Borders & Belonging, part 1

Everything needs a boundary to be a defined and definite thing. Dissolution of that boundary ends the thing, its contents spilling out and merging with the surroundings.

We need our skin to hold us together – but not to seal us off. We need to let in, and let out, air and nutrients – and the skin itself needs to be porous. The average human adult has 7 million pores on their skin: 5 million hair follicle pores that secrete oils, plus 2 million sweat gland pores. Your pores secrete and also take in – which is how, for example, nicotine patches work.

You have to have boundaries – definition. And there has to be a flow through those boundaries – just to be biologically alive. But we humans are also social – in fact, hypersocial – animals. We need communication, connection flowing in, out, and through. We need ideas and love to flow in, to flow out, and flow through us – or we perish.

Through our connections, we form ourselves into groups, and the group also needs a definition, a boundary – some way to identify itself and be identified as a group. We need to belong, and our belonging requires a sense of US. So borders, boundaries, and belonging are wrapped up in each other. You don’t know who you are if you don’t know whose you are.

But the group’s border also needs to be porous: to take in and to give out. Whether the group is a nation, or a congregation – a trade union, sports team, or a gender or ethnic identity -- its definition of itself cannot be rigid or static, but must be somewhat ambiguous, vague, and evolving -- without being too much so. How do we know the healthy balance?

For the last two months, Ukraine has been trying its darndest to defend its borders – to fight off and push out an incursion that threatens its existence. Ukraine right now needs to be focused on a certain excluding: namely, the excluding of Russian forces. But fending off a very real organized hostile takeover attempt is one thing. Delusions of takeover from imagined dangerous others are quite different.

Fear – for our individual person, or for the group which is our belonging – heightens focus on our border, on protecting ourselves by shoring up that border however we can. Fear grabs our attention, and when there’s a real danger, fear is functional. When the snarling grizzly bear is charging you, rational calculation and logical deduction are much too slow – not to mention, they won’t give you the shot of adrenaline you might need. We need fear. Natural selection wouldn’t have made us fearful if it weren’t useful. But fear, in order to be the rapid reaction stimulus that it is, can’t take the time to be very discerning. So we are prone to be fearful of imagined dangers.

Fear morphs from a useful tool, blaring a warning when needed, to a pervasive condition: consuming and debilitating. Here in the U.S., division and polarization tears us apart. There is fear of the other in anti-immigrant attitudes, and in the cruelty of our policies toward people who live in different, poorer neighborhoods. There’s fear of the other driving every form of white supremacy, misogyny, and colonialism.

Zach Norris’ book, Defund Fear – or, as it was originally titled, We Keep Us Safe – is our Unitarian Universalist Association’s Common Read this year: the one book selected for all Unitarian Universalists to read and talk about. Norris points out that what really keeps us safe is – or would be – good schools, good jobs, effective affordable health care, clean and safe drinking water and air, safe roads and bridges. Funding for what really keeps us safe has been eroding for decades.

Instead, we’ve been erecting a more and more pervasive framework of fear, the four key elements of which are deprivation, suspicion, punishment, and isolation. We’ve been erecting and fortifying borders to keep THEM away from US. This has only reduced our safety. Our fears grow and grow, fueling counterproductive reactions that further reduce our safety in a vicious cycle.

Instead we need to cross borders, reach out to whoever is, or has been perceived as, OTHER. WE keep us safe – as the book’s original title says – and we can do so only if we embrace a larger WE instead of fearfully shrinking our WE. As you read the book, you might think to yourself: OK, I get the problem. But what do we do about it?

Norris has a number of recommendations, which he summarizes at the ends of chapters 5, 6, and 7, and those are indeed all worth our support. But sometimes when we ask “what do I do about it?” – or “what does our congregation do about it?” – the question behind the question is: "How do I make other people agree with me? How do I change THEM?" We think: “I see the problem; I am not the problem. It’s those other people, people who watch the TV news of that reprehensible network, and who vote for the candidates of that reprehensible political party." Thus the war between relatively privileged red America and relatively privileged blue America upstages the needs of the more-often-politically-disengaged poorer communities most at risk.

The challenge for us is to find ways to cross two different borders – to open our hearts across the red/blue divide and across the class divide. “How do we change the system?” is a good and important question, but today I want to talk about changing ourselves. I’m not going to go into detail – we will each have different details. I’m just going to call to mind an old, old story – possibly familiar to you – about a woman who did cross a border, and the difference it made. Perhaps it will inspire you to creatively imagine a way that you might reach, and step, across a border that you have for too long treated as impermeable.

The story is that of Ruth, the Moabite, who crossed borders to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi as she returned to Bethlehem in Judah. I’m inspired to bring that story to our attention this morning because of the work of Padraig O Tuama and Glenn Jordan, two Irishmen who led workshops bringing together people across the divisions of the Brexit issue. In the face of the deep and wide social and political divisions, O Tuama and Jordan led people through an exploration of the Book of Ruth. The story of her border crossing helped participants cross the borders that separated them from others.

O Tuama and Jordan were looking for
“a story that might lead us to say things other than the things we are shouting at each other in the letters section of newspapers, comments sections of websites and social media, shouty parts of shout programs on radio and television” (Borders & Belonging: The Book of Ruth: A Story for Our Times xii).
In these polarized times, O Tuama and Jordan asked: “Can we be held in some kind of narrative creativity by a story whose origins we do not know?” The Book of Ruth, they found, offered just such a container of narrative creativity.

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