Q&A with David B. Ostler, author of Healing Our Divides May 07 2024

We recently spoke with David B. Ostler about his newest title Healing Our Divides: Answering the Savior's Call to Be Peacemakers.

 Q: What inspired you to delve into the topic of peacemaking and healing divides, particularly within the context of religious and political polarization?

A: Bridges taught me that we have real limitations on understanding why people believe differently and how we relate to them. Although Bridges was about people who no longer believe in traditional LDS beliefs, I saw that this applies to other beliefs, particular about politics. I’ve seen how people are affected by the division and contention coming from different beliefs. I see families, congregations, and communities divided by different. I worry that our alienation is increasing causing us to separate into different groups unable, or unwilling, to engage with others.

Q: Could you elaborate on the challenges you faced while researching and writing the book, especially in terms of navigating differing perspectives and potential biases?

A: One challenge was seeing how natural it is to be caught up in difference and my own natural tendency to bias and contention. I don’t think I will ever get over it, maybe none of us will, but I found that I have a lot of work to do. I worry that people that know me well, will dismiss this message because they know I am still a work in progress.

As I studied Latter-day Saint teachings about contention, I struggled to know what I should do overcome contention in my own life. I questioned whether it was just better to retreat from these issues. But, I realize that the very issues that are most contentious are the ones that are the most important. It was hard for me to decide that part of being a peacemaker is to be engaged in the messiness of these different beliefs.

As I studied and wrote, I realized that I had very few tools to help me when I choose to engage. What did I need to do so that I could stay in the room with difference? Could I find ways to better understand why someone could believe something completely different than me? Could I respect someone who is my ideological opposite? I realized that I needed tools and I didn’t have them. I found some resources that had practical tools, but I realized that just understanding them academically wasn’t enough, I needed to engage with others and that would take me to settings with conflicting ideas. Often, I found that despite my best efforts, I couldn’t step back and remember tools. But, over time, I found that I could better remember and use those tools. I’m still trying, which is something we all need to do.

Q: Your book emphasizes the importance of understanding and respecting differing beliefs while fostering meaningful discussions. How do you suggest individuals approach conversations about contentious issues without furthering division?

A: Healing Our Divides gives some simple tools that all of us can use. I’m sure that there are others, but these ones worked for me. I think readers can find and learn a couple of tools that will work for them. I even give readers exercises where they can work with another, perhaps a friend or family member, to practice and try out these skills. If we can try, we will get better. Yes, we will make some mistakes and need to apologize and reset, but in the process, we will learn and provide examples to others that we can have positive discussions.

Q: In your research, what concrete approaches or skills did you find most effective in reducing contention and building bridges between individuals with differing viewpoints?

A: In-group bias is someone all of us feel. When we think of someone as in our group, we generally think of them more charitably. When we think of them as not in our group, we think of them more skeptically. If I am interacting with someone who beliefs or supports policies I don’t agree with, this bias means that I am naturally alienated from. In some situations, this can be defining. We might even label them in our mind with a negative political or religious label. This is reductive and alienates us. If we express it to another, it hurts them. But there are ways to eliminate this in-group bias. We simply keep a common identity in our mind. Instead of thinking about them in context of our difference, we can label them in our minds, as a brother, or mother, or a friend, or a child of God. With this commonality, we lose defensiveness and skepticism and find charity and connection. Likewise, we can refuse to use or think about another with any negative labeling, including words like brain washed, apostate, right wing nut job or America hating liberal. If we can see the divinity of another and the commonality we should all feel as children of God, we will see others in that light. It’s hard to be contentious with another how we dignify through their divine parentage.

Q: As a member of the Latter-day Saint community, how do you see the teachings and principles of the Church contributing to the efforts of peacemaking and healing divides, both within and outside the faith?

A: I was surprised at how many of our general Latter-day Saint leaders have condemned contention and today’s polarization and alienation. They clearly see how these forces are affecting not only Latter-day Saints, but our communities.

In April 2023, President Nelson taught that discipleship includes peacemaker. In his talk, Peacemakers Wanted, he said, “Brothers and sisters, we can literally change the world—one person and one interaction at a time. How? By modeling how to manage honest differences of opinion with mutual respect and dignified dialogue.” He believes that peacemaking can change the world. I think he is very aware of the fractures that existing in families, congregations and societies as a whole because of today’s curse of polarization and contention.

Q: Your book emphasizes the communal nature of healing divides and becoming
peacemakers. How do you envision individuals and communities actively engaging with the concepts presented in your book to create positive change in their spheres of influence?

A: Most peacemakers are going to influence just a few, likely with family members and a few friends. That can create a multiplier effect where those they touch end up touching others. I’m optimistic that this translates into a rejection and weakening of the forces that want to divide us further. There will be some that can organize in their communities or join and support peacemaking organizations. Perhaps there will be an issue that divides their community, and they can be peacemakers and help find effective ways to discussion these issues and find solutions that consider others and their concerns and needs. President Nelson said, “peacemaking is a choice.” When any of decides to be a peacemaker, we make a better world. It might be just in our families, or in how we help our children live in a contentious world, but it might also be in our communities. If enough of us decide to be peacemakers, we can prevail against what at times seems like unstoppable division and contention.

Healing Our Divides: Answering the Savior's Call to Be Peacemakers is available now in paperback and ebook.