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.