Iran and its people have been too long demonized as enemies of the U.S. Christians have many biblical passages about loving our neighbors and our enemies, about being peacemakers, about befriending others, and about working for justice that we can use to support friendship with Iran.
Iran is not just a neighbor or enemy—it has shaped who we are as Christians. The Bible speaks of an even deeper connection of Christians to Iran, which in biblical times was called Persia.
A half millennium before there was a Jesus Christ, there was a Cyrus Christ.
Thirty nine years ago, I was introduced to the ancient culture of Persia in a college class on the Hebrew Bible. I learned that Persia was so important to the formation of post-exilic Judaism that the prophet Isaiah called the Persian King Cyrus God’s Messiah, translated in Greek as Christ (Is. 44:28-45:1-8). While Cyrus conquered territory for an empire that stretched from Europe and North Africa to India, he kept the loyalty of people he subjugated by offering religious tolerance and rebuilding what his predecessors had destroyed. He freed the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and assisted them in the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Sometimes, he was more popular with people he conquered than their own lousy rulers were.
Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, which developed the idea that, upon death, human beings would be judged for their deeds by Ahura Mazda, Lord Wisdom, who created the universe. People would either enter a heavenly paradise or fall into hell.
Benny Liew, a New Testament scholar, reads the story of the magi in Matthew as an interfaith revelation of the truth of Christmas. The magi, from Persia, were Zoroastrian monotheists who had their own ideas about a Shoshyant, a hoped-for Messiah who would restore justice and endow blessings. Jewish leaders regarded Zoroastrianism favorably, and Jesus’ family was Jewish. So was he. Liew notes that the Zoroastrian magi in the Gospel knew a Jewish savior had arrived, who was important to the world. It’s probably no accident that they came from Persia, since Rome and its ally Herod hated this empire it couldn’t conquer. Rome made it a crime, punishable by crucifixion, to practice the magical arts of Persia.
Christians believe Jesus is a messiah, christ in Greek. Mahmoud Sadri in “Gift of the Magi” suggests Iranian-Americans should also celebrate Christmas because Jews developed the idea of a messiah from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrians believed that the arrival of three saviors and a final battle to annihilate evil would bring the new perfect age and defeat evil. Humans could save the world by defending Wisdom with reason and insight and help usher in a new world of justice and peace—this may be why Matthew has the magi endorse the birth of Jesus as one of the expected messiahs. Sadri notes Christmas also has meaning for Muslims, who honor Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the Quran 19, 15-34, which tells the story of the nativity and virgin birth.
Today, it’s easy to read this ancient vision of paradise and battles against evil as kin to the hope that motivates suicide bombers or that leads Christian Zionists to pray for war in Israel to hasten Armageddon. However, Zoroaster lived at a time when empires were relatively new in human history. Their wars had devastated human societies and the environment, and the idea of capricious gods or the hand of fate encouraged people to see themselves as pawns of greater powers. They also often saw their kings as divinities.
Zoroaster offered a vision of good and evil that affirmed human free will and called for human ethical responsibility. Humanity was not made to serve the exploitive, capricious gods or fate, but to take the side of good and to be ethical. Only those who were ethical belonged in paradise. He challenged the ideas that those with extraordinary power could decide right and wrong and that kings were divine. The carnage and injustices of earthly empires would not go unnoticed or unpunished. A power greater than any king ruled from heaven—and this prophet managed to convince a few Persian kings of his point of view.
Long before the Enlightenment and our modern democracies, Zoroastrianism had developed a moral system separate from the state or empire. Judaism and Christianity would also retain this ethical freedom of God and the right of religious people to judge any ruler based on moral principles of justice and peace.
While I don’t care for ideas of the afterlife that support an apocalyptic destruction of this world, Christians have also inherited many important and valuable features of our faith from Persia. We received a rich interfaith legacy and the idea of religious tolerance. It’s not a bad idea to think there could be multiple messiahs and some might come even from other cultures and religions. Helps us avoid self-righteous ethnocentrism. Without ancient Persia, we might even say that we might not have even existed because Judaism itself would have been different if it hadn’t been freed from Babylon.
Even after Iran was converted to Islam, its long, literate, and sophisticated civilization continued. And it produced one of the great bodies of literature and a humane and beloved tradition of poetry that has recently been discovered in the West, especially figures such as Omar Khay’yam, Sadi, Hafez, and Rumi.
Last summer, a group of organizations, my own included, started the <a href=”www.axisoffriendship.org”>Axis of Friendship</a> when Congress was considering an act of war against Iran. It honors the vast network of people around the world who stood with the U.S. in solidarity and sorrow on Sept. 12, 2001, a real network,, as opposed to the axis of evil invented six months later as a pretext for war. The network included 10,000 people in Tehran who kept a candle light vigil on the city’s streets that night. The financial meltdown took everything else off the table, so it appears we won’t be starting another war (with a country 3 times the size of Iraq!). This summer, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) joined the Axis of Friendship, which means churches are invited annually to remember Axis of Friendship Day.
The miracle of Iran’s Green movement that erupted this June in the wake of a fraudulent election revealed the human face of Iran, so long hidden from the rest of the world. Unlike our weak response to the U.S. election fiasco in 2001 and unlike most political protests in the U.S., the majority marching in the streets of Iran’s cities were women. Despite years of oppression, the women of Iran, side by side with their countrymen, marched for human rights, democracy, and justice. Neda Soltan, murdered by the Basij state militia, has become the icon of Iran’s courageous pro-democracy movement. Millions watched it erupt in the grainy, handheld images on Facebook and Twitter and prayed for its success. Iranians and their friends in many other places marched in solidarity with those in Iran.
Knowing the amazing religious legacy of Iran, we can see how the Green Pro-Democracy movement has deep roots and is grounded in values we share with the people of Iran. The Islamic Republic and their dauphin Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are aberrations, so their days are numbered. And we can pray that this is so, on behalf of our sisters and brothers in Iran.