A few Vox Nova readers recently stated in the comboxes that the U.S. soldiers currently occupying Iraq are “the greatest and the noblest of our generation” because of their courage and the sacrifices they make for the nation that they serve.
As I was reading these admittedly somewhat trite comments last night, I received an email press release from Pax Christi USA announcing that Catholic and Mennonite peacemakers met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations yesterday for dialogue. From that press release:
Even as the war drums beat louder and the rhetoric remains heated, U.S. Catholic leaders joined an interfaith effort to defuse tensions between Iran and the United States. The dialogue between North American religious leaders and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took place at the United Nations this morning and was focused on improving East-West relations through informal diplomacy.
President Ahmadinejad, visiting New York to attend the United Nations 62nd General Assembly session, sat down with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders for the third time in the past year. The first meeting happened last year, also at the UN, followed by a February 2007 visit to Iran by U.S. religious leaders at the invitation of the Iranian president, who received them at the Presidential Palace, the first U.S. citizens to be welcomed there in over 25 years.
These dialogues have included frank discussions on the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the role of religion in peacemaking, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the use of hostile rhetoric.
“We are deeply concerned about the prospect of war with Iran, but I left today’s meeting hopeful because of the statements made by President Ahmadinejad regarding the renunciation of war and the quest for peace,” stated Joseph Fahey, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and a member of the Catholic delegation. “This meeting was an attempt to build bridges with Iran despite the generally hostile reception President Ahmadinejad received here in New York City. We strongly believe that only through formal and informal diplomacy and respect for international law can there be peace between Iran and the U.S.”
The Catholic delegation was organized by Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, and included theologians, clergy and religious, and leaders of national Catholic organizations. The meeting, hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee, took place amidst heightened security at the Church Center at the UN and was billed as a “time of dialogue and prayerful reflection among the children of Abraham.”“Our message today, both in our words and by our actions, is that our country and our political leaders need to engage Iran in respectful and meaningful dialogue in order to overcome the historical enmity that has existed between our two nations,” said Dave Robinson, Pax Christi USA Executive Director. “We need our leaders to put aside the threats of war and to engage now-to have what President Ahmadinejad asked for today: sincere and fair negotiations.”
Jean Stokan, Pax Christi USA Policy Director, stated that now is the time for U.S. citizens to start encouraging their elected officials to push for a policy of negotiation with Iran.
“It is our responsibility-the responsibility of people of faith in the U.S.-to work now to assure that the Bush Administration chooses a diplomatic path, not a military one, in dealing with our differences with Iran. The alternative is simply unacceptable.”
Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that the secular virtue of courage, signified in the often reckless bravery of soldiering, is much different than the Christian understanding of courage which is signified in the cross and in the witness of martyrdom. From a Christian perspective, then, which takes more “courage”: suppressing the moral responsibility to grapple with the question of “whether I personally agree with the war or not” and accepting the command to participate in an unjust war (all the while under the threat of force, of course), or sitting down at the table with one of the world’s most notorious and reviled dictators?
Peace-minded folks are often chided for being impractical and utopian. I cannot think of anything more practical and concretely faithful than what the participants in this interfaith effort had the courage to do: sit down at the table with a dictator in order to start the real and difficult process of peacemaking. We should be thankful for Pax Christi and the Mennonite Central Committee for their witness to the real, cruciform meaning of courage.