Bosnia is a beautiful place full of incredible people.
But it’s also a deeply divided society recovering from a vicious war in which 100,000 lost their lives and 2.2 million were forced to flee from their homes (in a country of just 4.2 million at the time).
Bosnia’s social divisions along ethnic and political lines have resulted in a polarized political world that remains completely deadlocked.
But societies everywhere are polarizing.
Brexit has demonstrated and stirred up social divisions in England, Scotland and especially Northern Ireland.
Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey and so many other places are also experiencing deep social rifts as internet and cable news allow segments of society to live in information and opinion silos.
As Bosnia’s social and political divisions make obvious, this level of social fragmentation is a threat to democracy.
A functioning and successful democracy in any country depends on people sharing a common set of reliable facts, goodwill across ideological barriers and a certain level of trust in traditional institutions (for example, the free and independent press, the courts, law enforcement agencies and so on).
Unfortunately, each of these is getting lost as many Americans choose the relative comfort of living in an ideological echo chamber and quarantining themselves off from those they politically or otherwise disagree with rather than doing the hard work to understand the fears and hopes of those from other backgrounds.
A friend recently told me, “Rather than Bosnia becoming more like America, America is becoming a lot more like Bosnia.”
Bosnians look onto the vicious exchanges between political parties in the U.S. with a certain amount of grief.
Although many feel the West has made a lot of harmful mistakes in the Balkan region, they strongly prefer American leadership in the world to an autocratic Russian or Chinese influence.
While we grieve and become frustrated about social fragmentation in the U.S. and rhetoric that dehumanizes people, our Bosnian friends often remind us of what is so great about America and why its ideals, although imperfectly enacted, are desperately needed in the world today.
So who will get us out of this mess? It will not and can never be a single political leader or news outlet that will reverse our current trend toward partisan fragmentation.
Overcoming and healing social divisions (that is, peace building) in the U.S. requires you and me.
It requires normal people from every side of political, ideological and religious divisions. It requires all of us.
The only way that political leaders can be held to account to build bridges across fractures in society is if those who voted for them hold them accountable.
Democratic leaders will only listen to their Democratic base, and Republican leaders will only listen to their Republican base.
Whatever side of the aisle you are on, we all must hold our leaders to a higher standard that humanizes and recognizes the basic dignity of those on the other side if we are to stop and reverse this trend toward social fragmentation.
How should followers of Jesus respond and contribute to peace in our divided societies?
- Our primary loyalty should always be to Jesus, God’s mission to restore holistic peace and Christlikeness.
If our hope or well-being is anchored in America or a specific political party, we’re likely going to be anxious, frustrated, disillusioned, disappointed and angry.
When our first loyalty is to Jesus and Christlikeness, however, our hope is tied to Christ, so we are freed to critique our own side and work for God’s peace with everyone, even those from other sides of social divisions.
We know God works in unexpected places – so loyalty to Christ, rather than a political party, allows us to see God working even in those we don’t agree with, without feeling threatened that our side is “losing.”
- We’re called to love our neighbor and our enemy.
That means listening first. Even though we might disagree with another’s positions, narrative empathy helps us understand another’s story. It humanizes them and their journey.
This requires self-reflection, deep listening to those we think are flat-out wrong, and oftentimes repentance. They’re not evil. They’re not out to get us.
Like us, they’ve been wounded and have reasons, quite often good ones, for the beliefs and stances they hold.
Narrative empathy can grow when we take an intentional posture of humility, learn from diverse news sources and personal stories from other groups and develop an understanding and compassion for another’s story that helps us love others on the journey they’re on.
- Although the church’s reputation is severely tainted due in part to the role Christians have played in historical and current social divisions, the church is at a crossroads that presents a unique opportunity.
If we refuse to be held captive to a tribal political allegiance and instead recognize the centrality of “shalom” in God’s mission, we can recapture the centrality of living as God’s ambassadors of reconciliation, as peacemakers (see Matthew 5:9, 1 Corinthians 5:20).
To do that, we must develop narrative empathy for folks who are from other backgrounds and hold our elected leaders to a minimal standard that they speak of others in ways that recognize their dignity and worth.
If the church takes a stand to live with narrative empathy and hold our leaders to a higher standard, Christians and the church can play a vital role in helping to heal our divided societies and our divided, globalizing, beautiful world.
Bryan Carey works with local Muslim and Christian peacemaking organizations in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina, as a representative of Peace Catalyst International.