Political Borders in the Middle East: A Thorn in the Missionary Side

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By Brent Hamoud

The task of global missions in the Middle East must contend with a host of challenges, but perhaps the most prevalent obstacle confronting missionaries is political borders. These manufactured lines cutting land masses into nation-states are more stifling to Great Commission-inspired missionary ministry than we likely realize. The hard reality is that we operate in a world awkwardly fractured by highly regulated boundaries, and this political arrangement of territory and people comes at a cost to Christian witness by blocking missionaries from accessing people and preventing them from settling into places. Borders are thorns in the missionary side and the Church would enjoy more vibrant outreach if they simply loosened up.

Political borders may be fundamental in our world but they are not fundamental to the world. The nation-state system emerged from historical processes and has come to dominate the way we see the globe. As engrained in our mental maps as they may be, there is nothing primordial about such demarcations.

In the case of the Middle East, robust narratives of the region can be told by following plotlines about how borders were drawn, when they were drawn, and who did the drawing. It’s a drama with many scenes of white men in Europe looking at maps, though Arabs certainly played roles in their own stories. State entities were forged into existence by human will. The painful presence of disputed territories and occupied lands in the region is evidence enough that it was no act of the divine.

As problematic as the history of Middle Eastern nation-states may be, people have largely conformed to the shape of things. We learned to take the map that was handed to us and, like good schoolchildren, color within the lines. Even so, it is reasonable to take a step back and consider what we should make of these borders. Such a question is especially appropriate if we care about missionary work.

All can agree that the best part of the Middle East is the millions of people calling it home. They are more valuable than any resource extracted from the ground and more pleasant than any meal served on a platter. People are the object of the Church’s affections, and believers from the North, South, East, and West engage the region so that the good news of Jesus Christ may be shared. The Middle East has long been a fascinating missionary context (it is, after all, the first missionary context) but its borders are terribly inconvenient and too often insurmountable.

Borders create a problem of access for missionaries. Their prevalence means that not everyone can go everywhere as authorities constantly enhance their capabilities to regulate who is welcome – and under what terms. It is common knowledge that some Middle Eastern states are extremely difficult to enter and have come to be known as “closed countries.” Even where entry is permitted, borders find different (bureaucratic) ways to ensure that their weight is always felt by anyone from the outside. If our ultimate concern is the flow of the gospel then this business of bulky borders is lamentable. Immeasurable opportunities for the body of believers to engage people for Christ are boxed out by the stiffness of such boundaries. But this was not always the case.

Christianity’s initial emergence exploded across land masses that were administered very differently than they are now, which allowed believers to move throughout territories to engage communities scattered across geographies. This is not to say that the early church did not encounter any type of boundaries – humanity has always successfully instituted means to divide its members, but pioneering missionaries never contended with anything as concrete as our current political borders.

Christian faith spreads when the Church is unabetted by entrenched barriers, and few barriers are more ingrained than nation-state borders. It’s an unfortunate irony that technological advancements in travel have been matched by an increased determination to regulate human movement. The world has become more restrictive just as it has become more reachable. Though it can be argued that strict border control is necessary for national security, we cannot deny that it is also a buzzkill for missionary work. (Unfortunately, much about the practice of missionary work itself is a buzzkill, but this is a topic for another post.)

Thinking beyond physical geography, borders effectively construct walls in nationality laws. Middle Eastern states, by and large, do not provide pathways for naturalization. Nationality is acquired at birth and usually transferred exclusively by fathers to children. Such rigid restrictions mean that one can be in the Middle East but never become of the Middle East. These institutional barriers make it a land of the ever-foreigner, a place of endless petitions for permission to be present. Pilgrims of all kinds are utilized but never absorbed.

A missionary can live in the Middle East, serve people, invest in the common welfare, and (partially) share in oppressions but never be permitted to become a citizen. This is a profound manifestation of borders; it callously decides who is worthy of a passport based on the happenstance of birth rather than the result of lived experiences. For all the material tonnage forming the world’s structural boundaries, a nation-state’s sturdiest bulwark is always the width of a piece of paper.

What does this mean for missions in the Middle East? It means missionaries can move to a part of the region but never truly settle. A departure is practically predetermined. The question, “when will you leave?” is asked nearly as soon as they arrive. Winds blow missionaries to Middle Eastern states and winds blow them out again; borders make sure roots remain officially superficial and vulnerable to violent ejection. Too many are the heart wrenching accounts of missionaries forcefully uprooted out and deported away.

The reign of borders contributes to a missionary model of “Go, Serve, Return,” which frankly makes the whole venture sound so much like…. a mission. Missionaries are seemingly sent to complete tours of duty or complete foreign assignments before eventually returning to the home country. The missionary vocation is packaged as a phase of life rather than a new type of life.

Given the harsh realities of borders, can missionaries in the Middle East be expected to embrace any other way? Efforts towards missional immigration, a permanent relocation for the sake of the gospel, are bound to hit walls ensuring that outsiders remain on the outside.

Missionaries prepare themselves to go, serve, and possibly die on the mission field, but do they even have it in mind to go, serve, grow old, and die on the mission field? Truly, this is a lot to ask; why would anyone want to leave this world a foreigner in a foreign land?

It’s crucial to keep in mind that the work of missions is by no means limited to missionaries- thank God! The bulk of kingdom witness in the Middle East is done by local believers working within their own nation-states. One major consequence of borders is that it makes imperative the task to equip and support local believers to be missional within their own contexts. Our nation-state system means this is essential to any vibrant vision of global missions; it cannot simply be a possible strategy if the Church wants to minister to a world of walls. But how regrettable it is that borders also hinder Middle Easterners from accessing people within their own region.

Borders are a problem for missionary work in the Middle East and beyond, and the gospel could make the world a better place if they weren’t so rigid. I mean for this argument to apply to all national-state boundaries, for it would be un-Christian of me to argue for a loosening of borders in one region while affirming their tightening in another.

Christians often prop up and defend our political border dilemma. But I simply do not see how the Kingdom of God can be reconciled to any mentality that holds territorial divisions as something sacred. After all, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15), and how wonderful it is when they are not held back by borders.

Brent is a Programs Coordinator at ABTS and his life has been profoundly impacted by the service of missionaries to the Middle East.

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