The Common Good
May 2013

Friends Without Borders

by Shane Claiborne | May 2013

Can getting to know people on the "other side" help tear down the walls between us? It already has.

IT'S BEEN SAID that one of the most radical things Jesus did was to eat with the wrong crowd. Undoubtedly, folks on the Left were frustrated with Jesus for making friends with Roman tax collectors. And folks on the Right were surely ticked at him for hanging out with Zealots. Dinner must have been awkward with both of them at the table; after all, Zealots killed tax collectors for fun on weekends.

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But Jesus was a subversive friend, a scandalous bridge-builder, a holy trespasser. Just as we are known by the company we keep, so was Christ—accused of being a "glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34). He was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a traitor. He got in trouble with the religious elite for crossing the line, overstepping purity laws and cultural norms, and disrupting the status quo. His love had no bounds and his friendships defied categories. He insisted on calling his followers friends: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends" (John 15:15).

Jesus made friends—with folks who adored him and folks who hated him. He sat with the woman at the well, washed the feet of his disciples, wept at the death of his buddy Lazarus, and loved his mom and dad. But his love went beyond borders. He redefined family, inviting his followers to be "born again" and discover an identity that runs deeper than biology. He challenged the chosen and included the excluded—in the family of God.

I wonder who Jesus would be hanging out with if he were around today?

DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS has been around for a while—medical folks who venture into some of the most troubled, conflict-ridden regions of the world to provide medical care. In fact, they won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. Now, inspired by a similar vision, there are Engineers Without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders, Scientists Without Borders. Before long, maybe there will be "Politicians Without Borders." (Wouldn't it be nice to hear a president end a speech with "God bless the world" instead of "God bless America"?)

Each of these peace guilds is a little conspiracy of hope in a fear-strangled, border-obsessed world. These little clusters are like anti-terror cells of like-minded and like-skilled people ready to risk their lives and use their gifts—to interrupt death.

Meanwhile, it feels like it might be time for a popular, grassroots movement of ordinary citizens, who have caught a similar vision for a borderless world—a movement of friends without borders.

THE VISION FOR Friends Without Borders started after a couple of trips to Iraq. One of the most powerful experiences of my life was in Iraq in March 2003: a modern remix of the good Samaritan story. As we were leaving Baghdad after the "shock-and-awe" campaign, my friends and I had a terrible car accident on the desert road near Rutba, Iraq—and the people of that town saved our lives. As they took care of us, we found out that three days before, our government had bombed their hospital. The bomb hit the children's ward. And they still saved our lives.

It was so transformative that two of my friends from that 2003 Iraq trip named their community down in Durham, N.C., "Rutba House," hoping to practice the same boundless compassion we received in that little town of Rutba.

It was always our dream to go back to Iraq and continue to build friendships.

In 2010, we got our wish. I was able to go back to Rutba, with several of the friends who had been in the accident, to visit the people who saved our lives. We heard them talk about the rescue not as something heroic, but as a gesture of genuine love. One of the doctors said, "When we saw you bleeding, we did not see you as an American or as a Christian or Muslim; we saw you as our own flesh and blood, as our own brothers and sisters."

I later heard of the risks they were taking to show us hospitality and build friendships with us. At one point we were invited to tea at the home of one of the town elders. We were excited to go, but our Iraqi guide refused. Later he told us that we would have been fine, but it was likely that after we left, the generous old man would have been killed for hosting us. Then my Iraqi friend said, "But you should be grateful. He knew the price of his invitation and was willing to risk death to extend hospitality to you."

Our hosts in Rutba risked their lives to make sure we were safe. One time they mentioned that some folks might want to kill us. "But don't worry," they said. "We will protect you." They slept by our beds with AK-47s. It didn't fit into my theology, but I was so thankful for their amazing hospitality!

One of the most stunning moments from that second trip to Iraq was when we met with the mayor of Rutba. We were paraded into his office like heroes, accompanied by the doctors who had saved us, the real heroes. As we retold the story, the mayor was radiant with joy. Then the mayor gave a moving speech, essentially saying, "Friendship like this changes the world."

He went on to insist that we needed to keep the friendships growing, explaining that he would like to see an official sister-city friendship with a city in the U.S. I quickly spoke up, volunteering Philadelphia, the "City of Love." The mayor shook his head to say no. "Philadelphia is too big. We are a small town; we need a little city in the U.S." He spoke to one of his aides in Arabic, and then said, "Have you ever heard of Durham, North Carolina?" He explained that he had only been to a few places in the U.S., and Durham was a place he loved; it even reminded him of Rutba.

I was stunned. With a tear rolling down my cheek, I asked, "Did you know that we have a community in Durham called 'Rutba House,' named after your town?" Smiling with delight, the mayor threw his hands in the air, and said, "Then it is done! Durham will be our sister-city, and we will start a peace community here in Rutba—and name it 'Durham House.'"

Soon after settling in back home, pregnant with this idea of friends without borders, I heard about a budding peace movement in Afghanistan.

After three decades of war, a group of young people in Afghanistan began to organize and dream, with a spirit of youthful idealism (their blog is "Our Journey to Smile"). They became students of the heroes of nonviolence, such as Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. Some of them even headed to India to visit Gandhi's ashram, and they came back to Kabul and started their own community.

Before long they had a full-on peace movement on their hands, getting the attention of Nobel Peace Prize winners and leaders across the globe, marching in the streets, planting trees, building parks as monuments of peace. And what were they asking for? Friends. They were looking for 2 million "friends" around the world, a number that matched the 2 million Afghans who died in the past three decades of war. At its core the youth movement in Afghanistan has the innocence of children, who Jesus said lead the way into the kingdom. From early on their motto has been, "Even a little of our love is stronger than the wars of the world."

They started wearing blue scarves as a symbolic reminder that there is one blue sky that connects us all. Folks around the world have begun wearing blue scarves in solidarity with them.

My relationship with the Afghan youth started as a virtual one. We brought in the New Year on a 24-hour "Skype-a-thon" with the kids in Afghanistan. We had a Skype call where the kids on my block in inner-city Philadelphia got to talk with the kids in Kabul, sharing dreams about a world free of violence, a world where they don't have to worry about their friends getting killed. It was a magical moment, as you could see the kids in North Philly realize they had the same dreams.

But nothing can replace real friendships. So it's been a dream to head to Kabul and become real friends with folks I had only seen on the computer screen. I started plotting a trip.

In December my dream came true. I flew over the snow-capped mountains of Afghanistan and landed in the desert of Kabul. The trip was far too brief, but it was a good beginning. We told each other stories, laughed, showed each other pictures, sat around a fire, ate meals—and worked on a puzzle of the world. There was something deep about putting the world back together on the floor of their community house in Kabul.

I brought back gifts from the Afghan young people to the kids on our block. Now each kid on our block has an Afghan dollar and a blue scarf to remind them of their friends in Kabul.

SO A MOVEMENT of Friends Without Borders now is stirring. Here's how we've attempted to put words to the movement: "It is a bridge-building movement of international friends, many of whom live in nations that are at war ... convinced that the things we have in common are more powerful than the things that tear us apart ... Our goal is to crack the walls of fear and exclusion. Our dream is to humanize folks we have only been conditioned to see as 'enemy'—learning to see them as 'friend.'"

We've seen youth groups in the U.S. become pen pals with classrooms in Gaza. We've seen entire schools decorated with blue scarves in solidarity with their Afghan friends. The Afghan youth have had phone calls with folks like Noam Chomsky and had visits from legendary peace activists like Kathy Kelly, John Dear, and Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire. The Afghan youth movement, now known as the Afghan Peace Volunteers (APV), has become one of the clearest manifestations of the friends-without-borders movement. And they have offered an open door to anyone who wants to visit them in Kabul.

There is nothing that will fuel our fire for peace like knowing the victims of war. Nothing will make us want to end war as much as knowing those who have felt the bombs and heard the buzz of the drones. Once we are friends with folks in the most troubled regions of our world, we can't help but become activists.

That's why friendship is so powerful. So often, the problem is not that people don't care about each other, but that they don't know each other. We don't know the folks on the other side of a wall or a bomb or a mean email. We don't know who makes our clothes. We don't know who picked our tomatoes. We don't know any Iraqis or Afghans or Palestinians. What will change the world will not simply be campaigns, but relationships. We will not "Make Poverty History" until we make poverty personal. We will not end wars until we become friends with "the enemy."

Friends Without Borders is a simple vision to create a web of friendships across the walls of conflict and war. Some folks have called it eHarmony for reconciliation or Facebook for peace. We have folks literally around the world getting to know each other.

Recently I was on an international conference call with people from Gaza to Syria, from Canada to Sudan, just listening to each other's stories. A lot of Christians and a lot of evangelicals are a part of this, but so are people of all faiths and no faiths. And that's the idea—we don't need to be afraid of each other.

But it's just one tool to try to build bridges rather than walls. The hope is to create virtual on-ramps that can lead to real friendships. And it's happening. It's all pretty informal. We've had delegations to Iraq and Afghanistan like the visits I've been on. Elementary schools have created pen pals between classrooms in the U.S. and in Afghanistan.

Who knows where the movement will take us next? Perhaps we'll raise a million dollars to rebuild the hospital in Rutba. Perhaps we'll see the 30,000 kids waiting for surgery in Iraq decrease to 25,000. Perhaps we'll see the wall come down in Israel/Palestine. Perhaps we will see the war end in Afghanistan. Perhaps we'll see an end to dehumanizing drones. I hope so. But I do know this—friendship is a good place to begin.

Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution, is a founder of The Simple Way (@thesimpleway) community in Philadelphia.

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