What We Talk About When We Talk About The Border
How do we respond biblically and with sanity to an insane situation?
If a certain stream of news is to be believed, the border is basically a war zone, with people thronging at the gates, criminals breaking through, and drug lords firing wildly, requiring nothing short of military intervention.
If another other stream of news it to be believed, the border is a refugee camp with people sitting quietly asking for the chance at the dream of a new life, promising to be upstanding citizens, while their families wait hopefully on the other side.
But I live on the border. Google says my office is exactly five minutes from the Bridge of the Americas. My morning commute has as much a view of Ciudad Juarez as El Paso.
Here is what I have begun to realize living on the border while hearing the endless stream of opinion on the internet: “The Border” as commented about on the internet is not a real place. “The Border” is an idea, a picture, a summary of an extremely complex reality. When people speak of “What’s happening on The Border…” they usually mean several aspects of a endlessly complicated situation. The mean the reality of the human toll and the human drive for a better life. Or they mean the reality of law and the promotion of justice.
And into this endlessly complicated reality is a breathtakingly simple reality: Every human being is made in the image of God and precious to God.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26–27 ESV)
God himself breathed life into humanity and breathed something uniquely precious. This changes everything.
Why bring this up? Because it matters to us as Christians and as citizens of the United States. I can’t cover all aspects of this, but here are a few implications I see for us as Christians when we recognize what we’re talking about when we talk about the border.
- There are real people in border cities and this tempers our speech: We are commanded as Christians to use speech in a way that “builds up” and that “gives grace to the hearer” (Eph 4:29). To make careless pronouncements like “the border is just out of control” shades every city like mine into a dark gray. Or to say, “People coming in just want a decent job, what’s the big deal?” takes no account of the fact that lots of people in my church need jobs too. Let’s think through the implications of our speech so that our brothers and sisters on the border and elsewhere receive grace.
- There are real people asking to cross and the border and this tempers our speech: It’s fine to have a policy debate about what’s best for America, Mexico, El Salvador, etc. But we can’t discuss the border as if these people are numbers, or cogs, or points on a graph. They are real. They are made in the image of God. It does not mean we cannot lovingly disagree about legal pathways to citizenship. But, it means we never speak without compassion and it definitely means we don’t use slurs and slang and demeaning language when we speak about them and to them.
- There are real people trying to enforce the law and this tempers our speech: Many of my friends are people hired by the United States government to enforce laws at the border. We can’t discuss a “broken” immigration system without recognizing that there are real people, not just abstract systems, doing border enforcement. To some they are a swear word or a joke, but not to God. One of my border enforcement friends moved to El Paso and attended Spanish language church services and has made manyy mission trips into Mexico. It does not mean we cannot argue whether enforcement can be improved, or seek to end any cases or patterns of abusive behavior. But it means we don’t use slurs and slang and demeaning language about them and to them.
- There are real biblical principles in tension and this tempers our speech: I’ve often heard each side in this debate speak as if it’s inconceivable that anyone reading their Bible could possibly disagree with them. “It’s so obvious,” some say, “The government bears the responsibility to enforce the law and even bears the sword to do so (Romans 13). Fair is fair. It’s the law so that’s it.” But then “It’s so obvious,” others say, “In the Old Testament God’s people are told to love the sojourner and extend hospitality (Lev 19:34). Compassion is compassion. That’s God’s heart and that’s it.” I think we’d all be served by acknowledging that this isn’t as clear-cut as we want to make it. There are clear biblical principles we need to wrestle with, but I think we can make room for differences of opinion there, and even if we agree on which principles should weigh in most heavily we have to apply them with wisdom. We must move from Theology to Theological Application to Wise Practice. Let’s see the tensions.
- The border is broken practically.On a practical level, regardless of whether you think it should be all focused on trade or all focused on enforcement, the process doesn’t do either totally well right now. I guy I knew who crossed the border regularly got flagged for no fault of his and spent years getting pulled over and searched in detail with no explanation, then it stopped. The immigration system even for those going through completely legal channels often requires expensive legal representation, the law is muddled. I think one point of common practical good is improving the system.
- The border is full of spiritual brokenness. The flood of children from places like El Salvador never made sense to me until I walked the streets of El Salvador where every drugstore and decent restaurant had a security guard out front. There is massive brokenness in many countries and places that lead to a desperate search for something better. The flow of drugs in America lines the pockets of Cartels in Mexico that use the money to murder and kidnap and rape. In a very real way Americans paid for the war in Juarez that claimed the lives of thousands there. The cartel presence means evil happens in my city in drug trafficking and sex trafficking and other evils under the dark of night. There is brokenness in the family desperate to get to America, there is also brokenness in the thirtysomething who finally buys a house in El Paso and has a decent job and an empty feeling where he thought he’d find peace.
- The border is ripe with practical opportunity. My grandfather and father were Customs Brokers, helping American and Mexican companies cross goods back and forth. Mexico is our third-largest trading partner, bringing jobs and prosperity to the US. Families in Mexico and the US gather around the dinner table with good food provided by this relationship. My own city survives and thrives tied to the fortunes of Ciudad Juarez across the border. Here are the border, better than anyone we understand that we are linked and America is not an island. We grow and prosper together and American should be humble enough to see it.
- The border is ripe with spiritual opportunity. Where there is brokenness there is an opportunity for the gospel to meet that need, both at the deepest spiritual level but also at a practical level that demonstrates the reality of the gospel. Everyone on the border is longing for better news and there is far, far better news than they can imagine. It is the hope that one day there will be no more killing or hurt or tears, forever(Rev 21–22). Our church is proudly linked with a congregation in Ciudad Juarez and a Spanish-speaking congregation here in El Paso. We have all seen the gospel go forward in power on the border and pray for more opportunities.
My grandfather was born in Mexico. He came to the US because Pancho Villa destroyed my great-grandfather’s property and business. My great-grandfather crossed into El Paso looking for a better life on his way to be with his family in California. After arriving in El Paso their family was robbed. Welcome to the border.
As I write this Pope Francis is arriving miles from me in Ciudad Juarez and today will walk up to the fence my grandfather crossed so many years ago. The thing about the fence is that it seems too flimsy to represent the reality of two countries and two cities colliding culturally, economically, militarily, relationally, personally. Some see that fence as a danger, others as salvation. Most that see it that way live hundreds of miles away. But I live here. I know it is really neither.
In the faces of the crowd at the border today people will see what they want to see. But I think I will see what is really there: just people. People made in the image of God, desperate and longing for a return to that image and its Maker. There is a way through, but is not a new policy or plan or visitor. An ancient carpenter lives on the border with scars on his hands. He walks among the people on both sides of the fence. And he’s working a plan. It’s for a place where everything good about this place will live on, with none of the evil that haunts it now. A place where every language and people will live side by side. Where human and divine collide. Where my grandfather and I will one day walk the streets and smile. Where the fence will be a distant memory.