Seventeen Mennonite-Christian and Shiite-Muslim scholars of religion met together for four days in Qom, Iran, to discuss the theme of peace and justice. The dialogue conference was planned and hosted May 24-27, 2009 by the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI), under the direction of its president, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) organized and sponsored the conference from the Mennonite side.
The event was a forum for Shiite and Mennonite scholars to learn from each other, develop mutual understanding, and establish friendships. Participants presented papers rooted in their own tradition’s theological understanding of the nature, mandate and implications of peace and justice. Formal and informal discussions provided opportunities to find commonalities, clarify differences, and respectfully engage each other.
The Mennonites presented papers on biblical perspectives, the centrality of Jesus for peace and justice, pacifism, church, martyrdom, advocacy, and the history of Mennonite practices of peace and justice. Shiite presentations examined the relationship between justice and peace in the Qur’an, war and jihad, eschatology, divine mercy, and the nature of the international political order.
Most of the Muslim participants are professors at IKERI as well as clerics, although two professors travelled from other universities to give presentations. The Mennonite participants teach at universities and seminaries in Canada, the USA, and Lebanon. The event was open to the public and advertized around Qom, a significant centre of religious scholarship in Iran. Some sessions drew several dozen observers. While all of the IKERI presenters were men, two Mennonite women, Wilma Bailey and Susan Kennel Harrison, presented papers, participated fully in the conference, and spoke with several Iranian women who came to observe the event.
This conference, the fourth in a series that began in 2002, grew out of an exchange program between MCC and IKERI in which Iranian doctoral students study at the Toronto School of Theology, and Mennonite couples from North America live and study in Qom. The Mennonite delegation extended an invitation to a fifth dialogue to be held somewhere in North America in 2011.
David Shenk, a participant in all four dialogues, commented on the high degree of trust and candor in these particular conversations. Because of personal relationships developed over many years, each side was able to engage and even challenge the other on the assumptions and implications of their positions.
The relationship between justice and peace emerged as a key theme of the conference. In his opening lecture, Ayatollah Rajabi explained that, in Islam, justice is an absolute requirement while peace is conditional upon justice. While peaceful means are ideal, violence may be required when justice is violated, the innocent are attacked, or people are prevented from worshiping God.
From the Mennonite perspective, such a framework appears to move too quickly to war. How does one know that all peaceful means have been exhausted? Yet, to the Shiite members of the dialogue, the Mennonite commitments to pacifism and forgiveness appear to be at the expense of justice. While Mennonites may be interested in developing yet one more practice of nonviolence, is it morally justifiable to do so while innocent people are being killed?
It seemed we were trying to ask them if there were moments in the Qur’an or Islam that could resource faithful, yet nonviolent, responses to injustice, while they were demanding us to be more realistic about all the ways they saw war or self-defense justified within our own texts,
said Susan Kennel Harrison.
Both sides agreed that the human pursuit of justice and peace ought to be rooted in God’s justice and God’s peace. Both have a future-oriented hope for justice to be fully realized upon the return of Jesus and/or the twelfth Imam. Both Mennonites and Shiites are minority groups within Christianity and Islam, and have experienced persecution that shapes their perceptions of the world.
Gordon Zerbe, a first-time participant, noted how the Shiites have a religious imperative to dialogue because of what Islam holds in common with Christianity. At times, there was a remarkable similarity in theological language and concerns. Yet, some conversations made evident significant differences in culture, context, and patterns of thinking. He said:
This dialogue required me to contemplate some foundational assumptions of my own faith. We often take the logic of our own convictions for granted until we explain it to someone who has a very different frame of reference.
A difference emerged in the discussion of how to move from sacred text to contemporary context. One Mennonite scholar argued that the social location of the interpreter or the community of interpretation will partly shape what peace or justice looks like in practice. A Shiite scholar countered that the meaning of the Qur’an is always clear; perspective should not affect its meaning.
A related point of divergence was the Shiite conviction that revelation and reason, including the laws of cause and effect, are always consistent. By contrast, Mennonites have often emphasized the foolishness of the cross. An institution such as the state may be necessary in a fallen world but is “outside the perfection of Christ.” For the Shiites, if absolute pacifism is commanded by God, it must therefore be realistic and effective. Yet it appears to be neither. While Mennonites have preferred to speak about the church rather than the state as the community of peace and justice, Shiite dialogue partners asked whether this is a consistent position for assimilated USA and Canadian Mennonites who benefit from the prestige and power of their states whether they like it or not.
At the end of the conference, the Mennonite delegation expressed its gratitude to IKERI for unsurpassed hospitality, delicious meals, comfortable accommodations, and excellent conference meeting space.
After the conference itself, IKERI arranged for a tour of the city of Hamadan, including a shrine to those honoured as martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war, the synagogue of the ancient Jewish community, and the Ganjnameh cuneiform inscriptions of the Persian Empire. In Hamadan and Qom, the group witnessed active campaigning on behalf of presidential candidates.
The first of this series of conferences was held in Toronto, 2002, on the topic of “The Challenges of Modernity.” The second one was held in Qom two years later on “Revelation and Authority.” “Spirituality” was the theme of the third conference, held in Waterloo in 2007. Papers from the first two conferences were published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review. Papers from the third and fourth conferences will be published in the future.
The Mennonites who presented papers were A. James Reimer and Jeremy Bergen of Conrad Grebel University College, Harry Huebner and Gordon Zerbe of Canadian Mennonite University, Susan Kennel Harrison of the Toronto School of Theology, Wilma Bailey of Christian Theological Seminary, and David Shenk of Eastern Mennonite University.
Henry Paetkau and Nathan Funk of Conrad Grebel University College, and Jon Hoover of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut participated as official observers.
From the Mennonite side, the conference was organized by MCC country representatives Daryl and Cindy Byler, MCC workers Wally and Evie Shellenberger in Qom, and James Pankratz of Conrad Grebel University College.
By Jeremy Bergen