Delivered at the Colgate University Baccalaureate.
In the early days of Islam, when the Muslim community was small and fledgling, and being harassed and hunted by the powerful tribes of Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad -8 may the Peace and Blessings of God be upon Him -- sent a delegation of his companions to a land called Abyssinia.
When they arrived, the Kingdom's ruler, a man known as the Negus, summoned them to his court and demanded they explain their purpose. Ja'far, speaking for the Muslims, said they were followers of the Prophet Muhammad, believers in the One God, reciters of the Quran -- a divine scripture which, among other things, had deep reverence for Jesus and his mother Mary.
Ja'far then quoted a verse:
...'I am but a messenger
Come from thy Lord, to give thee
A boy most pure.'
She said, 'How shall I have a son
whom no mortal has touched, neither
have I been unchaste?'
He said: 'Even so my Lord has said;
"Easy is that for Me; and that We
May appoint him a sign unto men
And a mercy from Us"...
The sources say that the Negus and his assembled advisors wept so hard at this recitation that their beards were wet and their scrolls were soaked through. The Abyssinians were Christians, and the knowledge that an emerging religious community would hold as holy what they held as holy moved them deeply.
When I first read that story, it occurred to me that there were many ways that those Muslims could have explained their faith to the Negus. They could have shaken their fists and marked their disagreement with the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. They could have wagged their fingers, and lectured the Negus and his court on the distinct notion of revelation in the Quran. Instead, they chose to extend their hand, to speak of the shared reverence for Jesus and Mary, the mutual belief in the virgin birth, the joint view that Jesus was sent by God as a messenger and as a mercy. In other words, the Muslims chose to highlight common ground.
Honestly, I hate the term "common ground." It just sounds boring. Every time it escapes my lips or gets tapped onto my keyboard, I imagine the audience preparing for a snooze. Passion, everyone seems to agree, lies with the partisans -- those who stand at either pole and volley verbal assaults. The only way to generate audience electricity, the most direct route to expressing personal authenticity, is to mark the territory of difference and erect a barrier.
God, I know the satisfaction in that. I've shaken and wagged so many times that I'm surprised I've got fists or fingers left. And precisely because I've exercised those muscles so frequently, I know intimately the many prices to be paid for singing the song of division, especially when it's put to the soundtrack of self-righteousness.
One price is fewer converts to my cause. All of my shaking and wagging has only ever succeeded in ending conversations, and sending people running in the opposite direction. In the history of the world, I don't know if anyone has ever been truly convinced of anything when staring into a shaking fist or a wagging finger.
The price I've been more attuned to recently is of the relationship lost -- the cost of what we might have learned from each other, what we could have accomplished together -- if I had just led with my hand. Wherever you stand on whatever divisive issue the headlines are screaming about -- however much we might disagree on that particular matter -- I want to reject the instinct to dig in there. I want to nurture the discipline to look elsewhere, to find common ground. The Quran says that God made us different nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another, that where there are differences, we should engage them in the best and most beautiful of ways. The term common ground might lack a little electricity -- and I'd be happy to entertain synonyms from this well-educated crowd -- but the idea is holy, and finding it is a spiritual practice. Let me give you an example.
People ask me all the time why, as a Muslim who is concerned about the intersection between religion and politics in the world, I don't talk more about the elephant in the room when it comes to interfaith relations: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's not that I don't follow it, or that I don't have a point of view. I don't lead with that because, when it comes to the relationship between Muslims and Jews, there are -- stick with me on this metaphor -- other animals in the zoo. I'd much rather talk about those: the similarities between Jewish law and Muslim law, Jewish practices of charity and Muslim practices of charity, Jewish patterns of integration in America and Muslim patterns. To limit the conversation about a 1,400-year-old relationship between two great faiths that has spanned nations and civilizations and been largely mutually enriching to the experience of a few decades on a single patch of land seems to me narrow. When we concentrate only on the elephant, we not only we ignore the other animals, we also distort them. The more we talk and talk and talk about the elephant, the more every animal starts to look like an elephant.
Similarities between the Muslim view of interfaith cooperation and the Jewish view brought me to Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, one of the most inspiring NGOs I know. Ruth has been a mentor of mine for the past 15 years, helping nurture me and Interfaith Youth Core along our journey. She came by our offices a few weeks ago and talked about the holiness of common ground. Someone on my staff asked where she got that conviction, and Ruth told this story.
Her first professional experience was in Western Oklahoma in the early 1960s. She was a Jewish woman from New York City with a graduate degree working for the government -- lots there for the locals to be suspicious about. The best place to do her job happened to be at churches. So she went. A lot. She went to formal brick churches on Sunday mornings, she went to Bible studies on porches on Wednesday evenings, she went to backyard praise gatherings on Thursdays.
I imagine Ruth did not agree with everything she heard, was probably offended by some of it. I imagine a few of the people looked at her crosseyed. But Ruth had something a lot more powerful than political and theological disagreement. Ruth had hundreds of children -- abused, neglected, orphaned children. And she needed to find foster families for them. The evangelical ministers in Western Oklahoma considered this God's work. After the sermons and the songs and the altar calls and the amen choruses, they would stand at the pulpits and point at Ruth and say, "This woman has informed me that there are four of God's children in our community who are hurting and need families to take care of them. I need four families to come forth and volunteer to do God's work with her and me and take them in."
"We always got our families, and it never took long," Ruth told my staff.
How many subjects did Ruth Messinger and those Western Oklahoma evangelicals disagree on? Those arguments could have lasted long into the night. But Ruth Messinger chose to extend a hand instead of wag a finger or shake a fist. Hundreds of children in Western Oklahoma grew up in families instead of orphanages because Ruth Messinger stood on common ground.
When I graduated from college, I had this belief that the whole world was going to take notice of my every move. If I was nice to a homeless person, everyone would be nice to homeless people. I would give the signal, and we would end homelessness. There's a Bob Dylan song about that: "Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rent, when I paint my masterpiece." Took me a while to figure out that it was satire.
Will the headlines about Afghanistan or Iraq or the election be different next month if you extend your hand a bit more? Probably not. Will cable news anchors hang it up when you commit to finding common ground? I'd be lying if I said yes. But sometimes you do things because they are important to do, because they are holy.
As William Carlos Williams writes in "Love Song":
Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.