The Porous boundaries of nationhood


‘We are going to build a wall.’

But can you? Can you really make a nation’s borders as absolute as a wall? Can a nation be sealed off in that way? Even Britain as a group of islands discovered what a border is like when Ireland was partitioned, and realised at the height of the troubles that the best guarded borders are still porous. So what are we to make of Mr Trump’s wall, and how should our thinking be shaped by what Scripture has to say about nationhood and migration?

I have mixed feelings about the Trump wall and the reaction to it. On the one hand countries have to regulate their own immigration, to prevent illegal immigration and protect national security. Those who have been running the ‘bridges not walls’ campaign need to think through the logical conclusions of their arguments. Can a country guarantee its own security without knowing who is passing through its borders? When one of their citizens goes to another country, don’t they need a passport for their own protection and identity? If borders did not exist and there were completely unregulated immigration, the overload on the big destination countries and the loss of key skills in the countries of origin would both be massive problems. That is why we have national boundaries, and controlled immigration, and why America has a rather different border with Mexico to what it has with Canada. The Trump wall is only strengthening an already heavily patrolled and fenced border, on a frontier where illegal immigration is a regular occurrence.

On the other hand, there is a fear of the ‘other’ that motivates the building of the Trump wall. Too many of America’s problems are being blamed on other countries, as though if ‘we’ could only keep ‘them’ troublemakers out, we righteous Americans could enjoy unblemished life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The UKIP segment of the Brexit vote labours under similar faulty thinking about Brexit, as though our problems can all be blamed on Europe and left to itself the British are righteous and better than the rest. That is national idolatry and hypocrisy.

The biblical concept of nationhood pays little attention to borders. Land was important in the Old Testament, and not just Israel’s land but the land of surrounding nations, so that each nation had a homeland where it could live together and share a national life. Paul says that God determined for each nation ‘allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place’, in other words, the length of time that that nation would survive, and the territory they could claim for that length of history. But the biblical understanding of nationhood is much less interested in borders and citizenship. It sees nations as organic entities, being born through some shift in history, growing and flourishing in a new place, but then being scattered and dying out under the sovereign hand of God. No nation has a God-given right to exist forever. ‘Manifest Destiny’ is not a biblical concept.

This means that the boundaries of nations in Scripture have always been porous and organic, rather than rigid and divided. Contrary to the ideology of apartheid that taught the doctrine of ‘separate development’, there is nothing separate about the nations of biblical history. Abraham left his father’s household to go and form a new nation through his descendants.  Jacob and his sons migrated to Egypt to find food, and there in the face of oppression became a nation through the Exodus. But the Exodus journey began with an ethnic mixing, because ‘a mixed multitude went up with them’ (Ex 12:38), presumably including many Egyptians who trusted in the redeeming God of Israel. Indeed, Moses himself took a Cushite wife (Num. 12:1). Then most famously, Ruth is woven into the story of Israel’s history, and is able to declare, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God’ (Ruth 1:16). Israel’s history is marked by all these ways in which other nations are woven into the covenant people of God. When we come to the New Testament, the flows of migration that happened both within and outside of the Roman Empire were all used for the sake of the gospel, to advance the mission of the church. If you are opposed to migration and cross-cultural marriage, you have to ignore a lot of Scripture.

So the reality is that no nation is static, however rich its history and however strong its culture. Cultures and languages are always in flux, and great events cannot avoid changing them. The Celts were among the first to migrate to Britain and the western coasts of Europe (whether by land or sea no one really knows, though Gen. 10:5 is interesting in this regard), but after them came Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans, each nation of settlers blending some of its own with the indigenous population, and with the growth of roads so the various tribes began to merge into kingdoms. So a group of nations were born and began to flourish, and by the time of Magna Carta over 800 years ago, the Welsh, Scots and Irish all had their mention in the text of the Charter as identifiably distinct nations. But Britain has always welcomed refugees and settlers from other nations. In the first generation they suffer culture shock like all their predecessors, and struggle to pronounce our weird place names or cope with our climate. But the second generation grow to speak the language as their own, and are shaped by the culture around them rather than their parent’s culture. They are British. While such issues are obviously part of the ‘American Dream’ as the great settler nation, they are part of the life of every nation, because national boundaries are porous.

The most fundamental reason for this is marriage. A marriage brings together a man and a woman of different families, and frequently of different cultures or nations. They bring their differences together to enrich the loving home they build together. Recently I attended a wedding in our church where a British bride married an Iranian groom, he having become a Christian since coming to study here. His family approved and really wanted to be there, but visas were not granted. So they watched via skype through a tablet sat on the communion table at the front of the service, in front of the bride and groom, and we could see them sat at home watching in their sitting room in their best clothes. It was a unique and wonderful wedding. Britain is enriched by such a match, and some of the ancient culture of the land of King Cyrus will add spice to our national life. Marriage across national boundaries proves that however many walls we build along our borders, we cannot keep ourselves in defined and absolutely separate boxes. If two people can fall in love across national boundaries, no wall can keep them apart for long, and President Trump is clearly wrong to take actions that try and divide families in that way by travel bans.

To my mind, we should see migration as an enriching cultural experience, and a natural part of history. The only issue is making sure migration happens at sustainable levels. Moving populations require housing, clean water, and good public services, and they also need to think about the impact their absence will have on the community they have left behind. Where there are huge economic imbalances, and where countries have bad governance and lack the rule of law, people will want to move elsewhere to seek a better life, and who can blame them. But if everyone does that, host countries cannot cope with the pressure of settling them, and poorer countries will run short of doctors, nurses and other professionals. For these reasons, governments of rich nations have to manage migration, and should strive for a system of visas that is fair and just for people from all nations. But as well as thinking about themselves, they should also work to ensure the prosperity of poorer nations, to promote good governance and the rule of law, the bedrock of national life and stability. The cultural mandate was to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28, 9:1), and God’s plan for nations worked out in Gen. 10 shows the nations spreading out and filling the earth.  If we believe in biblical nationhood, we should want the stability and flourishing of all nations, not the chaos of people traffickers and the civil wars that drive people from their homes. At the same time, we should see movement between nations, settlement, intermarriage, development and change as healthy and biblical, because nations are organic and national boundaries are more porous than we realise.

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