10 June 2013

No war in the land of Esther

In the first Gospel, the first people to recognise Christ as King and worship him were magi; that is, the Persian (read: Iranian) followers of the prophet Zoroaster. That they would recognise Christ as King and worship him is fully understandable; they were merely doing so in accordance with Zoroaster’s teachings.

Zoroaster was one of the first prophets to proclaim a single God, transcendent, without form and not contingent upon history or culture. He was the first prophet to proclaim truth, beauty and goodness as transcendent ideals, outside of historical or cultural constraints.

He was also among the first prophets (along with Zhou Gong Dan and Abraham) to preach what was then, and apparently is again now, the radical social doctrine that it is not the absolute and untrammeled private right of the wealthy and the powerful to dominate the poor and the weak. He preached, indeed, that the treatment of the poor and weak, whether good or ill, would have eternal consequences, correspondingly good or ill. He preached a divine right of kings (again, along with Zhou Gong Dan) that is dependent on the righteous behaviour of the king, as measured by how he treats the least of these in his kingdom, and held well before Mencius that it is not wrong to overthrow a tyrant, a ruler without farr. Indeed, he was among the first people to hold that each person is responsible for her own actions (and only her own actions) in her own lifetime. He was also among the first people to proclaim a Saviour of the world, born of a virgin, who would come to judge the living and the dead.

As Pliny tells us, Zoroaster’s followers and priests, the magi, were the tutors of Pythagoras, and through Pythagoras of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the entire Western virtue-ethical tradition. That all too many of our classicists persist in the error of Herodotus in identifying the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids as barbaric, or even more laughably tyrannical, merely because two of their emperors (Darius the Great and Xerxes the Great) opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded foreign policy is nothing more or less than a reflection of their dependence on that government’s own propaganda. Socrates also opposed the government of Athens in its wrongheaded religious policy, to his death; would these same classicists render him also a barbarian?

That same Xerxes, by the way, is the same Persian Emperor who married Esther, and who saved the Jewish nation from perishing from the face of the Earth. That Esther, along with her kinsman Mordechai, the prophet Daniel and Ezra the Scribe, are still buried in Iran. To this day, there remain Jews in Iran; these Jews for the most part choose to stay in Iran in spite of repeated attempts by the Israeli government to resettle them, and have permanent representation in the Majlis, where they sit alongside the Christian Armenians and Assyrians who have also historically sought shelter in Iran from persecution, and who also have guaranteed seats there. (Armenia, the oldest Christian country on the planet, also happens to be one of a number of countries which recognises Iran’s right to pursue peaceful applications of nuclear power.) These Jews, and these Christians, emphatically want no war to ‘liberate’ them, as any such war would have disastrous consequences for them in particular.

Is it truly so surprising that from a nation in which lies the fountainhead of Greco-Roman philosophy, and the first inklings and the preservation of Judaic morality, come several priests who come to kneel and worship before the incarnate recapitulation of both? It would not have been so to St Matthew, a Jew who spoke Greek and who was obviously very knowledgeable about both Jewish and Greek history.

Iran is home to the second-oldest continuous civilisation existing in the world today, after China. That civilisation, which stands on the Silk Road and thus not only was invaluable to the intercourse between East and West but in some measure belonged to both, assimilated their Macedonian Greek conquerors, evaded conquest by the Romans and the Huns, resisted conquest by the Arabs, the Turks and the Mongols, and carried the torch of their unique civilisation through the gauntlet of the murderous rapine of each. So deep runs the Zoroastrian-rooted tradition of a transcendental, scholastic principle of justice in Iranian civilisation that it managed to transfigure even the doctrines of Islam into the social-justice and martyr-oriented tradition of the Shi’at Ali – inspiring the ‘Red Shi’ism’ of Dr Ali Shariati.

The historical record indicates that the Iranian people do not suffer tyrants lightly, be they Huns, Arabs, Turks, Mongols or British. Rest assured that we shall see the green banners again, but though we may and should wish them well, we must never presume that they are our own cause. We must never support the Mojahedin-e Khalq or the Salafist Jundullah, both of whom (though for very different reasons) hold in contempt the civilisation they seek to ‘liberate’, as the standard-bearers of that cause. And most of all, we must never seek to invade that nation, thus damaging perhaps for centuries to come the beautiful tapestry that has taken them five millennia to weave.

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