Peace during polarization: 6 tips for bridge-builders

Peace during polarization: 6 tips for bridge-builders

Juliane Hammer, author and scholar specializing in the study of American Muslims, speaks at the Interfaith Peace Conference on March 2, 2018.


LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. -- Can we talk? Connecting with people we don’t know, agree with, or understand is not easy. Yet, Christians are called to love their neighbors and live in community.

The 11th annual Interfaith Peace Conference, held March 1-4, 2018, at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, brought 200 scholars, community trailblazers, activists and dreamers from three faiths together to share ideas about how people with conflicting views can live in peace.

Here are six lessons culled from the gathering of great minds under the theme, “Meeting the Other: Can We Talk?”

See also: Peace Conference teaches value of holy conversation.



More than once, speakers at the Peace Conference spoke of fear, warning their listeners of the damage that can be caused by fear among people who disagree. “Fear is seldom wise and never kind,” said Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (quoting novelist Ursula Le Guin). 

The Rev. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP, lamented that fear of race had caused church leaders to “shrink back and become immobilized” when African Americans were brutalized and segregated. As you consider people who aren’t like you (but whom you may be called to build a bridge to), be watchful and mindful of the feelings and conversations around you as well as inside of you, Kreimer said.



It’s easier to connect with people when you know where they’re coming from, what has happened to them. Workshop leader Sajjad Hussain Changezi helped Peace Conference participants with “Understanding the Muslim Rage” by explaining the history of European colonization and the Muslim response – and the media’s influential portrayal of Islam over time. Spearman advised his listeners to “take a crash course in the histories of our religions” to help plow the ground between race divides.



“We are made in the image of God. We are all alike,” said Rabbi Philip Bentley of the Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The vision for unity and humans made in the likeness of God is present in Genesis 5:1 but also in other faith traditions, Bentley said. An English translation of the Quran says, “We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other.” Christians read Leviticus 19:18 as, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” yet a Hebrew translation of that scripture is, “You shall love your neighbor. He is like you.”



Kreimer spoke of “building your kindness muscles” when trying to build bridges. She also talked about her observations while working with college students, “who want so much to be able to say exactly what they think, all the time.” Sacrifice, she said, can be a “voluntary goodwill offering” when attempting to dialogue with someone who has a different view. To illustrate, Kreimer shared a poem by Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring … But doubts and love dig up the world like a mole, like a plow.”



Set a constructive tone. Listen in a way that helps the other person feel heard. Start at a calm moment and not after someone has fired off a verbal shot … These are practical skills developed by the organization, “Better Angels,” for talking to people across political divides. In workshops led by Kate Weinman Fisher and Julie Gordon, Peace Conference participants practiced speaking and listening skills that may be used for any conversation between people who differ but have potential to find common ground. Visit for more talking tips.



Juliane Hammer shared a conversation she had with family members who, as German Christians, feared that incoming Muslim refugees would taint their hometown. “How can good people reject saving strangers because something is unfamiliar about them?” asked Hammer, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hammer admitted she felt like a “total failure” for not convincing her relatives to think differently. 

Better Angels recommends abandoning the expectation that you can persuade a conversation partner to change his or her core attitudes and beliefs. Feeling uncomfortable and disappointed may come with the experience, Hammer said, “but it’s important to have these conversations." The ultimate goal is peace with the hope that a seed of new understanding can be left behind.


See also:
Peace Conference teaches value of holy conversation (The Call, 4.30.18)

Contact Annette Spence at



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Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.

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