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Following Jesus Across the Border

16 November 2018

It may have something to do with the peripatetic nature of the ministry I’ve engaged in the last 20 years, but I am increasingly convinced of the enduring truth of all the journey imagery in scripture.  It begins in the garden, as the earth creatures are sent forth and the gate is barred behind them.[1]  Abram and Sarai lead one of the principal voyage teams, touring a sizeable part of the Middle East.  Moses and his clan leave Egypt for another land; the Hebrew prophets and John the baptizer urge road-building in the desert; and both Advent and Incarnation pave the road toward the Reign of God, made in living human flesh.  Our journey and human longing are homeward bound – for our ultimate home is in God, and the peace that comes with right relationship or justice.  The homeward journey is life’s work for each one of us, for all humanity, and indeed for all creation.

We see the same pattern in the deeper structure of the universe.  All that is erupted from a singularity, expanding explosively, as time and space emerge together, as matter develops in complexifying star-cauldrons, alternately spewn forth into space and gravitationally gathered into new stars and occasional planets.  All is in motion, from the smallest particle or wave-field to the largest dimensions of the cosmos.[2]  This planet earth, our island home, is at least one locus of self-awareness, and while there may be others we have yet to encounter, we continue to search space for kin. Our journey is here, although we earthlings rarely seem to act with the intentionality required to keep the whole of our home spic and span.  We’ve fouled the nest, and our scale of activity is rapidly undoing the life-giving qualities of this planetary home.  Some among us have wild dreams of colonizing other worlds once this one is sufficiently used up or destroyed, but yearning to leave the chaos behind is ultimately futile.  We carry it with us, as part of our finite human reality.

Our human history of journeying, migrating, and looking for home on this planet can also be engaged by shifting our behavior toward building and repairing a fruitful home for all.  The word migratecomes from an ancient root that means to change, or go, or move.[3]  In that sense, to be alive is to migrate, whether we speak of growing, learning, or searching for food or work or mates or new possibilities.  It is central to the spiritual journey of transformation, both inwardly as deepened rootedness in the divine and outwardly as justice.  Brian McLaren’s recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration,[4] challenges the church to live into our ecclesial vocation, to besemper reformanda.[5]  Christians take seriously the work of reforming, repenting, and turning back to the path we know in Jesus.  Migration just might be a fresh take on words that have grown stale and static.

Our human ancestors have been migrating forever. Our ancestral line of apes came down out of the trees and began to walk on two legs about 4 million years ago. Our genus Homois around 3 million years old (already making tools), and by about 2 million years ago had spread beyond Africa.  A million years ago, hominids had migrated to China and SE Asia, as well as Europe.  The common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans lived in Europe at least 600,000 years ago.  A third species (Denisovans) diverged from Neanderthals around 200,000 ya, had migrated into SE Asia at least 40,000 ya and made unique genetic contributions to Melanesian and aboriginal Australian populations.  Geneticists estimate that the common ancestors of all extant human beings lived in East Africa 100-200,000 years ago.  That population likely shrank to around 15,000 individuals during a climate catastrophe about 70,000 ya.[6]  Our people were few in number, and nearly disappeared, yet the creative power of the universe brought a new and more conscious kind of life into being.[7]  Three ancestral species of Homo: sapiens, neanderthalensis, and altai(Denisovans) interbred until about 50,000 years ago and with other African hominins until perhaps 40,000 years ago.  Individuals and their DNA have been migrating across borders forever.

Homo sapiensfirst reached the Near East about 125,000 ya, S Asia 50,000 ya, and Australia soon after.[8]  Our species was present in Europe 43,000 ya, where they replaced Neanderthals within another 15,000 years.  Modern humans were living in E Asia about the same time.  The ancestors of indigenous peoples in the Americas probably reached North America at least 15,000 ya and spread across the Americas.  A later wave likely also migrated along the west coast, and made unique contributions to indigenous populations of the northern Arctic and Greenland in the last few thousand years.  A third wave is represented in the peoples who speak the related De’ne languages of the Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Apache-Navajo peoples.[9]

The temporal and geographic diversity of migration routes and populations has produced a human species with genetic contributions from several closely related ancestors.  Migration has been part of our history since before we were truly human, and it has contributed to the remarkably varied cultures and lifeways of all humanity.  Human beings have made homes almost everywhere they have gone – islands in the Pacific, the frozen Arctic, tropical forests, savannahs and deserts both cold and hot, and high in the mountains of South America and Asia.  Human beings, like their ancestors, have migrated in search of adequate food – plants, fish, and fowl, and the large animals of land and sea.  They’ve gone looking for easier climates and sought mates among friend and foe.  We and our ancestors have searched for things we valued – clay for pots; metals for forging; pigment, stones, and shells for adornment; feathers, plants, and animal hides for building materials and clothing.  When we learned to farm we sought land for planting and water for irrigation.  We also have a long history of violence in seeking the goods of land and sea and sky, appropriating them for our own use, and driving out competitors.

The biblical narrative takes us from cosmic creation, including humanity, to earthlings planted in a garden for a season. Their yearning for knowledge sets them on an ages-long search for home; we, their heirs, are still looking.  God sends Abram and Sarai out of Haran in search of a new home.  They get to Canaan and keep moving, to Egypt, and then back again.  Always there are struggles over who owns what and which terrain belongs to whom.  Yet eventually our ancestors began to tell our story as a search for home in God, along the straight road through the wilderness, a way of justice and peace. This is about more than a plot of land; it’s about opening your hand to neighbors, whether you love, tolerate, or fear them.  The prophets began to challenge us about neighbors everywhere, not just our tribal kin. We learned that we’re meant to love the strangers, widows and orphans and homeless, and the difficult ones.  We began to dream of God’s Reign, and government that brings justice and peace everywhere, and a home where all can rejoice, give thanks, and live in harmony and abundance.

Over millennia we have struggled to learn and remember that God is always among us and within us and around us, yes, in human flesh, and also in the very fabric of the universe.  We have epiphanies when we realize that we areat home in God, yet most of us spend most of our lives struggling to recover that knowledge, or to find it for the first time.  We often reject that reality in favor of asserting that we are the masters of the universe, owners of this plot of land or that, or worse, that any part of God’s creation is commodity available for our taking.

The Christian chapter of our religious tradition begins in the midst of expansive empire building, and in spite of our Jewish heritage of repeated confrontation with empire and prophetic rejection of domination, we soon began to yearn for royal trappings.  Constantine was convenient, and his era produced a long and sinful history of appropriating lands and peoples who didn’t share our version of religious truth.  The Bible is filled with earlier stories of that struggle, beginning with Cain and Abel. So is our history since Jesus walked the earth.  By the Middle Ages we were asserting that Christians should make war on Muslims and Jews and any other ‘infidels’ we might run across.  Beginning in the mid-15thcentury the Western church gave papal warrant to explorers to claim any lands they might find and enslave any peoples they encountered if they were not Christian.  Those formal bulls,[10]promulgated beginning in 1452, underlie what is called the Doctrine of Discovery,[11]and they still provide the underpinnings for land law in the United States and other colonial nations.  The Doctrine justified both European colonialism and the slave trade.  The indigenous peoples of the Americas, Australia, Africa, and the Pacific continue to suffer the consequences of European invasion and slavery, and the later and parallel enormities committed by Americans.  The way we’ve interpreted biblical narratives about the Promised Land and entering Canaan contributes to the difficulty.  Migration lies at the root of controversy over who should govern the land of the Holy One, as some cry, ‘we were here first!’ and others respond, ‘no, you left and rejected your heritage,’ and both sides often assert the other is a figmentary people, even though they’ve been there for generations.

Similar claims and challenges pervade the American context.  The Doctrine of Discovery permitted Columbus, Cabot, Balboa, and many others to claim these non-Christian lands for European crowns, and to enslave the natives. Despite later debates over whether indigenous people had souls, on first encounter many were slaughtered, captured as slaves, and their lands, goods, and families stolen.  In the decades following first contact, some 80% of the indigenous population of North and Central America died of European diseases. As indigenous peoples died, and forced evangelization became the order of the day, Africans were imported as slave labor.  Their somewhat greater resistance to European and tropical diseases and the fact that many were Muslim made their enslavement entirely convenient to the Doctrine of Discovery.

Colonial era migration to the Americas was largely European, accompanied by the forcible importation of African peoples under conditions of slavery or near-slavery.  Indigenous Americans were forcibly displaced, slaughtered, and assimilated – and in many ways that genocide continues.

U.S. migration policy has almost always been haphazard, directed at whichever nationality or religion seemed particularly odious at the time.  Migration policy has been directed at departure as well as entry.  Forced labor and the commodification of human persons has often been a central focus in policy making, and it continues in what we euphemistically call human trafficking as well as waves of refugees fleeing wars and violence.  We are already seeing forced migration as a result of climate change, particularly in the Syrian crisis, at least partly the result of declining supplies of irrigation water.  Climate migration is itself the result of human behavior toward the planet that parallels the Doctrine of Discovery’s colonial attitudes toward the non-human other.  All of it is provoked by the possessive and exploitative urge to dominate and control human beings, so-called natural resources, land and creatures, water and minerals.

The only fortunate reality in the midst of forced migration is a continued push for deeper moral reasoning.  It has often been a minority voice, even a tiny minority, yet the vision has continued to expand.  Today, at least at the international or diplomatic level, we affirm that all peoples are equally human, made in the image of God; that each one merits the ability to live into that creative and loving divine image; and like the widows and orphans of the Hebrew prophets, that no one is beneath regard and loving care.  Some have been on that path home into God’s dream for centuries; some have only begun the journey; and some are still lost in the desert of self-worship.

We are designed to migrate – biologically, morally, religiously.  Our ancestors spoke of Wisdom, God’s architect, as “more mobile than any motion… a breath of the power of God, into which nothing defiled gains entrance… a reflection of eternal life, a mirror of the working of God and an image of God’s goodness.”[12]  To be made in the image of God is to mirror that mobility, seeking transformation toward the Reign of God.  That vision echoes the road we know in Jesus, reflected in compassion and care for the least of God’s creatures, in turning and returning to the only home we will ever know in its fullness, the heart of God.  The One who migrates into human flesh tears down the wall between heaven and earth.

Our task is the same.  As the body of Christ, as human beings made in the image of God, we, too, are called to cross the borders and build bridges over the chasms that divide us.  Most of those borders and boundaries are human constructs – border fences, racial classification, economic inequality, the inequitable distribution of social power, even the life roles societies slot people into.  God creates the miracle of diversity into which we are born, and we try to divide it up into ‘like me’ or ‘unlike me,’ ‘friend’ or ‘enemy.’  God weeps at those divisions, as God wept as Pharaoh’s soldiers were drowning in the Red Sea.

Consider how Jesus sent his followers out into every neighborhood where he intended to go – and that must be all creation!  The harvest is plentiful – there is abundant life to be found across that border – but the laborers are few – because we’re afraid or unwilling to go, like Jonah, sent to preach in Nineveh.  Jesus sends his disciples with orders to travel light – leave your prejudices behind – they’re not going to be helpful, and they’re awfully heavy.  Offer peace in every community you enter – some will be ready, and some won’t.  But when your peace is returned, settle down and get to know these people.  Eat their food – be a little more vulnerable than usual, and let them become your neighbors. Heal what you can – this is a mutually beneficial relationship![13]

Borders and boundaries are uniquely creative interchange zones.  They’re naturally diverse, which to a biologist means greater health.  New species and possibilities emerge in those regions of mixing.  In the oceans off our West coasts, the kind of mixing driven by winds and currents unleashes enormous fertility, feeding hordes of sea creatures, birds, whales, and human beings.

The border zone between Tijuana and San Diego is culturally fertile, innovative, and life-giving, at least when people aren’t consumed by fear.  The fear and death that is driving caravans north through Mexico, as well as the urgent reactivity on this side of the border, are about safety and a desire for control of one’s own life.  The reactivity here is heightened by a desire for greater control by a few – control of wealth, possibility, creativity, land, and life itself – as well as control over who is welcome here, and who is deemed either ‘human like me’ or ‘enemy.’  The divide is clearer in languages like Spanish, either ‘amigo’ or ‘enemigo,’ friend or not-friend.  Jesus sends us out to befriend every single person we meet, whether they see us as enemy or not.

God sends us to cross borders for the sake of more abundant life for all.  Crossing borders is a holy vocation of peace-seeking, justice-making, and walking humbly with God.  Love is the way, and the only way to make lasting peace, for until we acknowledge our neighbors’ yearnings for life as equally significant and holy as our own, we will never discover the image of God in another.  When we do, we begin to unmake an enemy and find a friend.



small group breakout questions


Reflect on your own history of migration:  when and how did your ancestors come to this continent?  How has that shaped your life?


What other kinds of migration or movement have you experienced?  Moving away for school, work, or marriage; changed attitudes; learning another language or culture…


Where have you discovered new or more abundant life in crossing a border?  What made it hard (or easy) to start the journey?


When are walls, gates, and barriers helpful?  When and where are they unhelpful?


Tell a story of welcoming a stranger.  Tell about being welcomed by a stranger.


What kinds of people are welcome in your neighborhood?  Who isn’t welcome, and why?


Where do you find it difficult to have a conversation about migration and borders?  What might make it easier?



[1]Genesis 3:24

[2]The Bible has a similar recognition in Wisdom 7:24  “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”

[3]Latin, migrare, to move to another place, < *mei- to change, go, move.

[4]ConvergentBooks: 2017

[5]Always reforming

[6]Caused the explosion of the Toba volcano in northern Sumatra

[7]A delightful echo in Ps 105:12,14 “when they were few in number… he allowed no one to oppress them” and in Deut 7:7 ‘you were the fewest of all peoples’

[8]46,000 ya


[10]Among them Dum Diversas 1452; Romanus Pontifex1455; Inter Caetera1493.

[11]An introduction may be found here:  http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/

[12]Wisdom 7:24-26

[13]Luke 10:1-11  free translation