Monday, November 7, 2011

Post #55 - Compassion

"If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." (1 Corinthians 13:2-5)

"To love. To be loved...To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you...To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget." (Arundhati Roy)

The correct relationship between each child of God and any other is one of love. We see this most clearly at the times when it is the most difficult to manage: family members of a murder victim find a way to forgive the perpetrator; persons grief-stricken after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington formed 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; Bruce Laingen, senior-most of the 66 American diplomats and staff who were held hostage in Tehran, says that the hostage-taking was an aberration – that Iranians are among the most hospitable people on earth, and that he hopes to return to Iran. Jim Wallis quoted a woman whom he heard on the radio shortly after September 11, speaking against the danger of the natural, but ultimately hazardous route of retaliation: “Mr. President,” she said, “don't spread our pain.”

In Tehran, in 2006, I met the wife of the Australian ambassador in Tehran, Mrs. Sarah Moriarty. While Americans have had no official representation in Tehran since 1979, Moriarty is a volunteer with the Society for Victims of Chemical Weapons. One cannot help but wonder how much her individual acts of compassion say about her country to the Iranians whom she meets, and how these types of gestures may affect international relations.

Historic Bam Citadel, largely destroyed in the quake
When the ancient city of Bam, in southeastern Iran, was destroyed by an earthquake in 2003, a number of non-governmental groups from all over the world rose to cope with care of the dead (between 25 and 40 thousand) and to meet the sudden and overwhelming needs of those who survived. U.S.-based groups included Mercy Corps, the ARC, Child Foundation, American Red Cross and Children of Persia. Additional assistance came from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Relief International and Earthquake Relief Fund for Orphans. Within just a few days of the disaster, the National Iranian-American Council funneled over $100,000 to aid groups through its website. Sadly, the door to helping Iran was to be slammed shut again after 90 days – the one-time, short-term limited waiver of U.S.-engineered sanctions would then be rescinded; those sanctions prevent financial transactions even for humanitarian projects. Groups like the National Iranian American Council advocated, and won, a nine-month extension. How would it have undermined the U.S. posture regarding the Islamic Republic to have had the town of Bam rebuilt with American help, to have had our American eagle and stars & stripes associated with caring and humanity? Might it even have paved the way to a new, mutually-beneficial relationship?

Meeting at Jami'at Al-Zahra seminary in Qom
In contrast to the inept and sometimes immoral record of official relations with Iran, consider the role played, out of the public spotlight, by the Mennonite Church, long known as a “historic peace church” for its strong witness to the seeking of reconciliation. Beginning with humanitarian response to an earlier earthquake in Iran in the early 1990's, the Mennonite Central Committee began sending handfuls of students or scholars to study at a seminary in Qom, Iran (I met one of them there in 2006). Studying Persian language and Islamic culture and theology, they developed relationships in a natural, unhurried way with Iranian counterparts and academic leaders. A young Iranian man was even able to attend a seminar at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. A few years later, he joined the Foreign Ministry of Iran and eventually became director of their office for North American affairs. It was this individual, personal link that led to the possibility of a face-to-face meeting with U.S. religious leaders and the Iranian president at U.N. Headquarters in 2006, and a delegation of them to Iran in 2007. As one member of the latter group said:

"The seed of peace was planted in the rubble of the earthquake, nurtured for more than a decade...and bore fruit in the heart and mind of a young Foreign Ministry official. It is he whom I hold in my heart as a sign of hope. And he is not alone. There are many other Iranians in positions of influence who genuinely seek a normalized relationship with the U.S. and who, through various experiences, have developed a sincere regard to the United States and its people."

The question is: Can these small efforts weigh as much in the scales as all the activities of governments and non-governmental actors which increase the gulf between our peoples?

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