Laban and Jacob have their say on the folly of borders and their control

A cairn marking the boundary between Norway and Sweden in a remote area of the Arctic. Photo by Bjorn Christian Torrissen

The UK Government has announced plans to take “full control” of borders unveiling an Australian-style points system to overhaul immigration law and close our borders to unskilled workers and those who can’t speak English. When we talk about taking “full control of our borders” aren’t we just allowing fear and anxiety to take control of our borders? Are we forgetting border controls escalate and will be reciprocated? Have we given any thought to who in the end will wipe our bums?

This is all part of the deceit of government. I have been intrigued by the stories about Jacob and Laban from Genesis 29-31. Jacob is the “leg-puller”, the “supplanter”, the “deceiver”. Laban is the “white man”. Laban means white. The story of Laban and Jacob is a saga of deception – the white man deceiving the deceiver. Was Jacob the outsmarter of the two?) They come to terms with each other by building a witness heap of stones laid by their families as a commitment to peace. It marked the first bilingual place name recorded in the Bible – Laban called it Jegar Sahadutha and Jacob called it Galeed – the translations of “witness heap” in their respective languages.

Galeed, (we would perhaps call it a cairn) stood as a landmarked prayer. It provided a boundary to their hostility, an end to it. Significantly both Jacob and Laban refuse to take control of their new border. Instead they pray: “The Lord watch between you and me”. The Lord is the one they want to control their border and to watch their limits so that they never cross for harm but only cross for peace.

I wonder when we pray, when we put or hands together, whether we are building a cairn – a knuckle-boned physical structure to mark the limits of our hostility and anxiety, to say “beyond this only peace, beyond this only love”. Are our churches also cairn like landscaped prayers – places to confess our hostility, to find better ways to deal with our differences and markers within our communities beyond which we commit to “go in peace”? “This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me.” (Genesis 31:51f)

Borders are worse for our control when our export is fear. The boundaries of our Brexit mindset become brickset – walls built against others deconstructing differences, obstructing relationships, restricting trade and exchange.

Where are we building our witness heaps and our places of commitment? How are we replacing walls with cairns? How do we lament our nationalism?



For the first time in a long time I have been having to stand my ground. This is because of an inter-personal, intra-departmental boundary dispute. In other words, we are not sure what we are each doing. This is not a major international incident, though there are significant tensions at the border. We don’t know where the boundaries are supposed to be, and because of that we haven’t worked out how we live together at the boundary.
The damage of borderlands is beautifully brought out in a poem I have just read by Gloria Anzaldua – who describes herself as a “chicana dyke-feminist, tejana patlache poet, writer, and cultural theorist” and “as a border woman [who] grew up between two cultures, the Mexican (with a heavy Indian influence) and the Anglo (as a member of a colonised people in our own territory). I have been straddling that tejas-mexican border, and others, all my life It’s not a comfortable place to live in, this place of contradictions. hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape”. (The photo is by Brian Auer)
Here’s the poem – as I read it in Edward Soja’s book, Thirdspace:
                         I press my hand to the steel curtain – 
               chainlink fence crowned with rolled barbed wire –
        rippling from the sea where Tijuana touches San Diego
unrolling over mountains
     and plains
              and deserts,
this “Tortilla Curtain” turning into el rio Grande
      flowing down to the flatlands
           of the Magic Valley of South Texas
      its mouth emptying into the Gulf.
1,950 mile-long open wound
                     dividing a pueblo, a culture,
                     running down the length of my body,
                         staking fence rods in my flesh,
                         splits me   splits me
                         me raja   me raja
                                                                               This is my home
                                                                               this thin edge of
                       But the skin of the earth is seamless.
                       The sea cannot be fenced,
             el mar does not stop at borders.
       To show the white man what she thought of his 
                   Yemaya blew that wire fence down.
                     The land was Mexican once,
                          was Indian always
                              and is.
                         And   will be again.