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This LDS author ruined relationships arguing about politics so his readers won’t have to

New book on peacemaking serves as a guide for navigating conflict — whether over religion, politics or whatever — with grace, confidence and Christian love.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) "Peacemaking is being able to engage in today’s difficult issues in a way that doesn’t create alienation or separation," David Ostler, author of a new book on navigating flammable topics, told The Salt Lake Tribune. "It doesn't mean that we avoid conflict."

David Ostler is tired of fighting.

Friends, family, strangers — Ostler has argued with them all over one issue or another in recent years, and to what end? It’s not as though the debates have been productive, and their costs have been steep.

“I’ve had conversations with people who are really good people who don’t see the world the way I do,” the retired business executive said. “And we end up alienated from each other.”

A former bishop (lay leader of a congregation), stake president (lay regional leader) and mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ostler was tempted to give up on meaningful dialogue with people he disagreed with.

(David Ostler) A former bishop, stake president and mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, David Ostler was tempted to give up on meaningful dialogue with people he disagreed with. But the author couldn’t stomach the idea of simply not talking about hot-button topics ever again. Instead, he got to work learning and implementing best practices for effective dialogue across political and other divides.

But the author of “Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question” couldn’t stomach the idea of simply not talking about hot-button topics ever again. Doing so, he said, “yields the ground” on important issues with real impact on people’s lives.

“I felt,” he said, “like I needed to be able to engage in positive ways on contentious issues.”

It’s a tall order and one he explores in detail in his new book, “Healing Our Divides: Answering the Savior’s Call to Be Peacemakers.” The practical guide is stuffed with tips (“eliminate political labels that demean”) and tools meant to empower readers who, like him, aren’t satisfied with simply talking about sports and the weather for the rest of their lives.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with him about what he learned through the process and what peacemaking means to him. (The following has been edited for length and clarity).

What was your motivation for writing this book?

(David Ostler) Ostler's book "Healing Our Divides" is a tool kit packed with practical advice for cutting through misunderstanding, assumptions and conspiracy theories.

I see this growing problem in the world, which is we have a hard time dealing with people who have different beliefs. They become our enemies. We don’t know how to talk with them. We view them as dangerous.

The level of political polarization has never been this high in my lifetime. The ability to tolerate violence as a legitimate way to achieve one’s political objectives in the United States is as high today as it was in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s. We’re on the cusp of possible bad futures.

And then I worry about the generation that we’re raising in this environment of polarization and conflict. I worry about what it does for them.

What is peacemaking? And what is it not?

Peacemaking is being able to engage in today’s difficult issues in a way that doesn’t create alienation or separation. It doesn’t mean that we avoid conflict. It doesn’t mean we avoid topics that might be controversial, but that we approach them with respect and dignity and in a way that allows for differences.

When Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers, I don’t think, in historical context, he was trying to create a group of people who could cooperate in a bipartisan way. They lived in Roman rule. There was no political process for individual engagement. He was defining the individual pathway of discipleship that includes peacemaking as a way of individual righteousness, not as a way to solve the problems of the world.

It’s the way we affirm our discipleship, by doing the hard work inside our own hearts to understand why we might be prone to contention, towards vilification. And in the process, we become what Jesus wants us to be.

Is there a particularly Latter-day Saint approach or way to think about peacemaking?

We understand our divine parentage. We’re all family. None of us are lesser than anyone. We literally bind ourselves together as humanity when we are baptized. And, at least for me, that includes not just a community of fellow believers but the community that I live in.

Our divine potential also matters. There’s divinity within us all, and that includes the person that votes for this party or that party or has this particular belief or not.

We also believe there’s a unique part of us that’s always been there and that causes us to be different, and that difference is an essential element of who we are as a person.

And then there are some cultural things that should help us with peacemaking. We send missionaries out into all other parts of the world, and they just don’t see those labels we use to polarize ourselves when they’re out talking to people about eternal things.

What are some of the stumbling blocks Latter-day Saints face as a people when it comes to peacemaking?

We suffer a bit from certainty bias. We feel very enlightened about spiritual things, and we might transfer that feeling to other issues, particularly political issues. When we talk about having a unique truth in the church, that can create a level of superiority that means we’re maybe less willing to honor the way other people feel.

How do you make peace with someone who would deny the rights and dignity of the marginalized?

I could never find any common ground with someone who wanted to roll the clock back on women’s rights, civil rights and people who want to deprive marginalized groups of power. That’s a conflict that I can’t avoid.

But I can live in that conflict in a way that’s grounded in the principles of peacemaking. That means not sweeping our differences under the rug but believing people are sincere, that something in their experiences has brought them to the positions they hold and that the spark of divinity is within them.