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Ok, so the bridge metaphor is getting a bit old for me.  Well-meaning, lovely, peace-loving folks use it all the time.  I used to say it too.  But, after these last couple weeks, I need to call bullshit on some bits of how we use the terms such as “burning bridges”, “bridge the divide,” “build bridges,” etc.  We need to be much more careful and articulate about what we’re calling for in this state of divided communities, politics, and ideologies rather than sloppily bandying about phrases that don’t mean anything.

I saw this on Facebook this week:

There are two Americas and we have no contact.” - Stanley Hauerwas
As Christians, aren’t we called to bridge this divide with love, grace, and compassion?

Short answer to the post's question is YES.  Of course.

But the long answer is “bridging this divide” between two places that have no contact requires quite a bit of planning, forethought, measuring, surveying, and considering issues of consent before we go charging in with our love, grace, and compassion.

Consider with me geography that lends itself to bridge building:

  • Is a bridge necessary?
  • What two entities are we trying to connect? Islands? Two sides of a river gorge? Two buildings?
  • Is one perceived to be a mainland, or are they equal in size and power? 
  • Are you building a bridge in order to talk to each other, and, if so, is a bridge necessary for that just yet? 
  • Is the bridge going to be used as a link but will separateness be maintained?
  • Do you have planning permission or consent? 
  • For whose benefit are we building this bridge?
  • Do you want to build the bridge in order to colonise?  Is the land cheaper but more fertile for your own ambitions over there?
  • Are you willing to build the bridge from dirt from your own land, making a causeway?  Or is it made of materials neither side has? 
  • What about a ferry or cable car – are those acceptable alternatives?

There’s a part of me that is being deliberately provocative and pedantic here.  Of course I support peacemaking and reconciliation.  Bridges can be a good thing.  They often support free movement, communication, relationship building, and integration.

But I’m not naïve about bridges, both in the figurative and literal senses.  I’ve stood in silence marking the spots on two different bridges in Sarajevo where both World War I and the 1990s Bosnian war started.  I’ve sat on the bank of the Danube in Novi Sad, Serbia and memorialised 1,300-1,500 Jews, Serbs, and Roma who were pushed out onto the icy river and drowned near the Vardin bridge in the middle of winter in 1942.  That same bridge was destroyed by NATO bombing in 1999.  I think of the marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I spent my high school years 15 miles from where Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 after most likely being thrown off the bridge over the Tallahatchie River, but never heard a word about it until I was an adult and had been gone a decade or more. And I’ve learned about city planners who used highways and bridges to bypass, cut off, and contain poor neighbourhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina and Belfast, Northern Ireland.  I know that bridges, in and of themselves, are neither a good or a bad thing, but it is how they are used that dictates whether they are of benefit to the communities they supposedly connect.

 Courtesy of the  Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

It’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time talking to, reading, and listening to folks who are legitimately under siege, whose bodies are being abused, whose spirits are being crushed, and whose communities are in pain. In times like these, you know what people who are under siege do?  They raise the drawbridge or they burn it. Burning bridges is often a tactic for survival.  

I might need forgiveness but I’ve just stopped having certain conversations. I can’t handle it anymore. I need to live.
— from a black, queer clergy person on Twitter

Other times, bridges are burned through sabotage, either to disrupt, hamper or limit movement, or isolate.

Bridges don’t burn themselves.  Bridges don’t build themselves.  They are a product of our own activities.  They expedite travel and communication, making it safer.  We place our trust in the foundations, which hold the pilings in place in the midst of strong currents.  Bridges collapse when we don’t pay attention to and maintain those foundations.  That strong relationship we thought we had after we see the bridge collapse?  Yeah, not so much.

Here’s the thing:  we can’t go around building bridges without foundations if we expect them to last any longer than the next storm.  The systems upon which many bridges were built are rotten and need to be replaced.

Building bridges is a risky, expensive, and time-consuming business.  You’re not just slapping a bit of tarmac down.  You have to assess the depth of the water, the quality of the bedrock underneath, the strength of the current or wind through the gorge.  Temporary structures have to be put into place, measurements have to be correct, and everything has to be anchored securely.  This is not a job for the faint of heart or those looking for something quick to feel good about.

So let’s drop the bridge metaphor for a little while.

There is no peace without justice.  There is no reconciliation without peace.  By calling for bridges to be built and for communities to be reconciled without dealing with the justice issue underlying it all is, at the best of times, naïve and, at its worst, damaging. How is it damaging? Because when we call for reconciliation without addressing justice, we are telling those in pain that their need for justice is subservient to our need for reconciliation.  Furthermore, we cannot force it: both sides have to want it.  Even reconciliation requires consent.

The great Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, recently spoke at a Presbyterian Church USA conference on race called #DisGrace16 and she had strong words to say to the majority white denomination:

I can’t fix this any more. You have to fix this. You,” Butler said, her voice rising in anger.

“That’s white supremacy that asks me to come and bare my heart to you,” taking her energy to talk to whites about racism. “We’re still cleaning up your mess. We’re done. I’m done” – Butler said she’s not willing to clean the latrines for the whites any more.

Or another perspective made clear on Twitter based on the recent episode of Theology Live which considered the #WhiteChurchQuiet hashtag:

Racist Theology is expecting black people to instantly forgive when their children have been shot.

So, what's my point? 

Slow down.

Ask questions first.

What assumptions do you have about those who are on the other side?

Do you know why they do what they’re doing?

Do you know how they feel?

Do you understand and see things from their perspective?

When you call for peace, love, and forgiveness, could it be interpreted as silencing their pain and calls for justice?

Listen. 

Demolish the rotten. 

Work to create better foundations.

THEN we can talk about building bridges.


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