Efforts to protect national security by restricting the entrance of persons from other countries have long been used as examples of a lack of the kind of hospitality that is called for in both our American heritage and in the biblical perspective on the significance of treatment of the stranger.
Debate on that issue will continue as long as fear of the “other,” and those willing to exploit that fear, remain dominant in the public conversation.
Deeper reflection reveals that “closing the borders” in the current rhetoric may be a symptom of a deeper problem in our human experience, especially as it has to do with how we understand the human journey from a faith perspective.
Various metaphors – circling the wagons, staying in one’s cocoon, living in an echo-chamber – point to the human tendency to close the borders of the mind and experience to realities that come in from the outside and challenge assumptions and understandings that have provided security and protection of privilege.
Even in the realm of our faith journey, the canonization of Scripture represents a kind of “closing of the borders” of the covenant testimony to provide a normative expression that can serve as a guide for ongoing interpretation of a faith experience.
The development of doctrine easily moves from a descriptive to a definitional role in the expression of features of a faith. Creeds take on an authority that determines whether a given understanding of faith is “true” or not.
Orthodoxy tends to close the borders of faith’s understanding and deem any alternative understanding as a heretical immigrant subject to theological deportation.
But then we stop and remind ourselves that while the biblical testimony is “canonized” as an official and normative guide, there is an openness to the testimony itself that cautions against a “closing of its borders” of divine disclosure.
The commandment against making any “graven image” reminds us of the ease with which we substitute things of our own making – statues or ideas – for ultimate value.
The summation of the Mosaic covenant that we see at the end of Deuteronomy brings Moses as far as Mount Nebo, where he can see the land of promise; the story, however, is left open-ended as the Israelites must cross over into their future without him.
The prophetic voice, “See, I am doing a new thing … can you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19), reminds us that the ongoing creative work of God is ever moving beyond the horizons of our vision at any given time.
The gospels’ transfiguration vision is a challenge to listen to the charge to live into an expanding world rather than to yield to Simon’s desire to build a shrine to contain it.
Our first Christian theologian’s journey from his Damascus Road experience to his formulation of the foundational concepts of the Christian faith found him crossing over the borders of his prior understanding of covenant faith to include Gentiles as well as Jews at the table of faith.
Revelation’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth affirms a still-open future with one who “makes all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
When we pause long enough in our defense of “right” beliefs about God to remember that theological thinking is an ever-evolving quest to interpret and give expression to the mystery of a life-transforming experience, we recall as well that doctrines are well-meant but proximate guidelines to help us in the quest; however, embracing them as truth itself is a poor substitute for faith’s quest for understanding.
Creeds and dogma represent a further solidification of understandings that can easily substitute for an openness to the ongoing disclosure of God’s purpose and agenda.
They can also be enlisted in the service of ideologies that run counter to that purpose, as examples from many historical eras show.
“Closing the borders” can indeed be an overt expression of a lack of hospitality to the stranger, as many have argued in our current debates over national security.
A little reflection suggests that it may also be a symptom of a deeper problem that affects us not only sociologically and politically in the changing demographics of our neighborhoods, but also theologically.
This is manifested in a challenge regarding our readiness to follow a God who is disclosed in an open-ended Scripture, in a courageous prophetic voice that calls us to see God’s work with new eyes, in a tradition of doctrine that is always evolving, and in a model of a master whose companionship offers the confidence that we need rather than the certainty that we often want.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.