“El burro, por favor.” The scene was tranquil as the sun danced on the water, a light breeze drifting in from the ocean, fluttering the umbrella of our beachside cafe table in Valencia, Spain. But the waiter’s face was anything but tranquil. We thought it was a simple request, but he looked like he thought we were out of our minds. He had brought the bread. We wanted butter. But our limited Spanish vocabulary couldn’t produce the word. My friend knew that in French the word for butter is “beurre.” Nerds that we were, we knew that Spanish and French share a common language (Latin), so many of the words are similar. We tried to turn “beurre” into Spanish, and the result was “burro.” After a few tense moments of head shaking and hand gestures, he brought the butter and we discovered that the word “burro” has nothing to do with butter. We had been asking for “donkey” for our bread. Sometimes what seems so close together couldn’t be further apart.
But I suppose the opposite is also true: sometimes what seems so far apart is actually not all that different.
I never knew that much about Islam. I had always thought that it was the opposite of Christianity in every way. But last night I heard a story that challenged my way of thinking, so I looked it up to see if it was true, and here’s what I found:
Ethiopia is the oldest Christian nation, with a rich history going back millennia, interweaving legends and rich historical artifacts, from the Queen of Sheba to monolithic, cross-shaped churches carved out of solid rock. In the year 615, Islam was in its infancy, and its new followers were being persecuted in Mecca, mostly for claiming there was only one God (“Allah” is just the Arabic word for “God,” closely related to the Hebrew “Elohim”). They fled for their lives, seeking refuge in the kingdom of Axum (modern-day Ethiopia) under the Christian King Ashamah Negus or Al Najashi. Shortly after their arrival, a group from Mecca arrived, asking the king to kill the “heretics.” Trying to sort it all out, King Najashi questioned the Muslims on what they thought about Jesus. They responded, saying that “Jesus is considered to be a messenger of God, the word of God, and the miraculously born son of the Virgin Mary” (Wise). The king conferred with his counselors, and after reaching a decision, he came back to the Muslim refugees, and with a stick he drew a line in the sand, saying the “difference between the message of Mohammed and Christianity is the difference between this thin line.” And he let them stay in Ethiopia, offering them as much protection as as the Christian citizens of his country. This was remarkable in a time when many Christian groups killed anyone they discovered disagreeing with their version of Christianity.
I think this story offer us much wisdom for today, especially in light of all the misinformation going around in the world. It offers a model for how to build relationships with people of different faiths, and thus become a positive witness for Christianity in the world.
Witness by Listening - King Najashi didn’t tell the refugees what they should believe. He asked them to tell their story. After all, if you want someone to listen to you, isn’t it much easier if they know you’ll listen to them too? Respectful dialogue is much more effective at building a relationship than a one-way exchange of information.
Witness by Respecting Needs - The refugees were in danger, and the king kept them safe even before he decided he was on their side. Some needs are all-consuming, and if you can understand that need and help do something about it, it goes a long way toward building a positive relationship.
Witness by Finding Common Ground - The king knew the refugees were different, but he found common ground. So often in life we focus on what’s different, so much so that we leave little time for common ground. What would happen if people from different groups (political persuasions, social classes, races, religions, etc.) had conversations about what they have in common? It seems to me that the differences might fade to the background, enabling you to see the human being in front of you rather than an idea you disagree with.
Christians and Muslims have a long, checkered relationship. But this story from Islam’s beginning gives me hope that there’s a way to live together and have a conversation, to see each other as people and not as ideas. Maybe we can find common ground. God willing.