‘Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in‘.
– Leonard Cohen
I don’t know if Leonard Cohen ever made it to San Diego, but I wonder what he would have made of a scene I often like to cycle to on days-off. The particular spot is a bench on Mission Bay. From it it is possible to see in sharp relief two disparate worlds at once. To the Southwest is downtown San Diego, the heart of a city that so many people love to visit or to live in. It has a great climate, beautiful scenery, a laid back attitude to living, and if you have the means, a good life can be enjoyed here in the endless summer. Yet in the background of that American dream of a place, from my bench I can see another world, obscured by topography and showing little more than the hills in the distance, yet it is there, the city of Tijuana, Mexico, across the other side of the borderland we live in.
Some people would like to build a wall here. We already have a fence. You can see it at the retail outlets in Chula Vista. Between Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren the fence is close enough to make out the make of cars and the writing on billboards on the other side. Some exchanges are meant to keep us at a distance from one another, and others are intended for a closer encounter. This Saturday will see the latter as folks from my church – my church on both sides of the border in the dioceses of San Diego and Western Mexico – meet at the fence for a service of Holy Communion, passing sacred elements between the bars, like holy contraband at a prison visitation.
We live in an open-sourced world yet in many ways also in profoundly closed-off societies. In Holland and France, Australia and Switzerland, Britain and the US, there is something of an opposite and equal reaction occurring to the seismic shifts of postmodernity. From a globalized market to the apparent end states of civic institutions, the digital age has thrown us into an intimacy not entirely of our own making and we are reacting like a patient weaned from their opioid too soon. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the end of history and its triumph of liberal democratic values and multiculturalism. It is astounding to see how rapidly we have descended into a grim dystopian vision of nationalistic identity which leverages an economy of fear and misplaced anger. We hear that the reign of the ‘elites’ must come to an end, a blanket judgment cast upon intellectuals to politicians to anyone, frankly, who might claim any authorial voice other than the one purchased by wealth and outrage.
In such a torrid cultural landscape, it might be assumed that a borderland like San Diego-Tijuana would bear the marks of the apparent erosion of American values and the prospect of economic advancement for its citizens. Surely here the all-too porous lines of demarcation need shoring up. Get the bad ones out; keep the good ones in, is the mantra we hear. Yet as I sit on my bench and look out at the intersection of these two American worlds, what strikes me most is how little our life on this northern side of the line is influenced by the other world that lies to the south.
Homi Bhabha, postcolonial theorist and all-round difficult read, says that the third space between the two sides of a cultural encounter is a space of difference, where the identity of each is split between its appearance and its repetition. Each one mimics the other, and each incrementally alters the other as the encounter leaves a resistant trace of hybridity, where nothing after is quite the same as it was before. True enough, there is a considerable flow of economic goods and services across the Mexican border in this part of the world, and the cultural mores and cuisines can be seen and ingested, yet we in this border town are hardly changed at all, even incrementally, by the profoundly other existence of our fellow human beings to the south. For the truth is that such change requires the bridging not the walling-off of cultures.
Bhabha argues that bridges are for gathering as much as they are for crossing. The sharing of the broken body and outpoured blood of Jesus through the cracks in the borderline offer a hint of such a beginning. For when flesh touches flesh, when eye meets eye, when sorrow and silence is shared, we have a chance at communion, a communion no wall can render asunder. The great challenge facing the will of those who wish to wall off this open wound of a border is that once communion has been felt and lived and loved, it is a belonging not easily forgotten. So, go to the fence, and to the walls, and to the places where the cracks in our misunderstanding start to show, and look for light. There is no perfect offering. Just us. Now. One body, in the Body who made us all.