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Pursuing the Possibility of Peace with Iran

Reading news that diplomats say they have an agreement that would block Iran from developing nuclear weapons and prevent another war, my mind went back to the 1979 hostage crisis. As a 19-years-old American, I was so outraged by the treatment of our diplomats that I enlisted in the Navy to prepare for the coming war with Iran.

Thankfully, that war never came. I followed God’s leading and my family background to become a Pentecostal pastor and theologian. Many years later I’m no less angry at the taking of those hostages, but I also understand that crisis came in the context of decades of missed opportunities to talk to each other dating back at least to a US-backed coup in 1953, the shooting down of a civilian airliner with nearly 300 passengers on board and Iran’s sponsorship of violent extremism across the Middle East.

I don’t know every single detail of the new agreement negotiated with Iran. But I do try to live by God’s call to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14). If, after decades of hostility and angry rhetoric, the international community has crafted a nuclear accord that helps keep Iran from the bomb and helps keep the United States from another devastating war in the Middle East, then we have much to celebrate. And even if we don’t trust the Iranians or even our own government entirely, we still ought to pursue the path of peace as vigorously and strongly as possible.

The new diplomatic agreement with Iran does not erase history or cause us to forgive or forget the taking of U.S. hostages or, I would guess, the Iranian people to forget the U.S. warship shooting down a civilian airliner. What the new agreement does do is establish a process for the international community to monitor Iran’s nuclear energy program and require the Iranian government to limit that program in ways that have not happened for the last decade. And in exchange, the international community will begin to lift sanctions on Iran. It also establishes a solid international process for monitoring Iran’s compliance with the restrictions on nuclear activity – a process much stronger and more robust than anything that has been in place before.

I’m not naïve enough to suppose that the Iran Nuclear Deal is perfect, or that tensions between these two nations will simply disappear. I recall the instructive words of Jesus for those sent out “as sheep in the midst of wolves” to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Honestly, I struggle with balancing such obviously conflicting images in my mind. And yet… that’s what Jesus said. And I trust Jesus. I don’t trust human governments. I don’t trust politicians’ hidden agendas. But I trust Jesus. I trust Jesus completely.

The U.S.-Iranian relationship will likely continue to be defined by disagreements for some time, whether on crises in the Middle East, or on human rights and religious freedom issues. As one wise Israeli leader reminded us decades ago, you don’t make peace with your friends.  Jesus taught us to love those whom we consider to be our enemies. On this I may struggle to be a good Christian, but I again recognize the wisdom of Jesus words proclaimed from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Personally, I affirm the right and responsibility of sovereign nations to defend and protect themselves and their citizens. Protecting the people of both the US and Iran in this case clearly involves containing and deescalating the nuclear arms race. Paraphrasing Jesus, “All those that take up nuclear weapons shall perish by nuclear weapons” (see Mathew 26:52).

There are already voices in Iran and in the United States clamoring for our two countries to reject this agreement. My concern is that many in our country seem to have already made up their minds that this is a bad agreement that can’t be supported. To my mind, that would be a mistake of historic proportions. Why not at least give it a chance? Let’s take time to pray about it, think about it, talk about it; if it really isn’t any good, its flaws will show through soon enough. If it does turn out to be a positive tool for progress, we will not have missed the chance without even considering it.

For me, giving this agreement a chance to work isn’t about partisanship or political posturing. It isn’t about supporting the Obama administration or preparing for 2016 presidential elections. As a follower of Jesus, I feel called to speak out for the possibility of peace. The greatest danger here is that we don’t take a risk for peace, that we don’t pursue the possibility that an agreement with Iran could lessen the tensions between the international community and Iran and ultimately deescalate the potential for conflict in a region that is already suffering the effects of war and violence in ways unimaginable to most of us in the United States.

In the coming weeks, members of Congress in both the House and the Senate will vote on whether or not this agreement proceeds. Every lawmaker will cast a vote on whether to approve or reject this deal. The stakes on this matter have never been higher. That is why forty national organizations, including more than a dozen faith-based groups, wrote a letter urging lawmakers to vote in support of this deal. The groups noted that this “will be among the most consequential national security votes taken by Congress since the decision to authorize the invasion of Iraq.”

Our elected officials need to hear from pro-diplomacy constituencies, and hearing from people of faith in support of diplomacy could have a lot of sway.

This agreement is an opportunity to imagine a brighter future for us all—one in which Americans and Iranians are no longer condemned to live through another generation of animosity. At such a historic moment, we are reminded of our responsibility to seek peace and pursue it, whether in Washington or in our own communities.

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Category: Living the Faith, Summer 2015

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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