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‘A table of reconciliation’: Bethel professor joins meeting with Iranian president

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Peace and reconciliation are things to pursue with your enemies rather than your friends, says Bethel College Professor of Bible and Religion Patricia Shelly.

She doesn’t claim the observation as original, but it has become even more important to her personally since she visited Iran in February 2007 and attended two subsequent meetings in New York with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, most recently this past Sept. 25.

A year ago, Shelly was part of an interfaith gathering with Ahmadinejad in New York at which she offered a closing blessing. This time, she was one of the speakers at a meeting where about 300 religious leaders, including Ahmadinejad, discussed religion’s role in responding to global challenges and in building peace and understanding between societies. Shelly presented “the Anabaptist/Mennonite Christian perspective.” Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee and three other religious organizations were the dialogue sponsors.

Ever since Shelly’s visit to Iran as part of a delegation sponsored by MCC and AFSC, she has “felt a strong commitment to be in conversation with people about U.S.-Iranian relations,” she says. “I think I’ve spoken in almost two dozen public meetings [in Kansas, Arizona, California, Iowa and South Dakota] about my part in the delegation and what I’ve learned. Almost 30 percent have been ecumenical or interfaith gatherings that included Jews or Muslims or both. The rest have been in Mennonite church settings.”

Those two dozen meetings with church and community people and the future dates scheduled are what encourage Shelly to stay involved, she says. “They indicate a lot of interest [in our relationship with Iran] by North American religious people. Going to the meetings in New York has given me new motivation to continue speaking effectively.”

“I feel committed to raising the issues,” she continues. “The U.S. has large occupying forces in Iraq, to Iran’s northwest, and to the east in Afghanistan. The U.S. has had no diplomatic relations with Iran for almost 30 years. We have these major disagreements but no good way to talk about them. Isolating Iran is not conducive to peace.”

The interfaith gathering with Ahmadinejad a year ago raised local protests, causing it to be moved from a church in Manhattan to a chapel in the U.N. building. There were also protests surrounding this year’s dialogue. In addition, MCC has been taking some heat from constituents for co-sponsoring the meeting.

Shelly has heard some of that but also continues to hear appreciation expressed for her own efforts to foster peaceful, respectful dialogue on Iran. At a Life Enrichment event at Bethel College where Shelly spoke soon after the Sept. 25 meeting, “towards the end, a woman from the audience said something I’ve heard several times before in other settings: ‘Thank you for going – you were representing my voice.’ There was a huge outbreak of applause. I was glad that [two staff from the MCC Central States office in North Newton who were present] could hear the support after some of the criticism they’ve been fielding.”

She continues, “Participating in dialogue and meetings with President Ahmadinejad is an important way to work at our disagreements. To change people’s views, you have to talk to them. Ahmadinejad expresses some very strong opinions with which I seriously disagree, but I can’t express my disagreement without talking.”

She notes that the angry protests and signs calling Ahmadinejad names may not be the best way to have an impact on him or his government’s policies.

“When people call Ahmadinejad ‘Hitler’ or ‘the devil’ or ‘the Beast,’ why should he listen to them or bother to talk with them?” she says. “He already knows they don’t like him. It’s more difficult to ignore the opinions of those who engage him respectfully and acknowledge his humanity – yet continue to raise issues like the Holocaust and the future of Israel.

“Our meeting on Sept. 25 lasted three-and-a-half hours, during which many people talked about common ground but also made very pointed challenges to some of Iran’s policies [and things the president has said], to the point that both the Iranian ambassador and the president were upset and addressed these. That says to me that he heard what we were saying, because we were there, sharing a meal, speaking face-to-face. Those standing across the street hurling insults didn’t get his ear. We did.

“I find many of Ahmadinejad’s views deplorable,” she concludes, “but it’s not useful to demonize a leader and stereotype a whole country. We’re not going to make peace that way. Yitzak Rabin said, ‘You make peace with your enemies, you don’t make peace with your friends.’ We’d all like to be peacemakers if it meant only having to get along with those who agree with us.”

Shelly adds that whenever she has been in a meeting with Ahmadinejad, he always brings a number of advisors and government officials with him. “I’m hopeful about the kinds of seeds our conversations sow beyond the president,” she says.

She has been thinking recently about one of the most familiar passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. “There’s the line about how God ‘prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,’” she notes. “The common interpretation is that God takes care of us and protects us. That’s true, and I believe it.

“But there is also another, haunting interpretation – that God sets a table of reconciliation for us with our enemies. It’s a harder way to hear the psalm. God is saying: ‘This is my table of reconciliation and I want you to sit down here with your enemy and make peace.’”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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