Perhaps you've heard of him - The Christian in Iran that has been imprisoned (depending on whose claims you believe) either for being a Christian or for compromising Iranian national security. He was facing a notorious judge who is known as a hanging judge. He could have faced the death penalty, but instead has been sentenced to an eight year prison term.
I say perhaps you've heard of him, because your exposure might be limited by what you watch and listen to. His story has been covered heavily on FOX News, and the radio personalities on Air1 have frequently talked about him and his family. There is a an outrage against the Iranian government among conservative Christendom. Frankly, I'm appealed. But it's not the circumstances of Saeed's unfortunate time in Iran that bothers me. It's the completely un-Biblical response from American Christians that I find most disturbing.
Before I go further, let me say that I'm not an expert in Iranian law. Nor am I an expert in Mid East culture or Muslim beliefs. In fact, I'm not much of an expert in anything. But I do read and study the Bible. I do observe and analyze the American Christian subculture. I do participate in Christian traditions and I find significant identity and value in my faith. So before anyone wants to label me as a heathen, lets look at the facts.
1. From most reports, Saeed Abedini's presence in Iran was fairly benign. He was there to build an orphanage. This is something that should be lauded regardless of your religious persuasion.
2. Iran is Islamic republic governed by a Supreme Leader who has absolute power in Iran. As such, Islam is their only recognized and accepted religion.
3. Saeed was arrested by The Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution. Iran's regular army defends it's borders and fights the physical battles like the army of any other nation. However The Army of the Guardians is a religious army and their purpose is to protect Iran's Islamic system. From that perspective, it's easy to believe that Saeed was arrested solely due to his Christian faith as Iran's religious military could view his religious views as a threat to Iran's security.
4. This was not Saeed's first trip to Iran. Iran is his nation of origin. He and his wife moved to the United States to escape religious persecution in 2005. He was arrested there previously on his first trip back to Iran in 2009. Since then he's made several trips between Iran and his home in Boise.
5. Iran does not recognize his American citizenship.
6. Prior to assuming his role as Secretary of State, John Kerry said that he was concerned about Saeed's trial and imprisonment. He was vocal in condemning Iran's violation of Saeed's human rights. Several members of Congress are urging Kerry to intervene.
From the news reports I've seen/heard/read, the universal response from the Christian church is one of disgust. The unfairness of the situation is the overwhelming theme in how most Christians have responded. Is Saeed's prison sentence heartbreaking? Yes. Is it tragic? Absolutely. Is it unfair? I'm not so sure about that one.
Consider this. Saeed knowingly went into a nation that is hostile toward western influence. He knowingly professed his faith in a land that is adamantly opposed to Christianity. I'm sure that Saeed was aware of the risks to his safety before he went to Iran, yet he went anyway because he believed it is what God wanted him to do. His situation reminds me of Andrew van der Bijl (AKA Brother Andrew), who smuggled Bibles across the Iron Curtain during the 50's and 60's. Brother Andrew worked to share the Gospel in Communist countries starting with Poland and Czechoslovakia, eventually going into Russia and China. Brother Andrew understood the risks of his travels. He has preached with guerrilla guns trained on him. He's been arrested in Russia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Yet, he continued in his work despite the ever-present danger.
This is where American values don't align with Christian ideals. We think we should be able to do whatever we want and God will shield us from the consequences because we're acting in His name. The fact of Saeed's imprisonment is that the practice of Christianity is not welcome in Iran. Does that mean that Saeed should not have gone back to that country to start home churches or establish an orphanage? Of course not. If he feels that is what God wanted him to do, then I don't have any objections to him going and following God's lead. However, doing God's will is not without risk. Saeed had previously experienced religious persecution for being a Christian in Iran. He had previously been arrested for practicing Christianity in Iran. To continue travelling there means that he understood and accepted the risk of his actions - much the same as Brother Andrew, or missionaries to China and Indonesia, or Christians in any other country where there is pervasive religious persecution.
But the American Christian thinks that's unfair. The American Christian thinks that Christians should be immune to the foreign laws that could be hostile toward Christianity. The American Christian demands that Christians be treated with more respect than people of other faiths. The American Christian insists on having an equal or greater voice in the affairs of the world. The American Christian has come to believe that they should be able to share their faith in any manner they see fit without any push-back or rejection. I see nothing in Biblical texts to support such an impetuous mindset.
The Bible that I read states time and time again that we are to expect to be mistreated and maligned. Jesus' teachings indicate that we should not only expect it, but also accept it. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first... If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also... They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me." Elsewhere he says that we are blessed "when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man."
Even when you look at the lives of the apostles, the first followers of Jesus and forefathers of the Christian church, none of them lived out their lives in the comfort the American Christian has come to expect. The Biblical account shows Peter arrested for his faith, and Christian tradition accounts his death as martyrdom - crucified upside down. Andrew is said to also have been martyred by crucifixion. Phillip, Simon, and Jude were all martyred. James was beheaded. Bartholomew was flayed. Thomas was speared to death. John was banished to Patmos. Paul's fate is more well known - repeatedly beaten and jailed. Tradition holds that he was executed in Rome.
Of the apostles, Paul's view of persecution is most poignant. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says, "if you suffer because you are a Christian, do not be ashamed. Praise God because you wear that name." And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul writes, "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul's instruction to the Church in Corinth states, "We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed... For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body." He praised the church in Thessalonica as being strong despite suffering and mistreatment.
The typical attitude of the American Christian is contrary to what the Bible teaches. If there's a Christian in jail, he or she should be released. Christians should not be mocked. Christians should be able to retaliate against those that attack the church. The church should rebel against any perceived tyrannical government. Such a defiant ethos is not the kind of faith preached throughout the Gospels and the Epistles. Saeed's predicament shows a clear contrast between a Christian life and the life of an American Christian. The American Christian has an expectation of a certain level of comfort. For the Christian, comfort is never guaranteed. The American Christian demands justice now. A Christian should accept justice in God's timing. The American Christian wants the world to function acconding to their beliefs and opinions. The Christian understands that the world functions within the will of God and that we might not understand His will. The American Christian is proud and arrogant. The Christian humbly submits to God.
The predominant message in Saeed's story has been that we pray for and insist on his release. There is an expectation that he returns home, safe and sound. I'm not convinced that's how we should be praying. If we understand the Biblical purpose for persecution, we know that it is for God's glory. We understand that He is made great through our weaknesses. We trust that He is in control even when bad things happen. We accept that the worst of circumstances serve to further the Good News of hope and redemption.
The news from Iran breaks my heart. But I don't think we should be praying that Saeed is released from prison. Instead we should be praying that Saeed's imprisonment is used for God's purposes. We can hope for Secretary Kerry and other government leaders to work through diplomatic channels in Saeed's favor, but we should have no expectation for their success. Rather than praying for Saeed's life and safety, we should be praying that God gives him strength and courage. We should be praying for his wife and kids, that they should find rest when discouraged. We should be praying for Saeed's friends at Calvary Chapel Boise, that they demonstrate love and support to Saeed's family in their time of distress. And above all, we should pray that God's will be done. If our government reaches a deal with Iran to release Saeed early, we should praise God. If Saeed serves out his eight year sentence before he is allowed to return home, we should praise God. And if he never returns, we should praise God.
But this attitude that we know what is fair or just... that needs to end.