When the Ferguson grand jury released its explosive verdict on November 24, I had just started Thanksgiving break.
For the past weeks, I had been pressing pastors in an MDiv course to reexamine their assumptions about race. As usual, deepening the conversation beyond cautious courtesy had not been easy.
Then came Ferguson.
By the time the class met again, another shooting and another grand jury decision had left the nation—and my students—divided and angry. As the world rioted around us and emotions escalated, I wondered whether even these Spirit-filled classmates would be able to disagree constructively and move toward understanding.
The need for border-crossing principles had become urgent.
What is Border Crossing?
I introduced border crossinghere and here as an essential discipline for every believer and every church. Readers suggested (thank you!) that in these days of intense immigration debate, I should have clarified that it is unrelated to traversing actual geopolitical boundaries.
Instead, with roots in social and educational theory, border crossing speaks to how believers and churches participate in their ever-diversifying communities. Navigating race-laden disagreement is just one example.
Borders represent any socially significant divisions: ethnic, racial, cultural, disability, economic, educational, generational, gender, stylistic, ideological, etc. Everyone lives within them and subconsciously perceives people as either "like us" or "not like us." Sociologists refer to the former as in-groups and to the latter as the Other.
Venturing beyond the comfort of in-groups to love the Other (and expecting myriad benefits) is the essence of border crossing. Far surpassing one-directional acts of benevolence, which are comparatively easy, border crossing seeks reciprocal relationships of trust and submission that may catalyze personal and organizational change.
Its polar opposite—adherence to the perceived safety and predictability of in-groups—comes quite naturally, so border crossing must be intentional, especially in making sense of contentious public events.
Border crossing gets to the heart of division because for various reasons (sometimes sin), we either choose to stick close to home, or we feel propelled into the unfamiliar.
Shootings, Rulings, and Protests
In discussing recent news, most of my students gained life-changing insight. White students were stunned to learn, for example, that their African American classmates experience profiling so frequently that they fastidiously teach their young children how to interact with the police. African Americans realized in bafflement that their white peers were not callously apathetic to this reality but genuinely unaware that it persists today. Such empathy makes peacemaking possible.
But underlying in-group or border-crossing concerns stirred vastly differing responses in tough conversations. Faced with many layers of disagreement, not all students communicated in ways that enabled sustained progress toward understanding.
What distinguishes border crossers is not the particular position they choose in intense discussions. In fact, they may never agree. That’s good, according to some theorists, who see the tension of opposing opinions as a healthy cultural stabilizer.
Rather, the mark of a border crosser is the resolve—whether rooted in curiosity, care, or peacemaking—to explore humbly and courageously the perspectives of the Other until achieving understanding.
In navigating public disagreements, this determination expresses itself in at least three ways.
First, border crossers accept that reasonable and honorable people disagree. When interpreting highly politicized situations, they reject polarizing caricatures that paint others as monochromatically self-seeking or immoral (e.g., lawless leftists, bigoted right-wingers). They can think independently of political parties, peers, and pundits.
Especially in disagreement with fellow believers, they extend trust in conversation, believing their spiritual siblings to be seeking God’s heart and mind. “Help me to see what I am missing,” is their genuine, non-threatening request.
“Devoted to one another in brotherly love,” they “give preference to one another in honor.”
Second, border crossers pursue understanding at deep levels. They recognize that foundational, often subconscious, assumptions rooted in history and experience may differ legitimately among groups, affecting everything from initial perceptions of events to final judgments.
In Ferguson, for example, what counted as threatening behavior, as evidence, as knowledge or facts, or as credible? And who had the power to say? And why? Border crossers listen for deeper differences in group perspectives, embracing the Proverb, “In all thy getting, get understanding.”
Finally, border crossers recognize the distorting effects of bias within themselves and others. No one approaches such painful divisions with true objectivity, so border crossers guard against hasty or unkind judgments, assuming that they themselves still have much to learn and to unlearn. They are “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”
In contrast, in-group concern draws people into the safety of home, rendering them unable or unwilling to hold their own views at arm’s length while considering others’ perspectives. Perhaps feeling disloyal at the edge of their ideological borders, they lack trust, deny bias, and cling to right-wrong dualism in a conversation they view as risky and irrelevant.
About race and politics, how well do you disagree? Does your desire to understand surpass your fear of possibly being wrong?
It takes gracious grit—both vigor and honor—to disagree constructively with the Other, who is bound to seem backwards to us sometimes.
Check back next month and follow me @ElizabethCDrury for more on border crossing as a discipline for every believer and every church.