In many ways I am fascinated by the phenomenon of borders. You drive through an area. Suddenly you see how houses change in architecture. Most cars now have a different kind of license plate. People speak a particular language, but a few miles down the road that is no longer the case.
Today, in much of Europe, there are virtually no checks at land borders. In the past few weeks I have crossed six national borders, but nowhere did I have to take out my passport. I experience the Schengen arrangement of the 26 European countries, which in principle no longer apply mutual border controls, as a very positive development.
Unfortunately, it is still quite cumbersome to get visas to travel to some parts of the world, while certain countries still have themselves completely sealed off from the outside world. I think back with horror to the controls between the former ‘free’ West and Communist East-Germany. But even between our own country and the outside world, real borders existed until not so long ago. On my first (school) trip across the border, men in uniform came into the train at Oldenzaal (at the station at the Dutch-German border) to check our passports, and when I worked in the Adventist publishing house in the 1970s and 1980s and regularly took quantities of books to Belgium, there were still stops to be made at the Dutch-Belgian border because of VAT obligations.
In some parts of the world, one sees not just occasional signs to mark the border, but formidable border fences. The division between North and South Korea is perhaps the most tragic example. But also the walls between Mexico and the U.S., and between parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories, and in a number of places in Eastern and Central Europe, keep people cruelly away from each other.
A world without borders is an utopia. Borders are necessary to order our society. This is true on a large as well as a small scale. A country must know where its right to demand taxes begins and ends. A farmer needs to know where he can let his cows graze, and a homeowner needs to know what is the extent of his garden.
At the same time, it is also good to realize that borders are man-made and that they can sometimes be very problematic. The straight lines on the map of Africa often run right through the territories of peoples who have lived there for centuries. Now their lands may lie partly in one state and partly in another–with all the ethnic tensions that result. Closer to home we also see examples of this in Europe, especially in the Balkans.
Sometimes, however, you see the relative nature of borders. Between Pakistan and India—which have been at odds with each other for decades—there is, just over 20 kilometers from Lahore, a border crossing in the highway between the two countries. On a visit to Pakistan, I was taken to see the daily ceremonies at the border. I was not the only one who came to watch. The grandstand built on the Pakistani side was packed with spectators. At exactly four o’clock a spectacle begins in which a group of the tallest soldiers from both countries participate. Finally, after much marching and menacing shouting, the metal gate is slammed shut with the loudest possible bang. If there is a real border somewhere, it is between Pakistan and India. But as soon as the gate is slammed shut, you see how the participants in the ceremony, via a shortcut, meet socially and have a drink together! The countries are in a state of war, but the individual people apparently see each other not just as enemies but primarily as fellow human beings.
In a collection of Dutch Revival Songs there is the song entitled “Together in the Name of Jesus.” The second stanza refers to boundaries being demolished by the Spirit, because those boundaries are man-made. It is often almost impossible to break down the boundaries that people have made. You see this everywhere-in world affairs, and in national and regional politics. Sometimes the boundaries between different churches and within a community of faith are perhaps the hardest to break through. This can only happen when we realize that these borders are made by people, but that with the help of the Spirit we can jump over those borders, or even dismantle them.