How to Build a Bridge


In an old book titled Observations on the Re-building of London Bridge by John Seaward, he says this:

It is generally acknowledged that the construction of a commodious bridge over a wide, impetuous river is one of the noblest efforts of human genius. In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected. On the contrary, it has everywhere been esteemed for its great utility and has engaged the attentive care of enlightened men.

I want to focus on these words: In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected.  I’m struck by how much this applies to work of non-physical bridge-building and how wise we would be to pay attention to these words. If we have any hope of moving forward, bridges need to be built. We need to learn the art of bridge-building.

I sat in a clinic this morning talking to a man who is building bridges in the Muslim community. He builds these bridges person by person, activity by activiy, conversation by conversation. His passion is contagious and everything he says reflects a love for this community.

As we talked he told me some things about the community that I hadn’t heard before. A young Muslim man, beaten to a pulp while he was walking down the street; a Muslim mom in hijab out walking with her baby in a stroller, assaulted in broad daylight; Muslim food service workers being told they are “F%&*in terrorists” as they give change back to their customers. Those are only a couple of the stories that I heard.

Every single one of the people we talked about came from Syria.

Think about that for a minute. You have to be an ostrich to not see what is going on in Syria. Ghost towns with bombed out buildings; people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs; stories of families separated, of children lost. It challenges every notion we have of humanity.

And all of them came from Syria. 

At one point he said: “Few people have any idea of the extent of stress present in the Muslim community.” 

I came away wondering “In what universe is this okay?” I came away wondering how this is any different than ISIS. I came away choking on rage. I came away thinking that “bridge-building” is no longer just a nice idea, it’s an essential part of civilization. You don’t ignore the art of bridge-building.

“Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them.”*

There is an art to building bridges.

I am not an engineer, but I do know how to look things up on google. And there are a few things about physical bridges that can be used when we think about bridge-building in our communities.

Know what you want your bridge to accomplish. Understand why it is important to build a bridge. Maybe it’s easy to understand, maybe it’s about making a community stronger, or offering health care services. But maybe it’s more difficult to know what you want to accomplish. Be able to say in clear language why you think bridge-building is so critical in our world.

Phrases to use: “I’d like to understand” “How can I help you understand why this is important?”

Understand the ‘load point’. The load point is the area on a bridge that needs to be able to sustain the most stress. This is critical. What are the areas where you see the biggest gap or divide in thinking? Those will take the most work, so start with the easier pieces. Perhaps the easy points are around food and kids — focus on the commonalities and then move into the harder things.

Phrases to use: “Tell me more.” “What do you think?” “How else can I help?”

Gather the materials – or the right people. Everyone doesn’t know how to build bridges, but gathering the right people gives credibility and strength to your bridge.

Phrases to use: “Can you help?” “Thank you for being a part of this.” “Thank you for going out of your comfort zone.”

Build the bridge step by step, activity by activity, conversation by conversation. Bridge-building doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people died building the Golden Gate Bridge until the bridge builders put a safety net under it. Be willing to be patient. Rejoice in small victories and progress that seems slow.

Phrases to use: “I want to learn.” I want to understand.” “I trust you.” “I’ve got your back, I’ll stick up for you.”

Evaluate and learn. Test your bridge, and if it breaks look at why and how. Ask questions, and humbly admit what you don’t know. Keep on building and learning and growing. An Arab proverb says this: “Those who would build bridges, must be willing to be walked on.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb.

Phrases to use: “What else might work?” “What have we not thought of?” “How can we do it better?”

And now I speak to fellow Christians.  Frankly, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of fear mongering and hoarding, I’m tired of people saying “we must be practical.” I can’t help thinking what our world would be like had the God of the universe decided to be practical. He surely would not have decided on a virgin birth; he definitely would have dismissed the idea of death on a cross; and as for loving the likes of us? Forget it.

Because this I know, and I know it well: We know the ultimate Bridge-designer who bridged heaven and earth so that we could find our way. So we are called to build bridges and tear down walls. There is no other way. 

Note: When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that I was writing it on the anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. One year ago on February 10, 2015, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot in their apartment complex. Shot for being Muslim.

*The History of Bridges

Muslim-Christian Understanding and Reflections on the Death of Kenneth Cragg

Today I am honored to have my brother, Dr. Daniel W. Brown, guest post for Communicating Across Boundaries. Author of Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought and A New Introduction to Islam, he is currently an Oxford fellow en route to Istanbul to direct the Institute for the Study of Religion in the Middle East. This thoughtful article not only offers a tribute to Kenneth Cragg, but also insight to the challenges of Muslim-Christian understanding.


On my bookshelf here in Oxford I have a green first-edition of Kenneth Cragg’s The Call of the Minaret inscribed “Ralph E. Brown, Ratodero, W. Pakistan.”  Dad passed it on to me a few years ago. The book is well-worn. I remember when I was a teenager, then living in Shikarpur, Sindh, taking it down from my dad’s bookshelf. I had no idea of its importance. The book was a radical challenge, urging Christians to listen, and to listen with deep sympathy, to Muslims. The Call of the Minaret was published in 1956. Cragg went on to write more than 40 books, and hundreds of articles. He earned unparalleled respect among Muslim scholars for his gentle, thoughtful, theological engagement. His was a life dedicated to intellectual hospitality, loyalty, mutuality, honesty.

Kenneth Cragg died on November 13, about four months short of his hundredth birthday. His death brought a glowing tribute from Rowan Williams and a lengthy and appreciative obituary in Daily Telegraph. Other tributes to Cragg and his extraordinary achievements will continue to flow, as they should. But perhaps we should add to these tributes a more sober accounting of the world, especially the world of Muslim-Christian relations, that Kenneth Cragg leaves us to.

There is plenty to encourage sobriety. But in tribute to Cragg’s own optimism let’s begin with the good news. For me the good news is illustrated by a book I am reviewing, Do We Worship the Same God? edited by Miroslav Volf. Much of the book is yawn-inducing, but it is worth its price for two of its essays, Denys Turner’s “Christians, Muslims and the Name of God:  Who Owns it, and How Would We Know?” and Reza Shah-Kazemi’s “Do Muslims and Christians Believe in the Same God.” Turner is Christian, Shah-Kazemi Muslim. Their essays are theologically sophisticated, intelligent, unflinchingly honest in facing the real issues that separate Muslim and Christian understandings of God. And they are good-humored and witty — especially Turner. On some points I disagree with both authors, sometimes profoundly, and they disagree with one another, but they would be great fun to hear, and they are a pleasure to read.

I think Kenneth Cragg would be cheered by Turner and Shah-Kazemi’s clear-eyed, substantive theological engagement. I find around me other, similar reasons to cheer. Shabbir Akhtar, who has been a forthright critic of Cragg in the past, learned New Testament Greek and is busily writing a commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. As a Muslim he is grappling with the Apostle Paul’s theology with seriousness and sympathy. I may disagree with Shabbir’s arguments at points, sometimes profoundly, but I also expect it will be a cheerful sort of disagreement. This is the kind of warm-hearted, honest, hospitable exchange for which Cragg pleaded and worked, and the good news is that it is happening more than we might realize, and that more initiative for such exchange comes from Muslims than ever before. The Common Word project is one catalyst, the Scriptural Reasoning movement another. And while the level of theological exchange sometimes falls woefully short of the standards set by Turner, Shah-Kazemi, or Cragg it surely beats tossing grenades, rhetorical or real.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is measured in body counts, uprooted lives, YouTube diatribes and Qur’an burnings. Thirty Christians killed in central Nigeria. Ten dead as suicide bomber targets church in northern Nigeria. Christian mob burns a man alive in reprisal. Rimsha Mashi, mentally handicapped young Christian girl, tried for blasphemy in Pakistan. Dozens of churches destroyed In Tanzania; east Africa violence spreading.  American man behind anti-Muslim film that sparked unrest due in court.  Anti-Muslim bus ads stir controversy. Five Egyptian Copts injured in inter-religious violence. In much of the world, relations between Muslim and Christian communities are far worse than they were when Kenneth Cragg began writing. Ignorance of what Christians actually believe remains at epidemic levels among even well-educated Muslims — and vice versa.

I see no reason for optimism. If a man like Kenneth Cragg, gifted as he was in intellect, long life, focused determination, and generosity of spirit seems to have made so little progress against the headwinds of Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, what hope is there for those of us with lesser minds and gifts? Not much. That conclusion won’t surprise those who know that I find Ecclesiastes especially inspiring. Nor will it surprise my mom, from whom I inherited a bracingly realistic attitude toward life. But Ecclesiastes also provides the way out: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.” Regardless of any immediate or visible results, we might add. What is good or excellent in the work of Kenneth Cragg, or the work of those of us who remain, will remain worth celebrating even if no one celebrates — our labor in the Lord is not in vain — and all that matters is anticipation of that final commendation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”