I have been thinking a lot about borders lately. Most of the time they are imaginary lines that divide one people from another. An arbitrary division that creates at least two things, an idea of “us” and “them”, and a sense of entitlement based on where we fall within these strange lines.
I have been thinking a lot about borders while living in Seoul. I first realized this while I was riding a super cramped subway. A seat opened up, but I hesitated to take it, not because there was an old woman or a disabled man, but because I thought to myself “I’m an American, what right do I have to a seat on a Korean subway”. I am entitled to these things in the U.S. but not here. Then I got to thinking, what entitles then to these things and me to American things? Sure, I grew up in a place, paid my taxes, was educated in a particular system, and maybe even contributed something to society. But what entitled me to these things? I haven’t come up with a good answer. The best I have is that I somehow hit the genetic lottery. I was fortunate enough to be born on one side of a border rather than the other.
These thoughts about borders were going through my mind as I headed North out of Seoul on Monday towards Yangpyeong to attend the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace forum on migrant workers. This conference did a lot to reinforce these questions. For a brief background, ACRP is an inter religious group from 16 countries in Asia working together to promote peaceful society with a special focus on the role that religion can and should play within society.
My work for this meeting was to record the conversations, take notes during all the discussions, and help draft the mission statement for the conference.
Here is a brief summary of the issues migrants face:
We acknowledge that migrants are forced to adapt rapidly to linguistically, socially, culturally, and religiously, often being asked to leave their own identities behind. Migrants are often poor and uneducated and their employment in receiving countries is usually difficult manual labor. Physical and spiritual abuse from employers is rampant as migrants do not understand their rights or have no legal rights because of illegal status. Families of migrants who are left in the home country are subject to financial distress, struggles with changing family values, dependence on foreign income, increased materialism, and the disintegration of the family unit. Government policies do not adequately protect migrants and often contribute to their exploitation.
There is additionally the issue of racism and exclusionism in receiving countries, even those in which to work of the migrant has become a vital part of economic stability.
The discussion of these issues led me back to my question about borders. What made any one of us entitled to all that we have? Sure, many of us have worked hard for what we have. We have given a day’s labor and in return received a day’s wage. But what entitles us to live in a society where this just treatment exists? What about the migrant population who give a day’s work without receiving a day’s wage? Have we done something to deserve this when they do not? I was born on the correct side of a line and they were not. I am entitled to justice and they are not.
Religions, I think, have a unique role to play in this issue because they can provide a key part of a person’s identity, separate from that of nationality and ethnicity. Though everything else around them might be changed, if there is a place to practice their own religion, at least some part can remain in tact. Furthermore, though the countries sending and receiving migrants might be at odds with one another causing problems for the migrants, religious organizations are able to united across borders to provide aid. This is true even of different religions. As one chairman put it, “We cannot unite under the same doctrine, so let us unite in serving our poor neighbors.” Religions seem to understand that people are deserve the same justice, even when they are of different cultures.
But, while I was sitting in the room, attempting to facilitate communication between these diverse leaders, it seemed for a moment that borders mattered a whole heck of a lot. Thos invisible lines could make all the difference in the way a person thought, dressed, behaved, and believed. Yet, they were sitting down with one another to make hard decisions about implementing programs and setting standards for religious communities and organization to follow in their work with migrants. Earnestly evaluating what worked and what didn’t work in one another’s programs. And I was struck by something. Borders can inform our culture, heritage, and identity, but they cannot define what is means to be treated justly and with basic human dignity. There is no border for this except the one that surrounds mankind. This is the border that all these diverse leaders were working within. They were able to simultaneously acknowledge and respect the land borders that made them different from one another and the larger border of humanity that entitles a person to an honest days wage for an honest days work.
Oh, and did I mention that I got to wear one of those translation earpieces like they have at the U.N. and it was kind of a super awesome dream come true.
Or that I took like a million pictures and they all disappeared off my camera so all I have are the crummy ones from my phone. Enjoy Anyhow.
|My awesome hotel room, featuring traditional Korean floor sleeping.|
|Our group touring the Anglican Cathedral.|
|The Catholic Cathedral which we also toured.|