Borders as Fiction

According to a report by the U.S. intelligence community, in the coming decades, “governments will have less and less control over flows of information, technology, diseases, migrants, arms, and financial transactions, whether legal or illegal, across their borders…The very concept of ‘belonging’ to a particular state will probably erode.” To use Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, nation-states are imagined communities of relatively recent date, rather than eternal or inevitable realities. In recent years, many of these communities have begun to reimagine themselves substantially, even to unimagine themselves our of existence. In Europe, loyalties to the nation as such are being replaced by newer forms of adherence, whether to larger entities (Europe itself) or to smaller (regions or ethnic groups). It remains to be seen whether or not the nation-state will outlive the printed book, that other Renaissance invention that may also fade away in the coming decades. If even once unquestioned constructs like Great Britain are under threat, it is not surprising that people are questioning the existence of newer and still more artificial entities in Africa or Asia, with their flimsy national frontiers dreamed up so recently by imperial bureaucrats. As Paul Gifford notes, many Africans live in mere quasi-states: “though they are recognized legal entities, they are not, in the functional sense, states.” – Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p 10-11

This is a fascinating observation. The idea we have of nations is not how it has always been. Kingdoms didn’t always range across entire geographical areas. They were more often city-states, not nation-states. People most often identified themselves by ethnicity, Gauls instead of French, Anglos instead of English, etc. This idea is beginning to reassert itself in ethnic or religious subgroups; Kurds, Croats, Shiites, etc. since the end of the Cold War which seemed to press the world into the nation-state mold.

What Jenkins is hinting at is that modern technology may help accelerate a return to that kind of identity. Instant communications across the globe transcend the old geographical borders of rivers, mountains, deserts, seas and distances. The lines on the maps are becoming meaningless and blurred by such technologies. How can nations regulate the Internet for example? What is illegal to post on the Internet in America is legal in Sweden and accessible in America.

This “coming change” is not a problem for global Christian missions. If you take a look at Operation World you’ll see that though it is grouped by nations, when it comes down to the people they are grouped by tribes, tongues, and other factors that transcend national borders. The Chin people are a tribe that live across the Burma/India border. The Chin people are neither Indian nor Burmese, they are both. Christian missionaries are not interested (or at least should not be interested) in reaching “nations” but in reaching “peoples”. We don’t declare a nation to be reached with the gospel as often as we do a people group. Christian missions will survive any mega-shift in this area because we have never been bound to the old model. We use it when helpful, observe it when necessary (visas and passports), and ignore it otherwise.

But I think the story may be different for Islam. Their idea of mission is very much tied to national identity. Iraq is a “muslim nation” and so the more hardline Muslims want Sharia law instituted and they see it as jihad that American unbelievers are on their Muslim soil. The thought process is not so much for the conversion of the individuals but of the nations. If a mega-shift comes that largely dismantles the nation-states, I’m not sure Islam will know how to function. Those people groups that are already Muslim will likely remain Muslim. Those nation-states that are in flux, either moving toward or away from Islam, will not be so clear. This is especially ironic since when Islam started the region of the world it began in was pretty much like this. Europe had divided into nation states but Arabia was still largely tribal. Islam has so adapted itself to the world as it is that a shift in geo-politics will most likely throw them for a loop. For example, they may want England to be a Muslim nation, but when if England ceases to be a unified, identifiable nation?

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