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Eschatology You Can Do Business With

The religious left makes its peace with Ahmadinejad's Madhist doctrine.

12:00 AM, Mar 29, 2007 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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GERALD SHENK, who teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, attended a theology conference on "Madhist doctrine" in Teheran last September. (For many Shiite Muslims, the Twelfth Imam is the Mahdi, or messianic savior, who returns at the end times to establish a reign of righteousness. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prophesied about the Twelfth Imam's glorious return when he addressed the United Nations last October.) Apparently Shenk liked a lot of what he heard and he has written about it in a current issue of Presbyterian Outlook.

Ahmadinejad's dreams of a triumphant apocalypse, which involves the destruction of all infidels, are less than reassuring to many in the West. But Shenk believes that Christians can find common ground with Ahmadinejad's understanding of the prophecy.

Shenk was among a handful of Christians and 4,000 Muslims, including the Iranian president, at the Mahdist doctrine conference. The Mennonite professor explains that this "messianic expectation" among Shiites "hopes for a righteous ruler to return and establish justice, re-ordering human affairs according to God's will."

For Iranian Shiites especially, the Mahdi is "identified as the Twelfth Imam in succession after the Prophet Muhammad, understood as being hidden but not dead for the past eleven centuries." This Shiite savior will "return after a lengthy period of injustice and immorality to establish justice and restore righteousness on earth."

According to Shenk, "Allusions to the precedents in Christian teaching are frequent, and in some versions the return of Christ and the Mahdi figure are linked."

Shenk described Ahmadinejad, during his speech at the Mahdist conference, as having the "earnest intensity of a lay preacher" and considerable "fervor of conviction." And the Iranian theocrat was optimistic: "The whole movement of the world is toward justice, religion, and piety," Ahmadinejad declared, inviting all people to "come to the right path, the way of the prophets."

According to Shenk's account, Ahmadinejad rejoiced that Marxism had been thrown "into the garbage bin of History," and that "the day of empires is finished." He also took aim at American imperialism, denouncing "people who put their hands on the bomb and want to talk." Such people suffer from a "superiority complex," which is the "source of all wars." Those who "claim to represent the whole world" suffer from an "arrogant spirit that is robbing the world," Ahmadinejad warned.

According to Shenk, the Iranian president met with the conference's "foreign guests" at his office in downtown Tehran, where he emphasized that "righteousness must characterize true rulers, and justice must mark the affairs of nations." Shenk observed with admiration that Ahmadinejad "reportedly lives in austerity, driving an ancient Peugeot, and has avoided the corruption that enriched the cronies and relatives of his predecessors."

Indeed, Shenk explained that, "Religious values go far to explain [Ahmadinejad's] passion for dignity, respect, and a more decent share of the earth's bounty for the masses of those currently living in poverty."

AFTER THE INSPIRATIONAL GATHERING in Teheran, Ahmadinejad asked to meet with American religious officials, which he did on September 20 in New York City. The Mennonite Central Committee pulled together about 40 church officials, with several Muslims. According to Shenk, "While ready to give credence to the value of framing geopolitical issues theologically, the Christian representatives also voiced strong reservations about Ahmadinejad's widely cited views on Israel and the Holocaust." How strongly these were voiced is a subject for debate.

"I heard Christian participants in this event say they had been primed to expect to encounter a lunatic," Shenk recalled. "Afterward, they reflected instead on having met a man who spoke knowledgably within a theological framework and who meaningfully (at least on some levels) addressed issues of justice and moral righteousness." Shenk urged that the United States make "tough agreements" with Iran on nuclear weapons, perhaps offering a "fresh round of reductions in our own U.S. nuclear stockpiles" to salt the plate. Meanwhile, the United States needs a "readjustment of rhetoric" about Iran, he says.

As a model for America to follow, Shenk describes how his own Mennonite church has been building a bridge to Iran for more than a decade: "Our students have gone to Iran and studied theology in Islamic seminaries; Muslim students have come to North America in exchange and pursued topics in theology and peace building," he says. "If we want to crack the code with Iran, we must take the theological dimensions of their way of seeing the world more seriously."