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My aunt tried to cross the border last week. She’s a Canadian living in Germany with a daughter living in Michigan. She flew to Canada, quarantined at my parent’s house for two weeks, and then drove to the border, believing herself able to cross since she was reuniting with a child who was still a dependent.

No such luck. The American customs officer turned her right around without telling her why. The trouble with the border, though, is that the border isn’t actually at the border. U.S. Customs is in the United States. Canadian Customs is in Canada. The actual line distinguishing one country from the other cuts across the bridge. So when she pulled up to the Canadian customs booth the officer told her that since she had now been in a foreign country she would have to quarantine for another two weeks. Never mind that she had been in the States for all of twenty minutes and never gotten out of her car. She’d put a toe across the border and clearly she was now a threat to the public health of the true north, strong and free. If I sound incensed about this, its because I am.


My friends and I have been talking a lot these days about borders. Not physical land boundaries but the lines demarcating what one can and cannot say. What is and is not socially acceptable. What will sound like betrayal to one cause, or capitulation to another.

What we say carries a great deal of weight these days. We bear the burden, not so much of saying the true thing, but saying the right thing. Making sure we identify ourselves properly, align ourselves with the status quo, give no one a reason to call us racist, or bigot, or socialist, or, heaven forbid, evangelical. Say the wrong thing, raise a question, put a toe over the border between acceptable and unacceptable, and you’re liable to be shamed, boycotted, canceled, and forced into self-quarantine lest you infect others with your nefarious ideas.

Suggest that cultural influences or ideological leanings play a part in leading increasing numbers to transition genders, and clearly you must hate transgender people.

Say from the pulpit that racism is systemic, that oppression is real, and that Christians are called to do the hard work of justice, and you’re probably a Marxist proponent of Critical Theory.

Celebrate a national holiday and very likely you’re a white supremacist with no respect for indigenous people.

Wonder if there are better ways of structuring the police, and you’re almost certainly an anarchist.

People put a toe across the line and we fling them by that toe right into the deep end, up against the wall, accusing them of one extreme or another. We shout and we yell and we label and we feel satisfied at the good work we’ve done, protecting society, protecting ourselves, protecting our future from those problem people. No need to be afraid of that person anymore, they’re helplessly flailing about in the waters we’ve cast them into.

Because it’s fear, I think, which exacerbates our polarization, our self-righteousness, our determination to weed out the problem people. Fear of losing power, perhaps. Fear of looking foolish, maybe. But also fear of not achieving the perfect utopia our post-Christian society is quite convinced we can achieve, a fear which all too easily trickles into the Church, where our desire to be God’s agents of renewal can quickly turn into tribal triumphalism.

Our fear leads us to demonize and shame the other. Our fear of being shamed keeps us from engaging in conversation. And so we stay huddled in our corners, on our sides of the border, toes kept firmly beneath us.



On Sunday I visited friends who live just north of Detroit. We drove to the mouth of the Detroit River where it opens up into Lake St. Claire. I leaned on the rail and looked across the aqua blue water at Canada, my home. I haven’t stepped foot in Canada since last October, and with the border closed, it’s unclear when I’ll be able to do so next.

So this was as close as I could get, a wave in the general direction of Windsor. We watched the boats for a while and I wondered where the border actually was amidst the waves. Speedboats careened about, kayakers hugged the edges, a ship chugged down the middle. I’m sure there are buoys indicating where one country stops and the other begins but the river was like a no man’s land, a middle ground, where you could dip your toe in the water and know it was the same water that lapped against the opposite shore.

I wish we spent more time swimming together in the middle ground instead of throwing people into the deep end. I wish we were more okay inhabiting a space where many things can be true all at the same time – you can be a patriot without being a nationalist, you can respect the police while still calling for reform, you can promote LGBT rights while still wrestling with Scripture, you can protect the environment while questioning the panic, you can worry about the economy and want to protect people’s health, you can even write a blog asking for more nuanced dialogue while acknowledging that people who can’t breathe don’t have the luxury of asking for the time and energy to sort things out.

Sometimes its necessary to take a good hard stance. We shouldn’t compromise on demanding justice. Protests and movements and uprisings are necessary components of change. But so too is the hard work of engaging in conversation, muddling through compromises, tweaking wording in policies, and listening. Almost all the time everything is more complicated than we would like it to be, and the best conversation, the most possibility for understanding and transformation, happens not when we’re standing on our side of the border, hurling insults and accusations and shame, but swimming together in the middle of the river, asking our questions, offering our wisdom, suggesting our answers, and doing so in humility and love, not fear.

Today lies between Canada Day and July 4. That in-between is a place in which I’ve existed for almost eleven years now, living in this place that is home but not my home, with my heart in two places at once. It might be easier to be ensconced firmly in one country or the other. But when your heart is in two places, there’s that much more to love. The world is that much bigger. So swim in the river, friends. Who knows what you’ll discover in the water.

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

18 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Well said, Laura. I think you make a very good point that has broad reaching implications. So much of life and living is not inclusive of other views and perspectives. For instance, religion and religions (especially including Christianity) are mutually exclusive. Christians and Christianity say there is only one way to find acceptance with God and that is through Christ. “There is no other name…” So Christians exclude all other religions as to a person fitting into God’s good graces. But other religions do the same. They all are mutually exclusive. So we prefer to stay within our own borders and find fault with those on the other side. We even do that within our own Christian circles, finding fault with other denominations who are treading on slippery ground. And the problem you describe, Laura, is so profound that we have hundreds, if not thousands, of Christian denominations. And our Reformed denominations are getting close to making more denominations (or groups) over the LGBT issues, more borders, as to acceptable or unacceptable, inclusive or exclusive. Somehow, I imagine God is very confused over all the borders we have established for ourselves.

  • Thank you for saying this so well.

  • mstair says:

    Thanking you for great thoughts, this morning!

    “… and you’re probably a Marxist proponent of Critical Theory … you’re a white supremacist with no respect for indigenous people … you’re almost certainly an anarchist …”

    Reductionism! The fallacy occurs when an explanation of an event is assumed to be a single, simple cause when it may have had multiple causes. The cause is oversimplified, preventing a more in-depth analysis, often in order to deceive the listener as to the real causes.

    “Almost all the time everything is more complicated than we would like it to be…”

    Life requires effort – physically and, mentally.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Loved it.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Hard times require hard decisions. We cannot swim long in the boundary waters; sooner or later, we have to go for the shore, one way or the other. And if we tire before reaching safety, the river simply sweeps us away and our voice is lost.

    “Choose this day whom you will serve” reflects the writer’s frustration with a people who want it both ways, who cannot wade through he complexities to some form of settlement, but want more time for reflection, thought, research, and prayer.

    For the writer of Joshua, the people cannot have their gods of culture and history (think Confederate monuments and flags) and still worship Yahweh. The framers of the Declaration of Independence had to cross the boundary finally, realizing that compromise with Britain wasn’t going to work, because King George believed he held all the cards (as those in power always do), and thus, in his own mind, would have the final say so.

    You touch upon so many issues, but all of them revolve around justice for the oppressed, the marginalized and the “different” (even that word begs the question: who in the world decides who’s different?)

    Many years ago, while I was still hoping my denomination (the PCUSA) would work its way through the questions of ordination, etc, for LGBTQ persons, I said to my associate pastor: “We need more time.” She replied: “My brother [a gay man] doesn’t have any more time.” Then and there, I realized that those who “want more time” to discuss things, to consider the materials, to take another look at this and that, are really failing people who need us, on their behalf, to “choose this day whom we will serve,” with the unsettling realization that those calling for “more time, more discussion” are really only delaying the time when they might have to change their mind, enlarge their boundaries, include those whom they’re previously pushed away, pay more taxes and embrace the neighbor, think globally rather than locally.

    In other words, take down the monuments, redesign the flag, welcome the LGBTQ person with fulness of heart and mind, repent of the nation’s sins against Indigenous Peoples and Africans and Asians.

    I appreciate your call to conversation, but as I read your essay, I became increasingly uneasy. Having been a minister all of my adult life, I know what it’s like to serve congregations with a hodgepodge of views, many of which are at loggerheads when closely examined. I’ve danced around many an issue over the years, hoping that people might really be able to talk it through, build some compromises, learn and grow, but the present mess in society and church speak to my own failure to “choose this day.” The dreams of compromise and further learning never really came to pass. Whether I should have spoken out more firmly, remains to be seen, I guess. But I can’t escape the feeling that I should have.

    All the best in these boundary-crossing times.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Tom, I appreciate this comment. While I was reading Laura’s blog, I had this uneasy feeling that the ways I was agreeing with her made me more comfortable. I have the privilege of wading through the river, because it never seems to sweep me away. I’m not oppressed. I’ve never had an interaction with police in which I was afraid for my life (maybe afraid of getting a ticket, but I generally deserved it). It feels easy to stay in the middle and not choose. But then I thought a bit more about Laura’s blog, and what I think I took away from it is even when we choose, maybe we should keep our hearts and minds open to the other side of the border. Maybe the border should be more porous than it is currently. Maybe while we’ve planted our flag, we can keep up conversations, relationships, covenants if you will with others and not throw them away, and do so in a non-judgmental way. There is a theory in non-violent approaches to life that argues making space for others allows change. Maybe choosing a side of the border creates that space rather than all swimming together in the middle trying to figure it out, but it also feels that the space created needs to hold us together rather than split us apart. This theory feels like hospitality, space made for respite and refreshment, where we can come together to disagree but not be disagreeable, to be together through porous borders. It doesn’t make the issues simple. It acknowledges their complexities, and we still need to “choose this day,” but maybe with a huge serving of humility.

    • Eileen says:

      Joshua’s words about choice are wrongly interpreted to be a choice between God and gods. The command is to love God and serve Him. the choice in Joshua’s words is that of choosing among all t he other gods. Think of a long road with many sidetracks. We are commanded to stay on that long road. If I decide to leave the road I have choices about which sidetrack to take. All of these sidetracks lead to destruction. Read Joshua’s words. Serve t he Lord, but if you are going to worship other gods you are going to have t o choose from among many gods.

    • Alina Abbott says:

      Yes, Tom, agreed. As I started reading this, I was struck by the thought, “How could her aunt not realize that the border is closed right now?” There are borders that have been drawn for a reason, well-publicized, and yet, there still is an ignorance about whether or not it is o.k. to cross them. I’ll hear a Christian tell a racist joke, and wonder, “How did they not realize that this is horrible line that shouldn’t be crossed?” You very accurately point out that many of the author’s “borders” are social justice issues. The problem is not the borders, but the bizarre choices of many Christians to fight about where the line is rather than to fight for the oppressed. The no-man’s-land is a playground for the privileged and hell for the oppressed, and I won’t play there. Funny thing about getting into the Detroit River, the border guards watch that river like hawks, and you cross the line without the proper permission, you’ll end up in jail. You don’t put your boat on that river unless you understand the rules and consequences. The same goes for social justice, you stand on the wrong side of that line, and there will be consequences.

      • Laura de Jong says:

        Alina,
        I agree that there are times to choose, times to take a stand, things we can’t compromise on. But I do think there are helpful conversations to be had about where the line is – or perhaps put better, how to approach the line. Two very pertinent examples I referenced: transgenderism and Critical Theory. On the one hand, people who advocate for the rights of transgender people, who march with them, who support them, are also acknowledging that we’re now seeing stories coming out of especially high school girls who decide to come out together, start binding their chests, change their name, and even begin taking hormone therapy, only to regret that decision in later years. The very real experience of transgender people has become muddied in conversations of gender, depression, and peer pressure. To say so isn’t to diminish the experience of transgender people or lessen their rights, but to simply expand the conversation and acknowledge there are other factors at play that may be harmful to people who get caught up in it.

        On the other hand, many within the Church are condemning much of the Black Lives Matter movement as the misguided efforts of Critical Theory Marxists. They accuse Christians who attend protests and march and put up signs as having watered-down theology, of giving in to the Left’s agenda, of being trendy Social Justice Warriors and only speaking out in an effort to virtue signal. They’re therefore able to dismiss the whole movement, and the very real and Biblical cause of ending racism and Black oppression, missing the reality that it’s possible to agree with tenets of Critical Theory without agreeing with the whole thing, that there could be times when Marx agrees with Jesus amidst all the times the two stand in contrast. But many aren’t willing to go there.

        And for the record, while the basic fact that the border is closed is true, there are also exemptions to that rule, and the official wording of most government documents regarding essential travel is convoluted at best. My aunt had one such exemption printed out and in hand when she tried to cross. You assume complete ignorance in this situation, but the reality is that this, like everything else I’ve talked about, is ultimately more complicated than we would like it to be.

      • Tom Eggebeen says:

        Thank you … one of your phrases grabbed my mind: “The no-man’s-land is a playground for the privileged and hell for the oppressed, and I won’t play there.”

    • Laura de Jong says:

      Thanks, Tom, for this comment. And thanks, Rodney, for your reply. You spoke to what I was trying to put in words as a response. I very much acknowledge the place of privilege from which I can utter this call to dialogue. And acknowledge that many, many people are so tired of waiting, as Scott wrote about a few days ago. I very much agree we need to move forward, need to call people to change, need to take down the monuments and change the flags and be more hospitable. I don’t think I’m saying “don’t choose,” but rather acknowledge the that even in the choices, there are variants. The challenge, as I see it, is how we do help people choose and how to have conversations about choosing. It seems we’re increasingly becoming a culture of shame, and I’m not sure real change is ever effected by shame. To further the river metaphor, if you’re going to coax people across to “your shore,” you could either stand on your side and holler at them to do so, or go into the river yourself and show that you’ll be with them as they cross, that it’s safe for them to do so. Which requires some willingness to meet people where they are and stay awhile. Doing so assumes people are willing to change and grow, rather than assumes the worst about people. And right now, it seems we’re all just really good at assuming the worst about people.

      I think that leads to further questions of who should be responsible to go into the middle of the river. Certainly I don’t want to imply that people who are bone-weary of oppression must bear the burden of dealing patiently with their oppressors. But I wonder if one of the things we who are privileged might be called to is to bear with people, to have the hard, gentle, patient, aggravating conversations, refusing to give up on people with whom we disagree. Can we stay with people, when that isn’t an option for others? But I have to think that through a bit more…

      • Rodney Haveman says:

        I’m guessing this might be too late as the day has passed and I could not come back. Thank you. Laura. I’m hopeful that my sense of hospitality, making room, was an effort to speak to your questions of staying with people (maybe the very definition of hospitality). I agree you cannot assume the worst of people and invite them into your “home,” at least I can’t. Could I invite someone in if I thought them dangerous, violent, and a threat to my family? Probably not. I think I agree with most of what you said. My only point was that honest hospitality and making room, honest conversation begins with acknowledging when and how you have come to one side of the river. That shouldn’t mean we don’t wade into it as often as possible. Again, your article made me think. I don’t always comment, only when a comment or the article really pushes me. Not sure you’ll read this, but thank you.

  • Nolan Palsma says:

    Well written and what you propose requires work. Fear plays a role in our divisions but I think the bigger question is whether we are we willing to work toward what you have recommended. It is easier to have our lines or borders than to swim in each other’s waters, as it were. Keep up the good work and pray that we don’t get weary (Gal. 6:9-10).

  • Gretchen Schoon Tanis says:

    This is only slightly off the main point of your essay, but where does your aunt live? We live in Hannover, Germany and always keen to meet more of our Reformed family abroad!

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Your insightful and clever analysis of the cancel culture plague has gotten the attention of your readers, including this one. I look forward to mulling over your words while mulching the garden, percolating your thoughts while pruning the roses.

  • Well said. This makes me think and that is a blessing.

    Be well,

    Mark

  • Doug Vande Griend says:

    What an excellent article, as well as exchange in the comments. I’m probably of a different mind as to many current political issues compared to most commenters here (maybe the author as well), but I feel as if I’m of one mind with the author in terms of what she has written in this article and in her responses to comments.

    For example, I am concerned, very concerned, about Critical Theory, and perhaps having heard that, many would dismiss me as being opposed to the idea that “black lives matter” (which would be dramatically incorrect). I’m also very concerned about Black Lives Matter (that which is the organization and the cultural and especially political movement (almost party) that it is (not the meaning of the phrase). Again, that might again be cause for being dismissed by some (of being on the wrong side of “making hard decisions”), but I’d suggest — as does the author here — that there is so, so, so much nuance to all of this, and that if we ignore the nuances (which many BLM protesters and many, say, Proud Boy protesters do) and refuse honest, good faith exchange, we’ll get no where except to a state of loss on pretty much all fronts, for pretty much everyone.

    Until a month or so ago, I would have said that the chances of civil war in the US in the foreseeable future is zero (the thought of it would have seemed ridiculous). Right now I’m saying the chances are one to two percent. Not much, statistically speaking, but the fact that I (and I’m not alone) am thinking it speaks loudly about how these disagreements are being “processed” (intentionally put in quotes) by so many — on all sides (I say “all sides,” not “both sides,” quite consciously).

    On my way to the office this morning, I saw two paper signs taped to my building, purportedly by “BLM people,” warning that at their Salem (Oregon) protest march on July 4 (two days from now), the Proud Boys were intending to show up interrupt the BLM protest march. The warnings were that the Proud Boys would be irrational and violent, which is of course what the Proud Boys would say about the BLM marchers.

    There are far, far too many people, including Christians, who have polarized their own minds on these issues in irrational (dare I say “religious”?) ways. Which makes thankful that Laura has written and posted this article and engaged further with responding comments.

    You made my day with your article and comments, Laura, even if I suspect you and I might see things differently as to some (many?) of today’s political issues. Thanks for that. 🙂

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