It seemed unlikely that a topic with apparently little common ground — the relationship between humanity and divinity —could serve as a starting point for Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Yet it did, with help from a contemporary story of Mennonite peacemaking.
On Nov. 30, Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp, the Netherlands, hosted “A Dialogue Comparing the Divine and the Human in Islam and Christianity.”
Tyndale professor and Eastern Mennonite Missions worker Philip A. Gottschalk invited four speakers: EMM worker Jonathan Bornman, Yaser Ellethy, Khalid Hajji and Bert de Ruiter.
Attendees were predominately seminary students and faculty but included some members from the community. Gottschalk hosted the event as part of a course he teaches, “Ethics of War, Peace and Peacemaking.” The intent was to help his students learn from a healthy interaction between Muslim and Christian scholars.
“The hope is that the attendees will have a different view of mullas,” or Muslim scholars, Gottschalk said.
Exploring a unique aspect of Christian theology, Bornman — a Christian-Muslim relations consultant — highlighted the belief that humanity is created in the image of God.
He asked: “What if it’s really true that we were created to create, and that it is in creating where we are most like God?”
He continued: “A Christian understanding of the divine and the human is that: Christ, in us, empowers us to turn away from sin and self to pursue our role, our work in the kingdom of God, which is a ministry of reconciliation.”
Specifically, Bornman stated: “One way that image of God is revealed is through our creative ability to work at healing, restoration, reconciliation, justice . . . in other words, to use that creative power to solve real-world problems.”
Illustrating this creative problem-solving, Bornman shared the story of Michael J. Sharp and his work in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A Mennonite who was murdered in 2017 while investigating possible sanctions violations for the United Nations, Sharp invested himself in the region for years with Mennonite Central Committee, creatively seeking to bring peace in a challenging setting. Bornman quoted a statement made by Sharp’s mother, Michele Miller Sharp, in a March 2018 article in The Mennonite:
“MJ sat down with one of Congo’s most notorious killers. For 20 years, people used violence to counter violence, and it took this young man and his colleagues to listen to their stories. After building a trust relationship, the peacebuilders offered alternative ways to meet the rebels’ objectives nonviolently. In this way, the cycle of violence stopped.”
Bornman’s primary purpose in sharing Sharp’s story was to emphasize how the creativity of God within humanity can be used to do good in the world.
He also shared a confession: “Sadly, I must confess that both historically and currently the worldwide church has also, in many cases, failed. I confess that in certain places, Christians have taken up arms against their Muslim neighbors. . . . Forgive us, for we have sinned.”
Several students were raised as Muslims but had converted to Christianity. One was surprised at how openly the presenters could talk about theological differences in a respectful manner.
“Students who were from countries where there is tension and even violence asked pointed questions about Muslim-Christian relations,” Gottschalk said. “They were given sensitive, realistic answers.”
EMM’s Christian-Muslim Relations Team, of which Bornman is a member, seeks to “equip Christians around the world for life-giving relationships with Muslims through dialogue, witness, peacemaking and hospitality.”