Border Crossings


As I think about Christ’s approach to boundaries, I cannot think of an image more profound than the cross itself to talk about the radical nature of the Gospel.  In my own life, I draw boundaries and set up borders as means of self-protection, and yet the very faith that inspires my desire for righteousness burdens me constantly with the image of a Messiah who chose not to protect himself, not to use power, who chose to give himself away to people whose values and visions were very different from his.  It strikes me to the heart that this Christ who is even willing to cross the boundary of life itself to make possible a relationship with the God we are dealing with who is always bigger than the God we are dealing with – a God who no person shall name.  It also, confoundingly, strikes me to the heart how I, who profess a faith in this Messiah, would draw boundaries around the very God who crossed them all to meet us where we are.  We name the God every day in ways that we were never made to in the pursuit of a righteousness that we cannot ever give ourselves anyway.

As I think about the borders that we set upon religion, it seems to me that many of them are just as convoluted as the ones drawn upon the Middle East itself by powers whose only interest was self-interest and whose only apparent knowledge was self-knowledge.  The borders between religions may not be as clear as we think they are.  I’ll give you a personal example.  As a young man, I was a Special Forces sergeant serving in Lebanon in 1983-1984.  I have to say that I had major problems with Islam as I understood Islam, and those major problems could not have been any more solidified in my mind than they were with the destruction of the Marine barracks and the death of many of my fellow servicemen caused by a truck bomb driven by a Muslim.  When other Muslims kidnapped several Americans and murdered some of them, it further highlighted my problems with Islam as I understood Islam.

The paradox was that as huge as my problems with Islam as I understood Islam were, and I thought I had extensively studied Islam, I was surrounded everyday by Muslims who would have given their life for me and I for them.  I loved Ali, and Sa’ad, and Sami.  They were my Lebanese counterparts and were every bit as Muslim as the man who had blown up the Marine barracks.  I had huge problems with Islamic Jihad.  I had huge problems with AMAL.  I had huge problems with the PSP and the PFLP.  I had huge problems with the Islam I had learned about in classes and in books.  But I deeply admired the selflessness, courage, compassion, and generosity of these individual men with whom I shared the threat of death and harshness of conditions in a country at war. We had one major commonality – none of us really wanted to be there doing what we were doing. I had big problems with Islam in the abstract.  But sometimes the abstract or academic creates problems for us that we don’t experience in one to one relationships with ordinary people.

I had long conversations with Sami about his faith and about my faith.  I remember talking with him late one night, and he asked me to tell him about Jesus.  What does a 21-year-old sergeant in the Army know about the Jesus of Doctrine?  Not much.  But I told him about the Jesus I wanted to believe really existed and who was leading my life, the one I learned about in the Bible, and in Sunday school. He told me about the Mohammed that I am sure he learned about in the Koran and in his religious studies at Mosque.  It never struck me that he was no more an authorized spokesperson for the entirety of Islamic faith and practice than I was for Christianity.  I think he kind of told me about the Mohammed he wanted to believe really existed and was leading his life.  He spoke from experience more than doctrine.  There was never really a need to convince each other of anything.  It was a conversation born in mutual admiration and curiosity.

I remember Sami telling me one night that if the Jesus I described really existed, he would like that Jesus. He told me that I was okay, you know, for a Christian, but that he didn’t care much for Christians as a whole.   I remember thinking that if the Mohammed that he described really existed, I would like that Mohammed, too, but that I was really tired of being targeted by Muslim militant groups simply for being American or for being Christian.  I walked away Christian.  And he walked away Muslim.  We had crossed each other’s borders, but without battle flags and national symbols.  We had not marched up to the border of the other with the drums of war beating in our ears.  War was already here.  We didn’t need to add another battle to it.  We were like brothers, and somewhere I remember thinking that Jesus would probably have liked that.

Had we changed each other’s faith? Yes.  Had either of us converted to the faith of the other?  No.  The faith of another helped to shape my own faith.  I am no longer afraid of the paradox.


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