Editorial: Heroic witness

There is a modern legend that when the Nazis attempted to force all the Jews of Denmark to wear yellow stars, King Christian X himself wore the same star. This inspired his citizens to do the same, so that the stigma of the star was removed and it was impossible for the anti-Semites to identify who was Jewish. While the story is not true, it is true that the Danes were remarkable in their efforts to protect their Jewish compatriots, smuggling almost the entire Jewish population to safe haven in Sweden.

We thought of Denmark’s yellow star legend, and the very real heroism it pays tribute to, when reading a story about a radical Somali terror group known as al-Shabab ambushing a bus in Kenya. The terrorists told the passengers to divide into groups of Muslims and Christians. This was a tactic al-Shabab used in April when it attacked a university in Kenya: dividing students into Christians and Muslims, and then executing the Christians. Al-Shabab killed 148 people in that attack.

But something unexpected happened in this hostage situation. As the BBC reported, the Kenyan Muslims traveling on the bus refused to split into groups. “They told the militants ‘to kill them together or leave them alone,’” the BBC quoted a local official as saying.

It is a single incident in what is becoming a global war of terror, but the heroism and solidarity of those passengers is a model that should be heralded. Staring down the barrels of al-Shabab’s guns, the Muslims became role models of what it means to choose others over oneself, and to choose solidarity over fear.

While Christianity and Islam differ greatly in matters of theology, we do not live up to our own Christian potential when we ignore the common, fundamental humanity that connects each one of us, no matter our religion. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us in its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, “the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against people or any harassment of them on the basis of their race, color, condition in life or religion.”

No nation can be criticized for protecting itself with appropriate security measures, and the threat of terrorism is international in its potential reach. But we must not allow ourselves to fear or hate an entire class of people. This kind of rhetoric — and the hate crimes that follow — is unworthy of us. Last month, Larycia Hawkins, a Christian professor at the famed Evangelical institution of Wheaton College, provided another example of solidarity when she began an Advent campaign to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who are often targeted for harassment because of their head coverings. The college suspended Hawkins, not for this action but for a subsequent statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Indeed these are complex theological waters, with vast theological differences that do not benefit from easy simplification. Yet any act of solidarity — witnessed by Kenyan bus riders or by Hawkins — can be appreciated for seeking to defuse an atmosphere of fear and, at times, bigotry.

At a moment when fear reigns supreme, Christians and Muslims who are neither bigots nor terrorists can take action in solidarity with each other. Our religious differences do not go away, but our common humanity can be more clearly seen.

They did it in Denmark. They did it in Kenya. We can do it here.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor