PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus


Saviors of the World by peaceprobe
June 17, 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: Iraq, Islam

This past week the Golden Domed Mosque in Samarra, Iraq was bombed for a second time. In February 2006 its dome was destroyed. Last week two minarets were destroyed. Built around 944 AD the Mosque and shrine was the burial site for the 10th and 11th Imams, venerated personalities among Shia Muslims. The event will be noticed and mourned by the majority Shia in Iraq and Iran and around the world. The Mosque is adjacent to a shrine for the Twelfth or “Hidden” Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi born in 868 and expected by various traditions to return to earth as the Savior of the world and the one who will bring justice to humankind. Shia believe that Mahdi will reappear at a time when the world is in great stress due to war and chaos. He will appear from heaven wielding God’s sword while true believers gather.

Over the centuries various people have claimed to be Mahdi only to be swept from favor. In 1979 the Great Mosque at Mecca was seized by a self proclaimed Mahdi and his 1500 followers in an event that required a two week siege by the US trained Saudi Arabian security forces to retake Islam’s holiest site. In the Iranian parliament Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the Iranian revolution was asked if he was the Mahdi. He did not give a clear reply.

The idea that a great Savior will appear to save humankind and bring in the day of peace first appeared in Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion that began in Persia. Often the story includes a great battle where good or the forces of God overcome evil leading to a 1000 year reign. Fragments of these stories appear in the Bible and continue to influence us up to the present time.

In the early 1990s I coordinated a delegation to Israel and Palestine to join with groups from around the world on a peace walk from Haifa in northwestern Israel to Jerusalem. Our group of over a hundred walked through searing heat and finally reached the now almost forgotten Green Line where Israel ends and Palestine begins in the Valley of Jezreel. Today it is a farming valley. Just before the border to the south of the main road I remember a big jail where I was told Palestinians were held at the time. This was a staging area for the Roman army in 67AD when it prepared for its assault on Jerusalem. The Hebrew Bible also refers to Megiddo as the site of a battle which precipitated the decline of the dynasty of David and eventual captivity of Israel. For some Christians, Megiddo is also the site where the final climactic battle between God and Satan, good and evil, the event that will coincide with Christ’s return for a 1000 year reign. Many children of revival meetings have shuddered in fear at this symbolic site of end times, judgement, heaven or hell and the cosmic importance of getting right with God.

At Megiddo our tiny group marched on to the border where Israeli security forces met us and told us that we could not continue beyond the Green Line into Palestine and Jerusalem to the south. More than half of our number were arrested and held in jails in the nearby cities with Biblical names like Tiberias and Caesarea. In a particularly powerful moment one of our number, a Scottish theology student insisted on playing his bagpipes to the tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In” as we tried to walk into Palestine. He was one of the arrested and his arresting officer told him it was illegal to play bagpipes but he told the officer that his instrument was full of air and he could not stop the music. The officer gave up and just pushed him on the bus whereupon he continued playing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

Those of us who were not arrested were confused and generally leaderless – without plan B. By bus we roamed the countryside to find a place to camp late into the night and finally decided to try to pass the Green Line again. When we reached the border at midnight the soldiers were gone so we passed over and reached the Palestinian village that had been waiting for more than 12 hours to host us. Eventually all of us reached Jerusalem, our captives were released and we proclaimed victory in the nonviolent peace walk through Megiddo. Sometimes I now tell friends that the Battle of Armageddon is over. The victory has been won. The Spirit is alive and waiting for us to do our peacemaking work.

The notion that a great savior event, person, or both will bring about the age of justice, peace, and fairness after a great battle between armies of the earth has been around for a long time. Nazis believed that the Third Reich would accomplish this. In the 1960s and 1970s I tuned in to short wave Radio China or Radio Moscow to listen to their take on events of the earth. From time to time their reporting would be interrupted by the Communist International which I thought had a very well crafted tune. “Tis the final conflict” they sang as they extolled the international working class and its role of leading humankind into the final great conflict and eventually to peace and justice everywhere. Centuries ago many of our European ancestors embraced the New World as that new beginning and then in turn felt the need to “civilize and Christianize” First Nations people decimating both culture and the people.

All of this is playing in my mind as I learn of one more bombing – this one at a special spiritual site, that like holy sites anywhere hints at the salvation of the world. These stories of final events, and a new age of peace awaken us although as children of the age of reason we can get a little nervous with these stories. There have been a lot of mistaken predictions about when and how Jesus is coming back to be with us just like Shia Muslims have gotten it wrong with Mahdi. Most of them have had trouble understanding that maybe he is not coming back to knock over bad governments and militarily impose a new age of justice, by getting rid of Saddam, King Herod, Caesar, or President Whoever. We still persist in a kind of theology of cosmic coup d’etats where things will get better if we change the guy at the top. Even in the scriptures there are differing opinions about the content of Jesus return. Many believed that it would happen in the life time of people who personally knew Jesus. Well Jesus didn’t come back to knock Caesar or his regional warlords off their thrones. But that doesn’t mean that he would have been more effective if he had become their Minister of Health, Religion or War.

The point of faith is that there is a timeless power at work sometimes described as love, sometimes as prayer, sometimes as specific activism with a transforming expectation of history. It is everywhere and particular, specific to concrete situations in life and society. The Mahdi never comes as we might prescribe it (him or her) because the spirit is already here if we have eyes or ears to recognize divine energy and power. It isn’t stuck in a specific place or mode. The template of the universe is different from the template of nations, Presidents, and Kings. This in fact is a source of hope and confidence for our work and allows us to think outside the time frames of election seasons or congressional bills. If we are listening it might also inform us on how to deal with those we call terrorist who want to blow up holy places wherever they are, Jerusalem, Samaara, caves that once hid persecuted believers, or forests of North America held sacred by the First peoples.

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