No doubt this is a heavy topic for my first post. But it is urgent. Many of you are probably following the case of Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor recently sentenced to death for apostasy from Islam. If not, click here for a recap of the story. The 34-year-old father of two young children will die by hanging any day now, save some sudden, unforeseen intervention. What are American Christians to think of this? What does the Gospel exact from us in such a situation? As usual, the answers are never simple and several interrelated issues call for examination.
First, Christians should expect and be willing to face death. Jesus plainly said in John 15:18-20 among other places, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” That Pastor Nadarkhani is in this predicament and not us is simply a matter of geography. We are all called to prepare the ultimate sacrifice if called upon. Youcef has thus far demonstrated nothing but courage and in doing so joins a 2,000 year-old line of brothers and sisters in holding to conviction in the face of horrendous injustice. He is an example to us all of what Spirit led fearlessness can and should look like. Perhaps those of us hiding behind the high safe walls of the democratic West should use this opportunity to examine the loyalties and attachments of our own hearts. Perhaps it is a chance to teach our children and churches the true cost of following the true king. This man and his family do not have the luxury (or better the curse) of perusing through Christianity, sounding it for an inspirational nugget here and a lucrative business contact there, all the while going about whatever it is we want to do anyway. Sure we might give some money, serve a little along the way, and smile at people, but have we ever really sacrificed for our faith? I mean really sacrificed to the point of causing ourselves discomfort or pain? Can the Christian faith sincerely be understood with such taxing exertions? I’m not sure.
Secondly (is there really a first or a second?), American Christians must pray for Youcef and his family and for the Iranian authorities. Certainly there are times when prayer is a cop-out. It makes us all feel better and feel like we are doing something when in reality we are doing nothing when something easily could be done. In this case, there is little that can be done. Such times however often see prayer at its most potent. These are the types of situations on which God seems to thrive. When we are at our wits end, we can at last see he was holding the strings all along, waiting for us to seek his recourse. So pray we must and pray we will. Pray for steadfastness of mind and spirit for the family. Pray for provision for the children. Pray for mercy from the authorities. Pray for a spiritual awakening in Iran. Pray for foreign governments that they might apply the right type of pressure. Just pray.
Thirdly, believers in America must guard against a strong emotional reaction against Axis of Evil member Iran. There is no question the Islamic Republic’s actions in many contexts are morally unacceptable. They likely actively fund violence in the region and continue a dubious shadow game with the world over nuclear technology. They are needlessly belligerent towards Israel. Most recently, Iran is the last ally and enabler to the Assad regime in Syria now busy butchering its citizens. Or course in addition to terrorism, and nuclear ambitions, there is for Christian Americans (and obviously all concerned with religious liberty) the issue of Iran’s apostasy laws prohibiting on pain of death conversion from Islam and evangelism to Muslims. While other Gulf states have similar injunctions, these laws combined with the already existing issues make for a toxic brew when it comes to popular opinion in the U.S. on Iran. A poll on Feb. 9, 2012 by the Christian Science Monitor revealed 44 percent of Americans currently support a bombing campaign to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. No doubt it will take little saber-rattling for the government or media to rally support for stopping what appears an unreasonable regime bent on a path to regional war.
The Gospel, however, commands believers to throw the brakes on this and any jingoistic sentiment which leaves others demonized and polarized, accusing any who stand in the middle as traitors or appeasers. Will military force eventually be necessary to preserve a greater justice in this case? That is not for me to say. What I will say is that Christians must remind our friends, family, and authorities that Iranian leaders are not pure evil but rather hostage to it. They are not soulless villains, but mere sinners in need of forgiveness and repentance just as we once were and still are (Matt. 5:43-48; Eph. 6:12). Thus we who claim allegiance to Christ must reject such simple dualisms as those commonly asserted about Iran and ask hard questions. For example, if Iran’s clerical leaders are bent on destroying Jews, why have they not bothered to persecute or expel the 25,000 Jews in their own country? Why did the U.S. reject diplomatic overtures from the country after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 when we could have negotiated from a position of strength? What role does the U.S. backing of Iraq in that country’s 1980’s war on Iran play today? What are Iran’s strategic and security aspirations? What role does Iran’s ancient culture, historical hegemony, and European colonialism have on their psyche today? These are just a few of the issues complicating the picture normally presented of this supposedly mad, apocalyptic regime. If someone is interested in further reading on Iran’s relationship to the U.S. and Israel since the 1970’s, I recommend Treacherous Alliance by Trita Parsi, the source of the above information.
Furthermore, we must remember and remind others that all national motives are neither wholly good nor wholly evil, and that though Iran’s self interests have led that nation’s government into murky moral waters, its people nonetheless have much in common with Christians in the West. We must remember that even in the most righteous and well executed war, many, mostly the poorest of the poor, will suffer unjustly and unfairly. Maybe a diplomatic solution is impossible and the bombers will be dispatched to do their work anyway, but before they do we as Christians must make sure we have done all we can as “agents of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:21). For if we fail to do so, we make the Gospel nothing more than an inspirational underpinning for divisive tribalism. And that certainly will not save Youcef Nadarkhani.
Finally, we can take action to save Pastor Nadarkhani by pressuring the Iranian government with a letter writing campaign. Matt Smethurst of the Gospel Coalition details how the Iranian government has responded in the past to international pressure. In order to make this as easy as possible, I have attached below a form letter and the address to the Iranian mission to the UN in New York. Please do not take this lightly. Let God’s name be greatly gloried before the Iranian officials at the response of God’s people to one of their own in danger. I am looking forward to your opinions and feedback.
(address courtesy of Smethurst on the Gospel Coalition blog)
The Honorable Mohammed Khazaee
Ambassador and Permanent Represenative
Permenent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations
622 Third Ave.
New York, NY 10017
To the Honorable Mohammed Khazaee,
I am a nobody. You have no reason to listen to me. I am a simple person from the middle of the United States, a million miles from international affairs socially, geographically, and politically. I am not authorized to speak by or for any religious or political body. I am simply writing as a private citizen. My insignificance is such that I doubt this letter will even reach you. Nonetheless, I am compelled by conscience to try.
I am a humble Christian writing on behalf of the Christian leader Youcef Nadarkhani currently facing pain of death for apostasy in your country. Iran is an ancient country, many times older than the United States and certainly much bigger than this one issue. That is why in part I would behoove your government to reconsider this case and give Mr. Nadarkhani a stay in his death sentence as a gesture of goodwill, not to the United States, but to the Christians of the world. It is only the strong who are truly capable of extending the hand of mercy, and there is no doubt Iran is a powerful country with a long, noble history, devout worship of God, and a sophisticated culture. Such an unmitigated gesture of friendship would not go unnoticed nor would it be forgotten by the Christian communities of the globe.
Many horrible acts have been committed throughout history in the name of Christianity. But I want you to know Mr. Khazaee that pious, practicing Christians and the Muslims of Iran have more in common than is commonly supposed. We both want a just and safe world for our children. We both want to live our lives in honor of the living God. Lastly, we are both deeply concerned about the lack of morality, overwhelming depravity, and inhumane pragmatism that seems to have overtaken much of our planet. Perhaps mercy towards Youcef Nadarkhani could be a first step towards addressing our common concerns and beginning dialogue towards a better world for us all.
Thank you for taking the time to consider this note. I want you to know that whatever the decision of your government, Christians will continue to pray for the governments of both Iran and the United States as we seek to find common ground so all might live in prosperity and security.