A leading US peace church theologian believes that Christian leaders might be able to assist a constructive dialogue around Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís recent letter to US President George W. Bush.
David W. Shenk is global consultant with Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pennsylvania, USA. At a recent conference in Iran he was able to present to President Ahmadinejad with a copy of his book, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (co-authored by Badru Kateregga).
He also took the opportunity to ask the Iranian head-of-state how Christian leaders might help to facilitate the dialogue Ahmadinejadís May 2006 letter to President Bush invited.
The encounter took place at a meeting on Muslim doctrine organized and hosted by the Bright Future Institute, of Qom, at which 100 international participants (including three American Mennonite scholars) were present.
In his own presentation on ìMessianic hope in biblical eschatology,î David Shenk drew on his long acquaintance with Islam in Africa and around the world. He referred to Iranian President Ahmadinejadís letter to US President Bush (8 May, 2006) which named this hope: ìWill we be given a role to play in the promised world where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (PBUH) [peace be upon him, traditional expression of respect] will be present?î
A colleague, Tom Finger, a theologian from Reba Place Church, Evanston, Illinois, outlined the characteristics of human society that is marked by Godís gentle reign ñ expressed in the life of the early followers of Jesus ñ as non-violence, equality and economic sharing.
David Shenk went on to say that for Christians Jesus the Messiah is the fullness of the presence of the kingdom of God in this way. The papers helped to illuminate the nature of Godís presence as revealed in a Messiah who exhibited suffering love and forgiveness.
In May 2006 the Iranian president, caught up in rows about Iranís nuclear ambitions and other confrontations with the United States, took the unprecedented step of writing personally to President George W. Bush.
The White House publicly dismissed Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís statement, which included stinging attacks on US foreign policy ñ and also challenged President Bushís attachment to Christian values by time-and-again asking how his warlike actions squared up with the teachings of Jesus.
The letter also said that liberal democracy was failing and that people across the world were turning to the monotheistic religions. It asked: ìIs there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?î and declared: ìUndoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: Do you not want to join them?î
President Bush has not replied to the Iranian president, and some US government representatives dismissed the appeal as a ìpublicity stuntî. Right-wing commentators dismissed it as ìderangedî.
But some politicians (such as ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), as well as some Christian leaders, said President Ahmadinejadís words should be taken seriously, while continuing to point to the mistreatment of minorities in Iran and the questions the Iranian leader also needs to face.
The recent conference in Iran, focusing on Mahdism theology, has been welcomed on all sides. Professor Muhammad Legenhausen of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom said that previous conferences over sixteen years have involved primarily Muslims speaking to Muslims. ìTo have a Christian voice present without being antagonistic is tremendous!î he said.
The American scholars had many opportunities to worship with local Christian groups who were encouraged to see foreign Christians participating in the Mahdism conference.
Mennonite World Conference reports that despite heightened international tensions, courtesy was extended across historic religious divides and the witness of the Christian scholars was welcomed in the framework of new thinking about Islamic hopes and expectations. Their inclusion at the conference elicited numerous interviews for Tehranís television and newspapers.
David Shenkís book A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (co-authored by Badru Kateregga) is available online through the Metanoia book service, an Ekklesia partner.
Mennonites, along with the Quakers and the Church of the Brethren in Christ, are one of the 'historic peace churches', which see the rejection of violence as a central feature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Acknowledgments to MWC and N. Gerald Shenk for the photograph.
[Also on Ekklesia: Christians and Muslims meet for religious dialogue in Iran 21/09/06; Iranian president asks Bush, what would Jesus do?; Reply to Iran letter, says ex-US Secretary of State; Iranís new president a blow to US foreign policy; Mennonites respond to sexual abuse challenge 21/09/06; Mennonite peacebuilding expert receives international award 19/09/06; Mennonites highlight three new anti-HIV strategies 23/08/06; Mennonites join effort to rebuild in Lebanon 17/08/06; Mennonite-backed film helps lift silence on depression 15/08/06; Mennonites see hope amid Congo struggle for democracy 10/08/06; Mennonites respond to massive Lebanese humanitarian needs 09/08/06; Mennonites call on USA and Canada to pursue non-violent alternatives 27/07/06; Mennonites issue action alert on Middle East crisis 24/07/06; Mennonites back trauma counselling in Gaza 20/07/06; Mennonites diversify peace and justice work in Washington DC; Who Are the Anabaptists: Amish, Brethren, Hutterites and Mennonites by Donald B Kraybill Peace church seeks positive alternatives to military recruitment; Mennonite educationists touch global vision in Egypt; Vietnamese Mennonite church faces violent security raid; Ethiopian Mennonite leader delves into politics; European Mennonite theologians tackle violence and God]