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?

The Fourth of July

There are already “safe spaces for respectful conversations across partisan divides” which have been developed with great care through community development. They are shockingly liberal and discomforting, but need treasuring and multiplying. The above sign is from St James’ Church, Piccadilly in which rough sleepers mix (and sleep) with other worshippers (gathering from across many partisan divides) under one roof.

Parker J Palmer, in the Huffington Post draws attention to a project organised by the Wisconsin Council of Churches (with backing from Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities) initiated by a call from thirty-six religious leaders from across the state have called for “a Season of Civility“. Amidst “partisan rancour” they realise that they “must create ‘safe spaces’ for respectful conversations across the partisan divides. And we must move beyond the walls of our congregations to include everyone in our local communities in this dialogue.” They are using Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy to help guide their thinking, focusing on five “habits of the heart”:

  • understanding that we are all in this together (where have we heard that before?)
  • an appreciation of the value of “otherness”
  • an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  • a sense of personal voice and agency
  • a capacity to create community

Palmer’s Huffington Post article is written with American civility (or, lack of) in mind, but the issues he faces are universal. They transgress partisan divides. “The powers” have ways of discouraging us from rattling cages and discouraging conflict. In workshops (safe spaces?) I have seen that conflict has negative connotations for most people. But Palmer reminds us that conflict has a real place in the development of civility, community and society. “America was founded on the historically novel and radical premise that conflict and tension, rightly held, are the engine, not the enemy, of a better social order.” “The civility we need will come not from watching our tongues, but from valuing our diferences and the creativity that can come when we hold them well.”

lop-sided truth


Channel 4’s drama series, The Promise, proved to be a powerful expose of the human cost of the protracted conflict on Palestinian soil. I was glad of the insight into this tragic (and for me, little understood) history spanning the last hundred years. (How is it so easy to remain ignorant of such significant events?). The story is based on a diary written by Len and held by Erin, his grandaughter. Len is a former British soldier who served both at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and in Palestine, in the tense months before Israel declared itself a state in 1948 when the occupying British army was subject to a sustained and bloody terrorist campaign by Zionist groups. Besides portraying the cruel hard-heartedness of Jewish people trying to make room for themselves and the violent disruption to the loves and homes of the Palestinian people, the series brilliantly portrayed the plight of the professional soldier and his role at the complicated heart of conflict.

The size of the problem! Photo by Jim Forrest

In my enthusiasm for The Promise, I searched for reviews in the blogosphere – just to validate my enthusiasm. I found a review in the New Statesman, complete with outrageous and outraged comments. Comments include “inaccurate”, “anti-semitic” and “one-sided”. It made me wonder how The Promise (or any account) can be other than one-sided. Anyone who builds a bloody great wall – designed to prevent their neighbour seeing over – is destined to be victim of one-sided accounts of history. In conflict there is no middle ground. There is one side, or the other. There is no dis-passionate observer sitting on the fence with a view of both sides. There can be no balance.

There can, however, be peace process. Prophet (and Jew) Amos, centuries ago (a farmer from Tekoa – another Jewish settlement south of Bethlehem), proposed the “swords into ploughshares” policy – an early disarmament programme. “Swords” represent all the paraphernalia of war – its weaponry, its defences and its propaganda – upsetting the balance of truth and jeopardising peace for generations to come. Conflict creates its own insecurity and reverses common sense  – requisitioning the economic tools for prosperity, to melt them down for the savagery of war. We can, even with our one-sided truth, work for this disarmament. Even me, writing this, has declared my one-sided hand in conflict against those who were outraged by the pro-Palestinian stance of The Promise. But I didn’t see the series as an incendiary device lobbed over a great wall of conflict – but as an exercise to expose what is happening. Truth and plight can only be exposed one-sidedly. It is up to us to make it “sword” or “ploughshare”.



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.