All five of us managed to fit into my Toyota Prius for the ride from Eastern Mennonite University, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to the Shenandoah National Park for a hike. I was driving. We were students at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, which brings in teachers and students from all over the world. In the middle of the back seat was a woman from Brazil, a community organizer and activist. Seated next to me in the front passenger seat was a Shiite Muslim cleric from Iran, a scholar of Shari’a, or Islamic law. By some sort of silent conspiracy, we allowed him the front passenger seat so that he would not be squished up in the back seat against a woman who was not his wife.
He was one of two Shiite Iranian clerics attending the SPI in 2011. I had already engaged both of them in friendly, lively discussions about our families, our faiths, our histories and our communities. Ever since the Mennonite Central Committee partnered with the Iranian Red Crescent Society to provide food aid in response to a terrible earthquake in Iran in the 1990’s, Mennonites in Canada and the United States and Iranians have developed and sustained friendly exchanges of scholars, students and conferences.
These two Iranian scholars and I hit it off in part because they were surprised and delighted to meet an American with faith in the God of Abraham, and who struggles to live by the guidance of prophets, lawgivers and apostles in the pages of sacred scripture, as do they. Iranians may identify the United States as “Christian.” But ask them what they know or think about Americans and our culture, and you’ll hear about our suggestive TV shows, like Baywatch, and our appetites for alcohol, drugs, promiscuity and pornography.
During our return from the park, my Iranian friend asked each of us to tell him something about our churches. He was curious, and genuinely wanted to learn, not to debate nor convince us of his faith. When the Brazilian woman described herself as “spiritual but not religious,” I could tell that the Shiite scholar had just encountered a new, alien, and seemingly nonsensical idea, at best, an oxymoron. To him, how could there conceivably be any spirituality without a long and large religious history, traditions and community, with a name that serves both to identify that tradition and community, and to distinguish it from others? As she explained her non-religious spirituality to him, I could see shock, surprise, maybe even horror in his eyes, which prompted his response: “But you must be part of some religion and go to some church!”
Then he pointed at me as he said to the Brazilian activist: “You should go to his church!”
Who would have thought that the most urgent and insistent evangelist for the Mennonite Church I would ever meet would be a Shiite Muslim scholar of Islamic law from Iran?
That Iranian Shiite Muslim “evangelist” for the Mennonites is now someone whom my country is preparing to kill, if not with bullets on the front lines of battle, then with missiles fired at his home and his family.
One need not be a trained historian to recognize the sound of war drums, as they grow louder by the day in America and Iran. We need only think back to the full court press of mental, political and military preparation in 2001 and 2003 to recognize the playbook. As warlords in Israel, Iran and the United States direct their people’s attention toward an external enemy, and whip up war fever against the latest scapegoat of the hour, the real purpose is to distract citizens from their own leaders’ faults and failures. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Every nation’s initiation of war is effectively an act of aggression and violence against its own people, who will pay a terrible price in lives, loved ones, freedom, wealth and human services. The costs and consequences will turn out, as ever, to be more onerous than whatever evil we set out to defeat.
Wars often break out because of the belligerents’ similarities, as much as because of their differences. Should it come to war with Israel, the United States and Iran, it will be marketed on all sides as a holy war. Both Iran and the U.S. have messianic pretensions woven into their sense of identity and destiny. Iranian mullahs will likely tout it as a conflict between infidels and the faithful, between blessed martyrs and the damned, perhaps also as a step in an apocalyptic timetable toward the Day of Judgment. To American Christians it will be sold as a war on behalf of Israel, maybe also a necessary step toward Christ’s return, and therefore, for God and the Gospel. The flights of American cruise missiles and fighter jets will be televised and celebrated as projections of our sovereign power. Future historians, however, will likely say that the strongest country in the world got roped into an ancient blood feud and grudge match between Shiite and Sunni Islam, and between Farsi (Persian) and Arab peoples, going back 1500 years.
The Iranians I have met are proud of their history, heritage and culture, if not always of their current government. It’s not hard to understand their pride. Their ancestors include Cyrus the Great, a visionary reformer who allowed the Jews in Babylonian Exile to return to Judah and Jerusalem. His empire came to rival the Roman Empire in scope, wealth and power. Its Jewish community was, for centuries, first in the world in size and scholarship. From ancient Persia most likely came the magi bearing gifts to the Christ child. Later, missionaries of the Assyrian Orthodox (also called “Nestorian”) churches spread the gospel from what is now Iran and Iraq into China, Siberia, India, Mongolia and Central Asia, briefly becoming more widespread than the Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox churches, until the Mongol invasions in the late Middle Ages razed Central Asia nearly back to The Stone Age.
And now the church is again growing in Iran, underground, persecuted, but vibrant. Christians from Muslim background whom I have met have often cited mercy as what drew them to Christ. Mercy is what Iran needs, as well as respect, because they get precious little of either in their neighborhood. My Iranian Shiite scholar friend once told me, with tears in his eyes, how some Sunni Muslim imams in Saudi Arabia had issued fatwas decreeing that to kill a Shiite Muslim was of no more consequence than killing a mad dog.
My government and country were not the intended audience of those fatwas, but the rush is on now to take it as gospel, in the name of Jesus. But his Gospel of divine mercy already shows us what is God’s fight, and how God fights it: not against any enemies with flesh and blood, but on their behalf.
Should the war start, I will not wave Old Glory, nor march and cheer to the sound of any war drums. Instead, I will join my tears to those of my Iranian Shiite friends, with prayers for mercy on all of us, American, Israeli, Arab or Iranian, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.