PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Iraq: Where is the Evil by peaceprobe
July 14, 2006, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Interfaith Dialogue, Iran, Iraq, Islam

JULY 14, 2006: In August 2003, a few months after the US occupation of Iraq began, I joined with several co-workers to visit Kabala, Najef, and other areas of Southern Shiite Iraq. Kabala is one of the key spiritual centers of the Muslim world, particularly for Shia people. After a very full day of discussions with local human rights workers, we were encouraged to visit the great mosque and shrine where venerated founders of the Shiite movement are entombed. When we reached the mosque, we saw pilgrims crowding the area in an attitude of great veneration, kissing sacred places. 

Within the courtyard under the oppressively hot sun, men and women gathered in groups to pray and bow before the tombs. We walked around the shrine respectfully and tried not to attract attention to ourselves. Outside the shrine there was a large area where congregants could buy snacks of kebab, vegetables and sweets from stalls. The sun was setting as we exited. In the distance we could see a massive traffic jam of taxis, private vehicles, and busses. Only then did we realize that many of the guests had come great distances to pray, many from Iran.   

We noticed, in the relaxed festive atmosphere, that some of the pilgrims kept watching us and smiling. Our dress betrayed our non Iraqi identity. After a time one of the curious pilgrims asked in perfect English where we were from. I responded that I was from the Chicago but others in our group were from Canada. We began to talk, and as he translated, others joined the conversation which quickly became energized as often happens when long separated friends finally meet. They wanted to know what we did. We explained. We inquired about their life in Iran. They explained. . Their curiosity was palpable as was ours. The tone between us was anything but hostile. We didn’t even have time to get frightened about our security, nor did they. Our conversations ranged over topics like computers, food, home life and faith. One of the Iranians insisted on buying some snacks for us, a sure sign of warm hospitality. 

When we finally went our separate ways, my heart was pounding. We, children of the Great Satan, had just had an enormously relaxing conversation with citizens whose nation had recently been called part of the Axis of Evil by the US President. And, the conversation occurred in a Holy Place. The meeting at the Kabala shrine probably will have little implications for the resolution of matters relating to who is more evil in the world or who has weapons of mass destruction, but that one moment of companionship with Iranians reminded me again that humans do well to exercise some humility in the identification of evil. . 

When Presidents or Ayatollahs confidently name the place where evil exists we get very close to the first and primal sin of the Bible where humans thought that by nibbling the delicious fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would enjoy the good life. The tiny meeting with Iranian pilgrims that we experienced in Kabala was a microcosm of our problem and opportunity on the personal and political level.

We, human beings really prefer to function as Adam, Eve and the serpent each of whom shared complicity in stretching and deceiving one another regarding the knowledge of good and evil. The unifying notion is that the tree of life, in its original portrayal, represents a wholeness of the things that make for peace. It does not say that there is no evil, brokenness or unfinished business, it just suggests that on this question we do well to rein in our blistering overconfidence that locates the source of evil outside ourselves.. The original sin is to say whatever is evil is, out there in another person, organization, bureaucracy, ideology, religion or nation. 

When nations or peace groups become too confident about the precise location of evil, their message has a way of becoming lifeless, boring and easily dismissed. The sacredness in people and nations is awakened by a vision of wholeness, the sum total of which is more than negative diatribes to which we are all tempted. Preoccupation with evil at the expense of the good distorts the goal of wholeness to which we all want to be pulled. 

There was a sacredness to our meeting in the Kabala Holy Place that fatwas (proclamations that carry authority) from Presidents and Aytollahs are unable to touch in their attempts to divide up the world between good and evil. The tree of life reminds us of the balance inherent in our work. Too many confident pronouncements on the nature of evil can drag us down. This does not mean we just sit silently and admire the tree of life. No! Enjoy the garden. But recognize the boundaries of knowledge and vision. The Holy is both beyond us and within us, something that we can appreciate and enjoy right in our own garden. It is here where the undisturbed creation with its magnificent fruit can inspire us to know our perfect place and enjoy taking responsibility for the limited power that we have been given.


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