by on the other side of the road, suggesting a universal ethic of compassion and responsibility that knows no boundaries – everyone is our neighbor. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

If the Samaritan had considered the wounded man as a Jew first, he would not have stopped [to help him],” for the Jews and the Samaritans had no dealings. He saw him as a human being first, who was a Jew only by accident [i.e., external or outer properties of a human being]. The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers. (Strength to Love, 24ff.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 24ff

But even that does not quite go far enough. Not charity nor compassion only, but that of justice. Again, in his most complete thoughts on the subject, King even suggests that the Samaritan could have done more – that Christian social responsibility would seek to abolish those unsafe, unjust social conditions and create the kind of just community where Good Samaritans aren’t needed at all:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King, Jr., A Time to Break Silence

So these are two potential resources from the Christian theological tradition that can provide some insight. And there are others, too. But I’m wondering if the question about theology and national borders might suggest further reflection about what Christian theology might say about the prior question of immigration, emigration – a theology of migration. And then what that suggests about borders.

And again, I will only be offering a few random thoughts – much more work needs to be done.

  • But at the outset, we must also be very honest here. The legacy of the Christian theological tradition has not been a positive one; it has legitimated the colonial “civilizing” manifest destiny mission that has caused people to become migrants in the first place and underlay the stoking of fear by those on the political and religious xenophobic Right and their call for higher walls and more militarized border security.
  • Borders are a sign of a fallen world, the outcome of imperial aspirations, colonial dreams, and are tribal at best, racist at worst – the problem, so they say, is always people of color from the global south or the Muslim world or other “foreigners.” White Christian nationalism equates God’s sovereignty and power with American exceptionalism and conflates citizenship and Christianity and privilege and whiteness in dangerous and life-threatening ways.
  • So what a theology of migration brings to theological reflection about national borders is first the need for Christian repentance for its past colonial sins.
  • The life of Jesus provides a liberating message; in fact, one of the major themes in the Gospels is Jesus’ relation to the Law. His table fellowship, Sabbath practices, and healing ministry all demonstrate his concern that the Law protect the most vulnerable in the society and provide a framework for a just disbursement of resources.
  • Christian theology transcends dualistic and binary definitions of individuals – alien/citizen, illegal/legal, and the like.
  • In addition, it helps us recognize that in addition to race, the conversation around borders also has to do with global economic realities. Militarized border security is big business and contractors are invested in such racial, social, and economic disparities.
  • How does one measure economic health theologically? It is measured in terms of the quality of life of each member of the community, especially the “least of these.” How does it enhance human dignity, especially of those most vulnerable? And to our question, are immigrants viewed as problems at best, enemies at worst, threats to national security, or as the result of human insecurity, a neighbor in need?
  • The biblical story is a story of migration and the transcending of borders and boundaries. Adam’s and Eve’s “fall” from the garden’s “dreaming innocence” (Tillich) into maturity (Fromm), Abraham’s sojourn from the Ur of the Chaldees, the Exodus, the flight to Egypt by the holy family, Jesus’s peripatetic ministry, and the early church in Acts, witnessing “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.” In each instance, people were called out from where they resided, called out from their past into a new place with a new vision of a new community. It was more than a physical relocation; it was a moral, political, psychological, spiritual revolution they were called into, a re-imagining of how one lives with each other peaceably and justly in the world, the kingdom of God, what Martin Luther King, Jr. would call “the beloved community.”
  • This also means that the sojourner, the stranger, the immigrant, those on society’s margins, the poor in our midst are not merely the beneficiaries of the charitable largesse of the privileged but the very locus of the Gospel among us. Our place, if we are to stand with Christ, is with them, prioritizing their stories, experiences, their voices.
  • Furthermore, a Christian theology of migration begins and ends with Jesus. From its origins, Christians understood Jesus himself as the Migrant par excellence, an outsider from his birth who “had no place to lay his head,” then fleeing to Egypt ahead of Herod’s military guard, but also an outsider, a threat to both the political power of Rome but also the powers of a religion more concerned about order than about mercy, more concerned about law than about grace, more concerned about purity than about the human person.
  • But the Christian theological tradition not only considers Jesus from a human perspective but also in his divinity, the early Christian hymn in Philippians 2 describing his descent and ascent, “who though in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself and took the form of a servant … therefore God has highly exalted him ….” The incarnation as migration, from divinity into humanity, then resurrection and ascension as migration from humanity into divinity again. For Christians, from incarnation to resurrection and ascension, the entire Jesus story is one of migration.
  • And further, it maps out the process by which human beings themselves recognize their true nature. As the church Father, Athanasius (d. 373 CE), put it in his landmark On the Incarnation: “God became human that human beings might become God.”
  • In Christ, Christians believe, God crosses all boundaries in a new creation, a new world order. A theology of migration, then, refocuses and humanizes the conversation asking fundamental questions about what the gods are that politics and economics serve. It is a way of speaking about what it means to be fully and freely human not only religiously but, in the world, how politics and economics serve human dignity; and it also refocuses the church’s mission of solidarity with the poor in the world.
  • In fact, Christians believe they are “in the world but not of the world,” that among multiple identities, multiple citizenships, their ultimate allegiance is to a different rule, their citizenship is within the kingdom of God. Christians understand themselves to be “resident aliens” in the world.
  • This means that Christians understand themselves to be strangers, sojourners, migrants in the world, atheists within the Roman Empire, idolaters of the Roman gods, free from Roman law. It is not by accident that the One to whom Christians give their full allegiance was crucified outside the borders of the city, outside the wall.
  • Migration, then, defines the nature of God in Christ, migration defines the true nature of each human person in Christ, the community of those in Christ as well, indeed, the polis as the locus of the kingdom of God made flesh in politics and economics.
  • As important as rights language is, as important as the advancement of political and civil and human rights as part of the global political conversation, we must begin to think beyond “rights discourses”; in addition, it’s time to recognize our mutuality and interdependence among all creatures, indeed the Earth itself, Earth-rights for our one shared home.

So what does this all mean? What is the theological significance of national borders?

  • We must not be naïve; it is one of the primary duties of a government to keep its citizens safe from harm from those who harm its members or institutions. In a liberal democracy, how do you balance the rights of its members with the universal human rights of each person, especially refugees, immigrants, and others in need who want to become a member? Questions of both provision and security must both be a part of the conversation about border policies.
  • But we know how “security” can be used to advance racist policies (eg. the Religious and Political Right in the US) and policies of apartheid and ethnic cleansing (eg.in Israel, for example) and as a pretext to systematize oppression.
  • We come back to who we understand ourselves to be as a human being in community and how we define that community. We enter into solidarity with those with whom we identify, with those with whom we find a commonality – that is a fact. So in our day the task of Christian theology (and that of other wisdom traditions, too) is to make the case that “othering” the stranger, the migrant, the refugee stands in opposition to our traditions, and that we define the “we” of our communities in the broadest possible terms.
  • The Christian theological tradition posits that one’s meaning and identity is ultimately found not in one’s family nor in a particular community, in one’s culture or tradition, in one’s religion, or in one’s nation, but insofar as they are en Christo, “in Christ.” “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5.17)
  • Therefore, nationalism as the preservation of a unique cultural heritage (itself an important part of a person’s identity), must become subordinate to the global promotion of justice and freedom for each individual, the human family, as well as for the planet itself.
  • As I said above, the universal is realized in the particular, but we can only know the universal through the particular. Whatever blessings a nation confers, its values, mores, traditions, and ethos must point beyond itself to a more global family. The nation qua nation has become an anachronism if it remains concerned only about itself and does not continue to push itself to transcend its narrow interests for the sake of a global ethic (Hans Kung).
  • A central tenet of the Reformation was ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming), and so it should be for the nation, too – gentum semper reformanda (the nation always reforming)
  • It does not have to be a zero-sum game, the caring for citizens and the caring for refugees, migrants, and immigrants. Again, the goal is the convergence between the common good and the universal good.
  • This is the way Christians and other people of good will can impact the political and economic orders, by being a moral voice that balances the common and universal goods.
  • Borders: do you see them as the Latin suggests – terminus? Or as the French – frontiere? Do borders close doors or open new possibilities?
  • And so we return to Martin Luther King, Jr. again, and his understanding of a “world house,” a world oikos (from which we get the words “economy,” “ecology,” and “ecumenical”).

This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great "world house" in which we have to live together-- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu-- a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace…. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools….

Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to reestablish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

Or as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians (2.14-17) put it:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

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