Faith can help heal our polarized country

(RNS) — It’s commonplace today to say we are living in an era plagued by political, religious and social unrest. The barrage of headlines continually erodes our confidence in our national leadership and unravels the ties that bind our local communities together. Despite the tools we have to increase mutual engagement, our society is profoundly disconnected, and instead of promoting understanding, the isolation and competition these technologies seem to promote have affected our mental health.

We recognize all this, but we too rarely ask why this has come to pass.

The challenges we face today stem from a fundamental lack of compassion, empathy and genuine understanding. Social media platforms, while providing unprecedented access to information and to one another, somehow curb our ability to conduct respectful, nuanced conversations. While they provide superficial communication in abundance, we have lost sight of the importance of deep, meaningful dialogue.

It’s up to us to invest time and energy into building relationships with the neighbors we consider adversaries and seek to understand their perspectives. When we make this shift, our perceived enemies are suddenly revealed to be friends.

Two former Tennessee governors, Democrat Phil Bredesen and Republican Bill Haslam, who led the state from 2003 to 2019, have modeled these ideals in their podcast “You Might Be Right.” Now in its fourth season, the show reminds us of the power of dialogue and mutual respect. Their conversations, which feature guests from opposing sides of a given issue in each episode, are a call to action on the importance of finding common ground.

The governors’ friendship offers a valuable lesson: Respect cannot be extended without humility. Arrogance or pride have no place in the equation if progress is the goal. Only through humility can we forge connections with our neighbors and tackle the complex challenges we face together. When we stop defending our own viewpoints and earnestly seek to understand, we discover solutions that have long eluded us and grow in the process. 

But we can’t depend only on our political leaders to adopt the values needed to find the path out of brokenness and division. We need to turn to our faith communities.

Communities of faith are distinctively (perhaps even divinely) positioned to demonstrate how to build solidarity with one another. From the values taught in Scripture — humility, respect and love — we can create spaces in which groups of people from diverse backgrounds can come together to listen, learn and grow. 

Putting others’ ideas first is ultimately in our own best interest. Engaging solely with like-minded people limits our own potential and hinders our calling to share hope with our neighbors. As we build bridges, we invest in a healthier future for others and ourselves, mending past wounds and creating a ripple effect of positive change. 

Jon Roebuck, executive director for the Rev. Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership at Belmont University, the Christ-centered school I lead, has cultivated strong ties with Nashville’s Jewish community, allowing us to expand our knowledge, challenge our assumptions and develop a more well-rounded perspective. 

To that end, in February, Rabbi Mark Schiftan was appointed Belmont’s first Jewish faith student adviser, a position created from the groundwork laid by Jon and Mark’s friendship. Their work has been a catalyzing force for various interfaith initiatives, playing a pivotal role in fostering mutual understanding between Jewish and Christian communities on campus and throughout the city. 

This process, while sometimes difficult, is essential for fostering genuine connection in our community, and it leads to a greater capacity to love. The Gospels’ tenets of loving one’s enemy and neighbor are central to the Christian faith. Our commitment to these principles will enable us to open our doors wider to help our neighbors, bridge divides and mend ruptures in our social fabric.

There are many concrete actions faith leaders and members of faith communities can take to facilitate their own bridge-building. Interfaith events and dialogues that bring together members of different faith traditions in a safe and respectful environment allow for open and honest sharing. As a first step, congregations might develop resources to help their own members develop the skills needed for effective interfaith dialogue. 

Faith communities can collaborate on local service projects that address shared values and concerns, such as caring for the poor or promoting social justice. This allows members to work together toward common goals and build relationships and trust.

Having established their own ties, different faith communities can organize or support  initiatives in their areas meant to heal and transform the broader community. By doing this, faith communities can create a culture of compassion and understanding that extends beyond their own walls.

L. Gregory Jones. (Photo courtesy of Belmont University)

While we seek to build bridges and cultivate understanding, let us remember the Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which reminds us that our view of the world is like a dim reflection in a mirror. May we approach one another with compassion, grace and a willingness to listen as we pursue our convictions to bring about a better world, share hope with our neighbors and create a society where all people can thrive.

(L. Gregory Jones is the president of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to his appointment at Belmont, he served as the longtime dean of Duke Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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