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25.09.2020

On Fences, Stiles, and Border-Crossing

Build a fence, by all means, if you must; but be sure there’s a stile you can cross.
I penned this proverb after crossing a stunning stile on the Seven Sisters walk between Seaford and Eastbourne.

The farmers probably had good cause to build this fence. As Robert Frost mused in his poem, ‘Mending Wall’, past generations had livestock that needed separating. Better a barrier to save an argument come market time. Perhaps back then ‘good fences make good neighbours’ was wisdom you could hang your flat-cap on?

And yet, construct a barrier and before too long we can’t see, hear or understand our neighbour. She becomes a faceless ‘other’. No need to talk; ‘authorities’ mediate disputes. Traffic ceases and few attempt what now seems a transgression. ‘No trespassers allowed!

Tensions and troubles rise. ‘Peace walls’ divide towns. Whole communities pass on hate, lacking the conversation to challenge echo chambers and expand horizons.

What difference it would make if those building walls would learn from our bridleways and ‘right to roam’ … to clear a track, remove obstructions, offer a sign plucky ramblers could follow. How might we encourage border-crossing to chat with those on the other side?

What might a stile, for example, look like between Remainers and Brexiteers? Progressive left and conservative right? Black and white? Refugees and residents? Post-Christian secularists and religious devotees?

Facing any wall, Frost would have us ask, ‘What was I walling in or walling out, and to whom was I like to give offense?’ Our first step forward is to interrogate inherited clichés by which we justify division.

Others may side-step such awkward questions. But for those professing to follow the way of Jesus, we are ‘agents of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:11–21). Christ crossed the barrier separating heaven and earth, imploring us to enter his Father’s field through his barb-wired scars. We now extend this invitation to others, leaving self-protection to become a bridge on which people tread on the way home. The greatest right to roam is liberation to love God and neighbour, where all transgressors are met with welcome signs.

In Jesus’ footsteps, how can you help strangers become neighbours and enemies friends – especially in lockdown? Let’s reach across that garden fence and risk ‘trespassing’ in peace. As Frost figures, ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.’ If so, build that stile and let’s get over it.

Dave Benson
Director, Centre for Culture & Discipleship 

Author

Dave Benson

Comments

  1. Absolutely, yes. Yes. Yes. 100%.

    At The Feast Youth Project (www.thefeast.org.uk) we have developed a fantastic tool whereby constructive conversations can happen between neighbours who have opposing, emotive views. It is like that stile you are talking about. And we have seen lives and relationships transformed.

    By Ulrike Hunt - 25th September 2020
    • Ulrike! Matt Jolley says hello 🙂 I’m friends with Tim Fawsett (former Feast CEO, now heading Cross Cultural Innovation for Scripture Union in Brisbane, my home town), and had the privilege in 2014 during my doctoral studies (on the place of diverse sacred texts in secular educational curricula) of interviewing the team at The Feast, and seeing your guidelines for dialogue (well worth a look for those reading on: https://thefeast.org.uk/sites/feast.hocext.co.uk/files/2020-04/4717_TheFeast_A_a1_GuidelinesForDialogue-Faith.pdf).

      Seriously, *amazing* stile you’ve built there. And how good to see it proved by one of your founders, Dr. Andrew Smith, at the PhD level that these kinds of inter-religious conversations can simultaneously deepen one’s own faith, and strengthen hospitality toward and understanding of one’s differently believing neighbour – bonding and bridging in one. Truly wonderful work (exploring faith, building friendships, changing lives) that I’m pleased to promote. Blessings today, Dave.

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  2. Well said Dave. That “wall-building” mentality also led to the Cold War, which might have ended much more badly than it did… As Christians we need to challenge these artificial barriers at every level, from interpersonal to inter-continental. We believe that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” – not along a fence-line.

    By Martin Tiller - 25th September 2020
    • Powerful quote, Martin, and many thanks for the broader historical lens. It reminds me of another famous quote by polymath (though in particular, historian) George Santayana – ‘Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.’ Sadly in this polarised moment, we are often ignorant of – even actively erasing – these past conflicts and the devastation on both bloody ends of politics, left and right. As a result, many are building fences and high walls to shut out the ‘other’ faster than people of peace are able to build stiles. May we be agile, to be amidst these conflicts, constructing ways between and peacefully border-crossing. Blessings today.

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  3. Great stuff! A pernickety point, perhaps – you write like a true metropolitan, as if farming were an arcane activity once practised by yokels (normally wearing straw hats, not flat caps) whose relics now obstruct the modern right to use the countryside merely for recreation. Was it only ‘past generations’ that had cattle ‘back then’? That stereotype reinforces another barrier, between urban & rural. If farmers didn’t fence in their cattle (gates and stiles provided) your milk wouldn’t get to the supermarket, but the beasts might!

    By Paul Dunstan - 25th September 2020
    • Hi Paul, guilty as charged! I have a double challenge in that I’m from Australia, doing my best to find cultural equivalents. While I’m embarassingly metropolitan, my parents-in-law are beef farmers in country Queensland – and I know well how crucial fences are for them … a very modern issue. For instance, when drought hit, the water levels on the lake dropped, and nearly 100 cattle escaped, costing time, energy, and apart from clear branding, it would have meant mixing of cattle with their neighbours, after 15 years of careful breeding. They wear drizabone coats and akubra hats their way.
      So, yes, apologies for reinforcing this divide – helpful to be more informed here. Also a challenge with a tight 400 words to follow one line … the earlier draft had a whole paragraph on the genuine need for fences as (obviously) serving a clear purpose in many contexts, thus my emphasis on ‘stiles’ rather than bringing down every fence, as though fences themselves are the problem.
      As for that particular paddock, maybe my eyes were bad but I couldn’t see any cattle anywhere, thus my question of whether perhaps this particular fence was an historical artefact rather than an ongoing concern. Either way, glad for your engagement, and reminding us of the both/and here … as with the opener … ‘build a fence if you must … but be sure there’s a stile you can cross’. Blessings, Paul.

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  4. Not really a comment, just gratitude for your thoughts and words..

    By Iris White - 25th September 2020
    • Thanks so much, Iris. Just prayed a blessing for you today also. Dave

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  5. Thank you, Dave excellent thoughts. I believe that in the huge outback in Australia, many farmers have abandoned attempts to fence in their land and stock – its impractical and very expensive. Instead they dig more deep wells on their land offering plentiful, attractive, clean water – it keeps the livestock together but through a very different principle!

    By Jeremy Clare - 25th September 2020
    • Hi Jeremy, great point. Yes, that’s *way* outback, like Anna Creek Station in South Australia – literally just under double the size of northern ireland for comparison. You’re subtly (though knowingly I’m sure) raising missiologist Paul Hiebert’s classic distinction between bounded-sets and centred-sets thinking – the former builds walls/fences to ask if you’re in or out; the latter places life in the centre (with few/no boundary markers to divide/’other’) and asks, are you moving toward, or away from, the centre (see https://danutm.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/hiebert-paul-g-conversion-culture-and-cognitive-categories.pdf for the original 1978 article). This feels like Aussie hour (apologies), but it’s been advanced well today by missiologists like Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch (intro/links at https://veritas.community/veritas-community/2013/03/13/bounded-set-vs-centered-set-thinking).

      My post is more about how to border-cross when others have built fences over which we have little control. But, your point raises the question of the church, itself, when our modus operandi is to build fences, ourselves being one of the ‘other’ groups. It’s very hard to build bridges and be agents of reconciliation when we’re one of the tribes/clans defining ourselves as over-against the world. Thanks for the interesting angle 🙂

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  6. very encouraging and helpful

    By Margaret Buergi - 25th September 2020
    • Thanks Margaret. Blessings as you build these stiles today.

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  7. Your final Frost quote is a favourite of mine, Dave. Thanks for using it! Back to metropolitan areas, where a gate, wall or fence is often built due to fear, to guard the owners stuff. Bit of a challenge there to examine the fear, and whether we could lose it, as followers of the Master, who wasn’t a great advocate of stuff…

    By Wendy Phillips - 25th September 2020
    • Such a rich line for sure! Thanks Wendy. It’s a tricky one this and I resonate with both examining motives and tearing down unnecessary fences constructed out of fear … but I’ve never been robbed, nor lived in a particularly sketchy or dangerous neighbourhood.

      On the pro-side for tearing down fences built in fear especially to protect our ‘stuff’ from have-nots, Proverbs 17:19b puts it plainly: ‘whoever builds a high gate [wall/fence] invites destruction.’ So there’s a sense in which our fear of being robbed (a bit like the misuse of the law) actually incites anger (or jealousy?) and seemingly justifies/warrants a fight and pillaging by the person shut out.

      But are all fences bad? Is all fear irrational and unfaithful? There are mixed interpretations, for instance, of Nehemiah’s first priority of rebuilding the wall around fallen Jerusalem to keep returning exiles safe from marauders and opportunists. This fear was legitimate, and the fence was fair. (Reminds me of another Proverb, 25:28, ‘Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.’)

      None of which challenges your point, but just thinking out loud about what it means as a follower of Jesus (who had no place to lay his head, let alone house to protect) to resist literal and sociological fences that separate us from our neighbours … and yet to be wise in a broken world where lack of boundaries (law, police, domestic violence, etc.) may facilitate abuse. As you said, it is a challenge to examine both our motives and the actual dynamics behind each and every wall. Thanks for provoking me to think!

      By Dave Benson - 25th September 2020
  8. Thank you for this thoughtful article. However, I’m wondering if Christians are not then to take a position on the great issues of today, but rather to be smoothers of the waters, like spiritual UN peacekeepers? Perhaps though Christians do take positions, but they pretend otherwise. And usually those positions are predictably establishment, safe, metropolitan, call it what you will. The accommodation with prevailing secularist dogmas can therefore make our voice and role indistinct and, ultimately, spiritually lacking. Are our neighbours more in need of reconciliation on such terms, or rather a prophetic jolt from spiritually captivated Christian advocates? Maybe both. Thank you again.

    By Mark Womersley - 26th September 2020
    • Hi Mark, thanks for engaging. And great question/qualification. Hopefully nothing in what I’ve written suggests that a missional posture of ‘peacekeeping’ and being agents of reconciliation precludes taking a position and necessitates supposed ‘neutrality’. With you, I’m advocating for a both/and. A lot comes down to the primary relationship that must be reconciled (as Paul clearly frames in 2 Corinthians 5) and the nature of ‘peace’.

      The primary reconciliation that we are called to extend is that of reunion with God. And while God’s offer is open and generous and full of grace, the first step of this bridge is repentance … a turning from our own way to align with the Lordship of Christ, before whom we are all found not simply unfortunately broken and thus divided, but in rebellion and thus needing to confess. So, the ‘bridge’ has a shape and a defined starting point, leading toward God, not just some vague sense of ‘getting along’.

      As for the nature of ‘peace’ – and without meaning to talk down the efforts of the UN, as we should where possible support any effort that works for the common good, partnering with fellow image bearers – it has substance. Beyond the mere restraint of fisticuffs (‘smoothers of the waters’ as you artfully expressed), we are ‘peacemakers’ in the sense of inviting others through reconciliation with God to then be rightly related with neighbour, nature, and self. So, our ‘bridge’ directs toward, and embodies, a life aligned with the peaceable reign of God, where Jesus alone is Lord.

      Putting this together, then, we speak the ‘truth in love’, embodying the just and peaceful reign of YHWH, as a prophetic sign of what the world one day will be when every knee is bowed and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord. When we stand *for* the kingdom, we surely (whether implicitly or explicitly) stand against all that is anti-kingdom and damages ‘peace’ rightly understood.

      All of that said, we carry out this mission in the loving way of Christ, not in some form of muscular Christianity principally concerned with asserting our position, winning an argument, reclaiming the culture in some sort of ‘war’, or getting our neighbours without the Spirit to act in line with what is the particular call of a community centred on the way of Jesus. The beatitudes, not identity politics, are the measure of our fidelity to this vocation.

      Appreciate your pressing in on this, as through the Centre for Culture and Discipleship, we’re desiring to form such ‘wise peacemakers’ who are agents of reconciliation precisely because they offer a prophetic jolt to all and sundry as they settle into life separated by fences which inhibit the journey to Christ.

      Hope that makes sense and isn’t simply my early morning pre-coffee rant! Grace and Peace in Christ. dave

      By Dave Benson - 26th September 2020
  9. So important now to enable people to communicate. With Brexit, BLM, LGBTQ and social media polarising people in the way they think I feel many stiles have been taken down in recent days. We have to wake up as the church and see what is happening

    By Penny Watson - 26th September 2020
    • I hear the yearning, Penny – praying this now, both for awareness, and courage to rebuild the crossings rather than set up shibboleths (Judges 12:5-6).

      By Dave Benson - 26th September 2020
  10. Dave
    great article and beautifully written. The law in England mandates that fence between gardens cannot be too high to prevent barriers between neighbours. We are in amicable dispute with our neighbour over the ancient line of our back fence and we have had to produce evidence from 1930 to convince him. I have been tempted to quote Prov 23:10 to him! At the front of our houses the whole road is subject a covenant that prohibits any kind of fence between gardens, which creates an open and friendly feel. You see neighbours and friends passing and can stop and chat.
    Borders between nations are more contentious and subject to international agreement. Occasionally they are disputed and wars have resulted. In Africa they were made often arbitrarily because of a river or lake but ignored ancient tribal borders and ethnicity. Today Africa suffers still from this colonial ignorance. How will the new border at Dover work or will the border now be between Kent and Sussex? Only after I January will we know.

    By David - 26th September 2020
    • Thanks for interacting David – a fascinating tour from your back yard to the corners of the globe … fences and borders are a powerful motif for probing our relationships and considering how we relate to our neighbours.

      By Dave Benson - 26th September 2020
  11. If you’re prepared to be a style or a bridge, be prepared to be walked over and tramped on.

    By John Fieldsend - 9th October 2020
    • Hi John, you make a fair point, and one that I touched on in the article. This, indeed, is the witness of Jesus’ life. Not as a doormat, or sadomasochism with no backbone to stand against evil. But rather, in the cause of love, to be prepared to be nailed to a cross, if that is the Father’s will. Certainly not ‘muscular Christianity’ of the culture wars, but aligned with our suffering servant Saviour.

      By Dave Benson - 10th October 2020

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