Cold War era European border crossings remind me of Walmart at 9:30 P.M.: you see people you only every imagined but never thought existed. When traveling the former East-bloc, the safest places to me were away from the borders. Borders held up vagrants, riff-raff, criminals, con artists, predators, not to mention emotionally anxious people who would do perhaps anything to have a guard let them through. Gypsies, too, though they are not all suspicious characters. In 1990, however, the hair on your neck would bristle when their men would nonchalantly mill around you, feeling you out without even giving you a glance.
Germans call a border a Grenze, which sounds like onomatopoeia for the gutteral warning it is. If ever you could bank on a tense moment, your heart rate was sure to increase when pulling up to an East bloc border. My father was a pro at getting through these borders. Each trip to the East, he would pack the vehicle with Cocoa Cola and candy bars. The drive to Baia Mare, Romania was typically 24-hours, so I originally thought the sugar was meant to keep the drivers awake. We tended to plow right through, swapping drivers every few hours or so. Giving the destabilizing nature of the East, it was inadvisable to stop along the route for the night.
My dad had another idea for the Coke and chocolate. As our car approached the dirty, mercantile-grey Hungarian-Romanian border, an emotionless border guard would sinisterly wave us to the “preliminary” border. The guards were often middle-aged men, but many were boys or looked like little boys anyways (Our Eastern neighbors didn’t use steroids in their foods, so a 30-year-old woman looked 14-16 and a 40-year-old man looked 18-22. One Christmas I went carolling hand-in-hand with a “little girl" I thought to be 8 or 9, only to find out later that she was older and sure I was going to marry her). If inclined, the guards would harrass and intimidate you. The rules for this were random which, I learned, is why my dad had the Western goods stashed in the front seat. Sensing resistance from our guard, my dad would quiety slip him a Coke and candy bar. Instantly the overall mood would change.
The first emotion was surprise. At that time the East bloc did not commercially sport colors as bright as the red can of a bonafide American Cocoa-Cola. Amidst the toxic, industrial, grey tones, a Coke can was truly an aesthetically pleasing work of art.
The second emotion was one in which the guard was visibly tortured. Here was contrabrand he could sell on the black market for hundreds of Romanian lei (We would exchange our American dollars for lei on the black market. You couldn't beat the exchange rate). If caught, however, that Coke could could cost him his job or worst. The Romanian revolution in which the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu and his wife were chased around a courtyard and shot to death on Christmas Day 1989 had only taken place six months before my first trip in May 1990.
The third emotion was the passing from agony to resolution. The guard stashed the items into a shoulder-strapped bag he wore cross-torso, which, in retrospect, was probably used for contraband purposes anyway. Now becoming an accomplice to us Americans, he would smartly salute or wave us through.
I was morally conflicted when we would jettison past kilometers of cars in the slow lane, being given that ambivalent stare-down from Eastern drivers who assumed we made an exchange of some sort with the authorities. The slow lane would be at a standstill, and people would be outside their cars walking, smoking, talking, and eating. Speeding by, I would cheerfully smile at them as if to say "You have to understand one thing about us Americans: RONALD REAGAN."
One time it didn’t work so easily for us. According to 1990 Romanian border-customs, Americans could not enter the country unless given an invitation from a distinguished resident of Romania. We had our letter of invitation, we had our passports, and we had an inventory of everything we were bringing into the country. Nevertheless, at the discretion of the border guard we could be made to empty our car and reinventory everything on spot. This was unacceptable to my father and a dread for me, because I would secretly pack items not on the official inventory. Like the extra deoderant and hair gel I would stash for my friends.
What the guards really wanted was a portion of the goods we were bringing into the country. But they wouldn’t ask for it, I suppose because then they could be accused of extortion. They had other ways. They would detain you, interrogate you, disappear into the little sentry box for copious periods of time, occasionally peeping out the window at you, laboriously practice their English on you by dramatically flipping through each passport, butchering names on purpose so you would end up correcting their English enunciation and then they would in turn correct you for correcting them. They wouldn’t ask for anything, but they would jostle you into a position in which you would suggest that they take what they wanted.
On this one occasion the guard did not sense our cooperation. He disappeared as we watched ongoing action ahead of us. Another Romanian guard had ordered everyone off a Hungarian bus—thirty people or so. A young man, who was hiding inside, tried to run out one end of the bus to bolt for the border. Why, I don't know. He was easily apprehended, slapped, and punched right in front of us. At that point we struck some sort of satisfactory deal with the Romanian guard and were soon on our merry way.
Culturally we have been at a border ourselves, riding an epochal wave into a new era. No one really knows the rules of the game because people groups, being separated by at least 150 –1500 years of dictatorial oppression are all now thrown into the mix by the upheaval of an atheistic system underpinning a variety of oppressive regimes no longer compatible with the new world climate of democracy or, as I like to think of it, "spirit." Stone Table, the school I founded in 2000, is a place where we intentionally teach students to disentangle the “rules” of the new cultural game and guide them to design innovative ideas and products that can facilitate the inescapable changes before us, bending them into legitimately beneficial forms NOW before competitive, authoritarian forms become galvanized for the next 200 years, largely because of Christian pessimism and apathy.
I am quite certain that is a legitimate part of the Great Commision: spatially pushing back the barriers of oppression from your mind to your bedroom to your driveway to your front yard, and so on and so forth, creating increasingly larger spaces or "forums" where persons, families, people-groups, and nations can be funneled into a new cultural light supportive of generic, Biblical ends. After all, those ends are intrinsic to the universe anyway, so peace on any front (be it psychological or international) only seems possible by aligning with that liberal reality.