There are reports that an Iranian Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is under threat of execution by the Iranian authorities for blasphemy for his refusal to renounce his Christian faith. Though there are reports of persecution of Christians in many countries, China included, it usually takes the plight of a single identifiable individual to make an otherwise generalized problem -- in this case religious intolerance -- take concrete rather than abstract dimensions.
The re-emergence of the religious right in America during this current presidential campaign, though mild by comparison to threatened executions by radical clerics, should give us cause for concern. Though well over two centuries ago, "witches" were burned in this country and a recent book documents the struggles of Roger Williams against fundamentalist intolerance. The persistent thread of intolerance springs from a narrow fundamentalist insistence on orthodoxy in an age in which strict religious doctrine in some quarters quickly emerged to fill the vacuum of failed 20th century political ideologies. And religious orthodoxy exhibits an almost demented insistence on conformity and intolerance toward political dissent.
Intolerance is a function of fear, fear not simply of conflicting views and beliefs but of a more powerful and more persuasive faith. The radical Islamic mullahs who dictate social behavior and religious belief in Iran are afraid of Pastor Nadarkhani. They fear a man whose beliefs about redemption, love, and compassion are so deep and so powerful that he will die for them. The early Christian church got its foothold in unlikely venues as much as anything because its disciples, apostles, and believers were willing to perish for these beliefs.
But do not other religions invite martyrdom, and did not the later Christian church in the middle ages barbarically persecute non-believers? Indeed, but jihad is a far cry from non-violent resistance based on faith, and the church of the inquisition and crusades was as far from the teachings of Jesus as it is possible to be.
Conformity, orthodoxy, and fundamentalism are inconsistent with both the principles of democracy and the teachings of Jesus. Those teachings upon which true Christianity was and is based are intolerant, but they are intolerant of cruelty, judgmentalism, and presumed spiritual superiority.
Though the product of an evangelical family, church, and college, and a divinity school graduate, I tried to exhibit my beliefs and the principles based upon them, though not without error, in the quiet performance of public duties and not by seeking to impose them on others. But those same beliefs now cause me to pray for Pastor Nadarkhani and others like him around the world and to pray that the spirit of intolerance is once more rejected by our nation.