When most people see the symbol above, they have a clear, instant reaction. Whether positive or negative, it’s nearly uncontrollable. Some will agree with the sentiment and say, “Of course we should put our differences aside and learn to peacefully coexist with another.” Others will reply in disgust, “Coexistence and toleration are nothing more than euphemisms for forcing everyone to give up their beliefs and differences!” It’s unfortunate, but the concept of peaceful coexistence has become politicized to the point that it’s polarizing. This should not be so.
Learning to live with and among people who believe differently than we do is a necessary part of contemporary life. Globalization and pluralism have left us in a situation where we no longer have the option of surrounding ourselves exclusively with people who are like us. At work, at school, in our communities, and everywhere in-between, we are surrounded by those who look, act, and think differently than we do. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
The truth is that diversity, while it is certainly complicated, is actually beneficial. People from different backgrounds and worldviews offer valuable insights and perspectives that lead to more effective problem-solving. Learning about the experiences of others helps us understand the world more completely. And listening to what other people believe offers us a challenge to truly define and articulate what we ourselves believe. (It also helps protect against the creation of echo chambers and the radicalization that inevitably comes with them.)
And for those of us who follow Christ, living in harmony with others is also a mandate of our faith. In Romans 12.18 (ESV), Paul commands, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” That word “all” is inclusive. It means everyone, even those we disagree with. Even those who we perceive as hostile towards us. If you are a Christian, part of your call as a disciple of Jesus is to do everything within your power to peacefully coexist with others. In fact, our faith compels us to be the leaders in reaching out to others and building bridges where there are none. I think we’ll find that when we live up to our end of this call, most others are happy to meet us in the middle.
But as we all know, humans have an awful track record of peacefully coexisting with one another. We’re naturally tempted to resist diversity and stick with our in-groups. How do we overcome these hurdles and learn to live together? What does coexistence even look like? Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.
Coexistence means nuance. Black-and-white, us-versus-them thinking simply will not do. The world is full of complex people who find themselves in complicated situations, and rarely are things as simple as we’d like them to be. There are grey areas everywhere. Your neighbor might not agree with you on political or religious matters, but that doesn’t make them a bad person; it doesn’t even necessarily make them wrong. If we want to live in harmony with one another, we must learn to lean in to the nuance, to learn more about the complexities of people and situations rather than simply declaring them good or bad.
It also means empathy. I recently learned that perspective-taking, the practice of imagining an issue or situation from another person’s point-of-view, is a skill that must be acquired and practiced. Being a natural perspective-taker myself, I always assumed that other people were constantly doing so as well. (Ironic, I know.) But the truth is that we are all far too caught up in our own concerns to consistently consider how the world might look to someone else. Extending empathy to another person is the first step towards building a meaningful relationship with them, and only through empathetic understanding will we be able to peacefully coexist with others.
Finally, it means cooperation. Research shows that the best way to foster solidarity among differing groups is to give them a common goal to work towards. And the truth is that we want many of the same things: safe communities, freedom, justice, and for everyone to have enough to get by. We cannot accomplish these great things on our own. We can’t do away with social evils and make the world a better place unless we’re willing to work together with those who are different from us. And once we choose to do so, we’ll find that this practice of living in harmony with one another becomes easier, almost natural, with time.
So those are a few things that are necessary for peaceful coexistence, and they’re all good things. But it’s also important that we acknowledge a few things not required for peaceful coexistence, lest we lose our way or fail to acknowledge the concerns of those who may be hesitant.
Peaceful coexistence does not mean relativism. In fact, it’s based on the universal truth that respectful diversity is superior to isolation and seclusion. Living peacefully with other people does not mean that you have to condone everything that they believe and do. Believe it or not, other people aren’t constantly seeking your approval. They don’t want you to think that they’re right; they simply want you to respect them and their right to believe what they believe. As noted above, living in a diverse context requires a certain toleration for nuance, but nuance and relativism are very different things.
Just as living in harmony with others does not mean you agree with them, it also doesn’t mean have you to give up your own beliefs. The goal isn’t to make everyone the same. Diversity, while messy, is still preferred to uniformity. You can and should hold to your values because they make you who you are. But you must also be willing to accept the rights of others to hold to their distinct values, too. And who knows? As you do life together and share your beliefs with one another, you may find value in aspects of one another’s beliefs, and you may be able to enrich one another in ways that you both would have missed out on otherwise.
Last but not least, peaceful coexistence does not mean homogeny. One group doesn’t get to be in charge and “allow” other groups to exist so long as they stay within the boundaries set by the dominant group. If we really want to peacefully coexist with another, everyone has to get a seat at the table. Again, this isn’t relativism. There are still universal truths and values that must be recognized. (For example, white supremacist Nazis don’t get a say, and we will not apologize for that.) But peaceful coexistence does require that no one group accumulates all the power, no matter how tempting it may be to do so. Every person has value and deserves respect, and trying to minimize a person’s value or input because they are not a part of the dominant group will not lead to a harmonious life together.
Ultimately, the call to peaceful coexistence is a call to humility. There are so many different kinds of people in the world because there is no one right way to be. No one has it all figured out. That’s why we need each other. We need to teach one another. We need to challenge one another. We need to make one another better. And we need to come together to make this world a place where every person can enjoy the good things life has to offer. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. We can choose to do what it takes to coexist. Will you?