How to Build Bridges in a Polarized Age

You are here

How to Build Bridges in a Polarized Age

Login or Create an Account

With a account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


With Thanksgiving just a few days away, I have some friends who are seriously stressed about hosting dinner that day for relatives they rarely see. Some of it is anxiety about finding time to get all the food prepared or cooking up to the standards of their in-laws. But mostly what has them concerned is the conversation topics.

As one friend put it, “My husband is upset about the election and I know he’s going to want to talk about it, but I’m quite sure a lot of our relatives don’t feel the same way.”

Another person told me, “My sister and her husband are coming over and pretty much all they want to talk about is conspiracy theories. I don’t think there’s much truth to hardly anything they say. Usually they get frustrated with me when I don’t go along with their ideas.”

Of course, it’s not just Thanksgiving when this might be a concern. We can find ourselves at odds with others anytime we go on social media, in the classroom, in the breakroom at work, at social events, or even during fellowship time at church. We might pull away from individuals if they are too pushy or outspoken with their opinions, but also if they just express an opposing viewpoint about an issue that’s important to us.

In many ways, it’s become hard to have “normal” conversations. There are just so many controversial, emotionally charged and super-divisive topics on most people’s minds right now. There’s abortion, immigration, border security, the environmental movement, gay marriage, digital passports, vaccinations, government overreach, racial justice, domestic terrorism and gun regulation, to name just some of today’s biggest “hot button” topics. These are all issues that have contributed to the widespread polarization that we’re experiencing in the United States. Most people have definite opinions on the events of the day, even if they aren’t always well informed.

Not only that, many people have no qualms about “speaking their minds.” If we overhear others discussing the latest political controversy, we don’t think twice about jumping in and voicing a strong dissenting opinion or getting personal with our attacks. It seems like heated debates, contention, dissension and ugly falling-outs are becoming a way of life in our society.

And that’s exactly what Satan wants. He knows that when citizens, neighbors, relatives and brethren are estranged from each other, there won’t be strong nations, communities, families or churches. Jesus Christ’s powerful words are so true: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:22-32 Matthew 12:22-32 [22] Then was brought to him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, so that the blind and dumb both spoke and saw. [23] And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David? [24] But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow does not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. [25] And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: [26] And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? [27] And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. [28] But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come to you. [29] Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. [30] He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathers not with me scatters abroad. [31] Why I say to you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven to men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven to men. [32] And whoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whoever speaks against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
American King James Version×
; Luke 11:14-23 Luke 11:14-23 [14] And he was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spoke; and the people wondered. [15] But some of them said, He casts out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. [16] And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. [17] But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falls. [18] If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because you say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. [19] And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. [20] But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come on you. [21] When a strong man armed keeps his palace, his goods are in peace: [22] But when a stronger than he shall come on him, and overcome him, he takes from him all his armor wherein he trusted, and divides his spoils. [23] He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathers not with me scatters.
American King James Version×
; Mark 3:22-29 Mark 3:22-29 [22] And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casts he out devils. [23] And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? [24] And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. [25] And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. [26] And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. [27] No man can enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house. [28] Truly I say to you, All sins shall be forgiven to the sons of men, and blasphemies with which soever they shall blaspheme: [29] But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost has never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.
American King James Version×
). When there is major division in any body, it will be destroyed from within.

Obviously, we’re not always going see eye-to-eye with everyone we come in contact with. Our best friends are probably going to be those who share similar core beliefs. But even with people we feel close to, we’re going to disagree at times. With people outside of our close social circles, there’s an even greater chance that we’re going to clash on significant issues. Still, we shouldn’t allow these differences to create tension between ourselves and others. Romans 12:18 Romans 12:18If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men.
American King James Version×
tells us we should strive to “live peaceably with all men.”

This is a tall order. And the truth is, human beings on their own and without supernatural help, aren’t going to be able to put an end to the discord and strife we’re seeing in our nation and world. That will only happen with the return of Jesus Christ. However, we can do our part right now to build harmony with the people we encounter in our daily lives, starting with our Thanksgiving company. Here are some suggestions:

1. Disagree respectfully

If we’re not sure where others stand on a controversial issue, or we think they hold a contrary stance and aren’t open to hearing another perspective, it’s best to avoid that topic when we’re with them. We’re told in 2 Timothy 2:23 2 Timothy 2:23But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do engender strifes.
American King James Version×
to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife.” Rarely are we going to be able to change others’ opinions by challenging them intellectually.

Realistically, though, some people are a lot more confrontational than others. Not everyone will be content to let us “skirt the issues.” If someone brings up a topic with us and we disagree with his assertions, we’re going to have to communicate that. But we should do so gracefully. The Bible admonishes us to defend our hope in Jesus “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 1 Peter 3:15But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear:
American King James Version×
) and “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2 Titus 3:2To speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, showing all meekness to all men.
American King James Version×

Calmly state your personal beliefs about the issue, without any ridiculing, shouting, put-downs or personal attacks. Give the other person time to voice his own views. Listen carefully to what he has to say, without interrupting. It might sound to cliché, but after you’ve both shared your perspectives, if you still disagree (which is likely), suggest the two of you agree to disagree. Let him know you admire his conviction. Doing so will communicate that you still care about him, and keep the communication channels open.

2. Look for common ground

Rifts can intensify when the opposing sides see no common ground. But if we can agree on something, even a minor point, it can serve as a connector or bridge and will help us see the other person as a friend and not a foe. Even if we disagree on really significant issues, usually there’s something the other person said, believes or values that we can concur with. Maybe he has the same end goal in mind, even if we disagree about how to achieve it. This is what we should look for. Even the smallest points of agreement can pave the way for establishing broader agreement.

3. Keep a humble mindset

The purpose for discussions should be to gain a better understanding of a particular topic—not to promote our ideas, win an argument, or boost our egos. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out something others might not see or understand, but if we start trying to convincing them we’re right, strife is inevitable (Proverbs 13:10 Proverbs 13:10Only by pride comes contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.
American King James Version×

We should always approach disagreements with humility, willing to be shown another aspect of the subject we hadn’t considered before. Proverbs 1:5 Proverbs 1:5A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain to wise counsels:
American King James Version×
says “A wise man will hear and increase learning.” We might think we’re better informed than the person we disagree with, but we may still be able to learn something. Other people may have some unique insights. Humble people know they don’t know everything, and that there is always something to learn from everyone.

Even when we feel certain another person is wrong about a particular topic, we can at least try to learn how he came to believe what he does. That is what the apostle Paul did with the different cultures he encountered (1 Corinthians 9:19-22 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 [19] For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant to all, that I might gain the more. [20] And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; [21] To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. [22] To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
American King James Version×
). When we try to understand why others believe the way they do, even if we don’t think that way ourselves, it helps build connections.

4. Plan for “safe” conversation topics and activities

When it comes to get-togethers like Thanksgiving dinner, some controversial topics may very well come up, and we should have a plan in advance for dealing with it. If the conversation gets intense, try to treat everyone with respect, as was already mentioned. This will set the tone for your get-together, and others will likely follow your example.  

I’ve also found that it’s a good idea to come up with some non-controversial conversation starters in advance. That might include asking guests about recent or upcoming vacations, what hobbies they’re involved with, if they’ve read any interesting books lately, or to share stories about their childhood. Planning some activities like playing cards or games together can also be a nice way to build connections. Having some light-hearted, enjoyable interactions will help guests learn to appreciate each other, even if they disagree on issues.

5. Refuse to see those with opposing views as “the enemy”

A lot of the really sensitive “hot button” topics that society is preoccupied with right now can relate to our core beliefs. We can easily start seeing those who oppose these positions as our opponents. The trouble is, when we start doing that, we end up building even bigger chasms between ourselves and others.

The Bible says to “Let your light so shine before men” (Matthew 5:16 Matthew 5:16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
American King James Version×
). We won’t be able to do that if we cut off ties with all those who differ from us. And truth be told, we all need “balancing out” at times. We can’t have the “iron sharpens iron” conversations (Proverbs 27:17 Proverbs 27:17Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.
American King James Version×
) we need if we only associate with those who see all the issues exactly as we do.

When I find myself disagreeing with others, I remind myself that they’re not my opponents. If it is indeed true that they’re not “seeing” an important truth, that doesn’t mean they won’t see it down the road; they’re just not there yet. I also remind myself of times I was sure I was right, when I wasn’t. We need to keep in mind too that we’re all created in God’s image and have the same potential to be in His Family, and one day we won’t be separated by ideological differences. Remembering these things should help us be more patient with others when we have divergent viewpoints.

This world is filled with conflict, division and strife. The strategies mentioned here won’t keep the peace with everyone, but they probably will help with most. I’m grateful there are steps we can take to at least make our own personal spheres of influence a little more harmonious.