The Problem with Building Bridges - Jayme R. Reaves

The Problem with Building Bridges - Jayme R. Reaves

I’m tiring of the talk of bridges.

Well-meaning, lovely, peace-loving folks use the metaphor all the time.  I used to say it too.  But, after these last couple of years of hearing a lot about burning bridges, bridging the divide, and building bridges, I feel the need to call bullshit. What do these terms even mean? I think we need to be much more careful and articulate about what we're calling for in this state of divided communities, politics, and ideologies.

The Christian theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas once said "There are two Americas and we have no contact." Responding to this quotation on Facebook, a commenter asked “Aren't we called to bridge this divide with love, grace, and compassion?"

Short answer to the post's question is “Yes.” Of course.  Absolutely.

But the long answer is "bridging this divide" between two places that have no meaningful 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 or to support trade, 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 take over the land on the other side? Is the land cheaper but more fertile for your own ambitions over there?

  • Are you willing to build the bridge from dirt off 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?

Of course, I am being deliberately provocative and pedantic here.  Of course, I support peacemaking and reconciliation between divided communities.  Bridges can be a good thing.  They often support free movement, communication, relationship building, and integration.

But I'm not naive about bridges, both in the figurative and literal senses.  I've also 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 memorialized 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 into 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 otherwise contain poor neighborhoods 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 or not.

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 to bridges?  They raise the drawbridge or they burn it down. 

At times, bridges are burned through sabotage, either to disrupt, hamper or limit movement, or to isolate.  Other times, burning bridges is often a tactic for survival.  A black, queer clergy person I follow on Twitter declared recently: “I might need forgiveness but I’ve just stopped having certain conversations. I can’t handle it anymore. I need to live.” Similarly, Robert Jones Jr., known as Son of Baldwin, has famously said: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”  

Regardless of why, bridges don’t burn themselves, and, in the same way, 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 fail to pay attention to and maintain those foundations.  That strong relationship we thought we had until we see the bridge collapse?  Yeah, maybe not.

Here’s the thing:  we can’t go around building bridges without decent foundations if we expect them to last any longer than the next storm.  A relationship will not last – a bridge is not viable – if it is rooted in someone’s oppression. The systems upon which many of our 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 pavement down.  You have to assess the depth of the water or chasm, 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.

The great Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies and graduate chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke in 2016 at a Presbyterian Church USA conference on race 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…That’s white supremacy that asks me to come and bare my heart to you…We’re still cleaning up your mess. We’re done. I’m done.” 

When we talk about building bridges, we must remember that there is no peace without justice, and 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. 

It can be 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.  In the majority white, middle class audiences I speak to, there’s a pervasive spirit I hear that equals to a deep, but erroneous, question: “Why can’t we all just get along?”  It is borne out of a desire to see their communities and world at peace, but lacks an awareness of the injustice that prevents their desired peace from blossoming.  And while their desire for peace may be legitimate, it is also often tinged by what peace for them looks like: a return to the status quo, a return to comfort, order, and control.  What looks like peace for you may not be peace to your neighbor.

And, in the end, we cannot force it: both sides have to want it.  Reconciliation, like everything else, requires consent.

So, what's my point? 

Slow down.

Ask questions first:

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

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

Do I know how they feel?

Do I understand and see things from their perspective?

Am I willing to submit myself and my privilege to their need for justice?

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


Demolish rotten structures and systems. 

Work to build better foundations.

Then – and only then - let’s talk about building bridges.