Saturday, June 2, 2012

Border crossers


This post takes its title from an article in The National Review with a similar title by Peter E. Gordon (“The Border Crossers,” May 18, 2012). Gordon, a history professor at Harvard, reviews John Connelly’s new book, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965. The change in the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching was dramatic: from tacit, even explicit anti-Semitism, the Roman Catholic Church changed its position to acknowledge that Judaism remained a valid path to God because God does not repent of the gifts that God makes. Connelly’s careful historical and theological analysis attributes the shift in Roman Catholic thinking to border crossers, converts to Catholicism from Judaism or Protestant Christianity.

Gordon’s final paragraph is important:

One is tempted to agree with Freud (another figure from the Moravian land of border-crossing) who observed that the injunction “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” imposes an impossible demand: if the neighbor is truly a stranger to me and if he occupies no place whatsoever in my emotional life, then I will find this commandment in conflict with the jealousy and instinctual aggression that lie at the very core of my own psychic constitution. True love, for Freud, was therefore always entangled with narcissism: it is not the other whom I love but myself, or at least it is only that quality in the other which resembles me or resembles the person I once was. Connelly has written an important book, an extraordinary work of history, although it is sobering to think that its argument may depend on an original sin in human psychology: that the imperative of empathy resists its universal application and collapses back upon itself, darkening its own promise like an imploding star.

Globalization, with the advent of electronic communication and widely available rapid transport, has created more border crossers, people born with one identity who subsequently change that identity. Immigrants from one country to another, converts from one religion to another, and individuals who move from one social strata or class to another are all border crossers. Less easily identified border crossers, but nevertheless border crossers likely to alter the world to a degree disproportionate to their numbers, are people who adopt a worldview dramatically different from the worldview received at their birth.

Increased border crossing is a sign of hope for the possibility of a more peaceful world emerging. If Freud is right that humans cannot love a stranger, a limit that is probably intrinsic to reciprocal altruism in which we treat others well expecting somebody else to reciprocate, then border crossers reduce the number of strangers. Thus, instead of considering Muslim immigrants in the West as a developing problem, perhaps these Muslim immigrants constitute a pool of potential border crossers, able to bridge the gap between the secular West and Islam. Similarly, perhaps Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. – both legal and illegal – are not as much of a problem as a pool of border crossers who will bridge the divide between the affluent North and the poor South.

The power of border crossers is readily evident not only in the change in Roman Catholicism’s view of Jews but also in the changing attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) persons. GLBT persons, who crossed borders by coming out of the closet and courageously announcing their identity, have constituted the single most powerful force in changing prejudicial attitudes about gender orientation and sexual identity.

Are you a border crosser? What border can you cross to engender a fuller sense of the human community?

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