How to Build Bridges in a Polarized Age

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How to Build Bridges in a Polarized Age

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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; Luke 11:14-23; Mark 3:22-29). 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 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 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) and “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).

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).

We should always approach disagreements with humility, willing to be shown another aspect of the subject we hadn’t considered before. Proverbs 1:5 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). 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). 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) 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.