Can Gimli and Legolas help us learn how to bridge divides and advance the common good?
If these names are unfamiliar, they are two central characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series.
For context, there is a long-standing animosity between dwarves and elves in the world of “Middle-earth” that Tolkien created. Gimli is a dwarf and Legolas an elf, so their initial interactions were strained by a long and tumultuous history.
While collaborating to accomplish a shared goal, friendship flourished as they came to understand and appreciate the differences between their species as well as their unique perspectives.
As Christians, we should also recall the example Jesus set in gathering 12 disciples from disparate backgrounds – fishermen, a tax collector, tradesmen, a zealot – and teaching them the importance of moving beyond stereotypes and historical animosities.
So, what are three practical ways that we can learn from these examples to bridge divides, overcome historical tensions and collaborate for the common good?
1. Interact regularly with people who are different from ourselves.
If we’re only around people who look, think and act like us, our perspectives will inevitably be limited. We will be living, likely unaware, in an echo chamber, where only what we already know and believe are endlessly repeated.
While it can be disorienting to encounter other views, particularly if they differ significantly from our long-held positions, it is better to be challenged to reflect on what we believe – whether that be on religious, political or social issues – than to never be exposed to other vantages points.
It remains true that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and being around others with different ideas is an important means of ensuring that we regularly examine our lives.
This requires humility and patience as we listen more than we speak and genuinely seek to understand not only the content of someone’s views but the reasoning behind it.
The local church, in its most vibrant and constructive expressions, allows for just this type of experience within the Christian faith.
Congregations, at their best, are filled with people who share a common faith tradition but don’t think alike on every matter.
This unity amid diversity allows us to grow and mature through civil conversations about applying faith to day-to-day life.
In addition, engagement through dialogue and service with other Christian denominations and other faith traditions allows further exploration of diverse perspectives.
2. Read and watch broadly.
This goes hand in hand with the first point, as both are means to expand our exposure to different views.
The times that I have primarily watched only one cable news network, or read news from only one or two outlets, are when I became the most self-righteous and judgmental (perhaps, even disdainful) of people who thought differently.
Now, I do my best to watch multiple cable news channels, to read from various news websites and to seek to understand the perspectives and reasoning of those who are conservative, progressive and everything in between.
While there are plenty of times when I feel frustrated by what is being asserted (or, more often, how it is being presented), in the end I know I’m better off having exposed myself to other views.
3. Don’t avoid differences or lessen distinctives, but don’t focus solely on them either.
This is particularly important when it comes to interfaith initiatives. Too often interfaith engagement is perceived (and sometimes practiced) as a watering down of perspectives to the “lowest common denominator.”
Being the same should never be the goal of collaborative endeavors. People of faith can work together on common ground to advance the common good without either ignoring or trying to lessen our distinctives.
Robert Parham’s January 2016 editorial, “Prioritize Interfaith Engagement in 2016 – the Baptist Way,” offers helpful insight and practical advice for a constructive approach to interfaith initiatives.
Once we have identified and understood what makes us unique, we should find areas of agreement (which always exist no matter how great our differences might seem) where we can work together.
If the dwarves and elves can find a way to collaborate as friends, surely conservatives and liberals, Christians and Muslims, and all sorts of Baptists can too.