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Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors? Challenges of Interfaith Harmony

Managing Difference and Identity at the Peace Institute Interfaith Seminar in Orlando (March 2023)

“Good fences make good neighbors.”

Many would agree with that well-known sentiment— clear boundaries, and mutual respect of those boundaries, are a must if we want to avoid fights with our neighbors.

If only that’s all it took!

I have done enough construction law cases to know that “a fence a day” does not always keep the-inevitable-disputes-over-boundaries-with-neighbors away.

So too in our personal lives and relationships.

This past weekend (March 18–19, 2023), I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation on conflict resolution, identity, and managing differences at the Peace Institute of Orlando’s Youth Empowerment and Interfaith Retreat at SeaWorld Orlando.

[The Peace Institute was founded after the tragedies of September 11, 2001 to respond to need for accurate information about Islam and Muslims. The organization has evolved to include peacebuilding programs (like this past weekend) aimed at increasing understanding among people of all faiths.]

My presentation focused on challenges of identity faced by young people in today’s society.

Matters closely tied to our identities — such as issues of faith — naturally construct boundaries (‘fences’) between neighbors.

In the Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, etc), for example, there are multiple areas of belief and doctrine that simply cannot be integrated.

Adherents of each individual faith must be allowed to construct a “good fence” that precludes encroachment. Those central tenets cannot be subjected to compromise.

But, as Rabbi David Kay argued this weekend, while the purpose of a good fence is to keep the unwanted things “out,” a fence without a place for entry is not a functional fence.

There must be a gate.

This is where the work of peacebuilding is done. Expanding that gate of entry with our neighbors.

Yes, we are entitled to our fences. Our irreconcilable differences often require them.

But, if we truly care about our neighbors, if we truly want to be good neighbors, we must be willing to examine, and expand, our gates.

How often and how wide can we open those gates? Can we expand upon and emphasize areas of agreement, (the gate), without compromising our beliefs/identity?

And when, and where, is it appropriate to close off the gate?

This past weekend, my presentation was focused on challenges of “expanding the gate” to include neighbors with whom we have major differences.

Can we rise above difference and find areas of shared identity?

Are we gracious enough to allow our neighbors to close their gates — when and where they deem certain differences irreconcilable?

Are we willing to reopen the gates each day, to explore new areas of agreement?

Can we be good neighbors, with good fences . . .

and BETTER gates?


  • Do you agree with the sentiment “good fences make good neighbors”?

  • What is the difference between a 'fence' and a 'wall’? Is there a difference in this context?

  • How important are “fences” — boundaries — when resolving conflict with others?

  • What are ways in which you have attempted to “expand your gate”?

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