Later this week, President Obama will deliver a major speech promoting the Iran nuclear agreement at American University. I’m looking forward to the speech, both as an AU alum and someone closely following the upcoming Senate vote on the nuclear agreement. We know President Obama will make the strategic and scientific cases for the deal; I hope he makes the moral case as well.
President Obama has twice chosen the university in northwest D.C. to deliver major speeches, but it was also the site of President Kennedy’s landmark speech on peace and nuclear disarmament in 1963, where he declared, “While we proceed to safeguard our national interests, let us also safeguard human interests” and “the elimination of war and arms is clearly in the interest of both.”
I chose to attend AU because of its strong commitment to wage peace, putting “ideas into action, action into service,” and heritage as a Methodist institution founded “for God and Country.” As a sophomore I took a semester off from AU to serve in the State Department as an intern for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition to representing the U.S. at several international bodies, I was called on to assist with logistics for the U.S. delegation to the first round of negotiations with Iran. I witnessed up close the tough, slow negotiating process that eventually led to this agreement.
My experience in Geneva exposed me to the incredibly smart and crafty diplomats dispatched to stand up for the United States, promote human rights and economic development, and negotiate peace and prevent war. And while that experience ranks as one of the proudest in my life, I was ultimately dissuaded from pursuing a career in the foreign service when I came to the realization that diplomats are only empowered to implement the will of the American people back home — whether that will fits with their moral framework or not. What we believe constitutes moral action, interpersonally and internationally, comes out of our moral character. If the will of the American people shifted to value waging peace over war, human rights over exploitation, and development over dependency, the results of our diplomacy would follow.
As a Christian, like the president and nearly all U.S. senators who will soon vote on the Iran nuclear deal, my moral character is inextricably tied to my profession of faith as a follower of Jesus. What does that profession of faith mean for considering the Iran nuclear deal?
Even a cursory glance at Christian teaching will result in understanding its affinity for peace and abhorrence of war. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Jesus teaches during the Sermon on the Mount. Christian theologians have debated the merits of just war for the past two millennia, but there is no doubt that working for peace is the call of Jesus. War may be a justifiable last resort for national defense or protecting civilians from genocide, but preventing war through nonviolent means must always be the first act.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” This reversal of our self-interested sentiments and expansion of our collective consciousness to include others, even those who we would identify as our enemies, speaks volumes about our approach to dealing with Iranians. As Christians, we are called to hold their interests as people created in the image of God in our hearts as much as we do our fellow Americans.
Christians can judge the faithfulness of this agreement by discerning if it will prevent war and if it will improve the lives of Iranians. On both accounts, the agreement passes.
President Obama has made it clear: “Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war.” Opponents of the deal fear-monger without any foundation or concern for an alternative to open war.
These views are best represented by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who said the deal will lead to another Holocaust with these remarks, “It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Another leading critic of the deal, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), made a twisted biblical allusion, saying, "John Kerry acted like Pontius Pilate,” in that he “He washed his hands, kicked it to the IAEA, knowing that Congress would not get this information unless someone went out to find it." The pair’s outrageous rhetoric illuminates the unreasoned rationale behind opposition to the deal.
The deal will also mean improved human rights for the Iranian people by lifting sanctions. Idriss Jazairy, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions, declared after the deal, "The stockpiling of sanctions and unilateral coercive measures against Iran, some of which went well beyond what was required by the (U.N.) Security Council, has had a significant adverse effect on the country's economy, its population and ultimately on the enjoyment of human rights of the people of Iran, including its right to food, its right to health and its right to development.”
In 1 Timothy 2, believers are instructed to pray “for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” As Christians continue to pray for our president and our senators, let us also pray that we may live more peaceful and quiet lives. The Iran nuclear deal serves that aim and my understanding of what Christian teaching compels believers to advocate for in the public square.
In his 1963 speech, President Kennedy made reference to the moral values underpinning his approach: “‘When a man's ways please the Lord,’ the Scriptures tell us, ‘he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.’ And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter human rights—the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation—the right to breathe air as nature provided it—the right of future generations to a healthy existence?”
On Wednesday, President Obama will make the case that the Iran agreement represents the strategic and scientific course of action for U.S. national security interests. That’s a given. But I hope he makes the case that the agreement is also the Christian thing to do.