07/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lazarus and the Iranians

I spent this week at a clergy conference in Liverpool, England, where the theme was the Justice of God: "Just by God, Just with God, Just for God." One of my presentations focused on Jesus' story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Injustice in this passage is quite clear; a poverty stricken man, starving and homeless, living at the gate of a wealthy man. These problems persist today with over half the world's population living on less then $2 a day, 30,000 children still dying every day because they are too poor to live, climate change bringing rising coastal waters, and droughts destroying crop production in some of the world's most food insecure areas. For decades now humanity has had the means for global destruction and that possibility is never far from many of our minds. Our ability to confront these challenges is one of the great pressing issues of justice in our world today.

But there is a very basic point in the story. The Justice of God lies in a far more fundamental and radical challenge, and our ability to rise to this challenge or our failure to meet it will greatly determine our success in meeting any of the other great challenges of our day. That challenge is simple, but also the hardest to realize: to recognize our common humanity with all God's children of this world.

In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, it is easy to see the disparity between the two and blame the wealth of the rich man for his eventual fate. But the story does not condemn the wealth of the rich man so much as it shows his greatest fault; throughout the story, he never recognizes the humanity of Lazarus. In the entire time that Lazarus sat at the gate of the rich man and the demands the rich man made of Lazarus after they both had died, we never see the rich man recognize the existence of Lazarus as another human being created in the image of God.

The need for our recognition of that common humanity is now at stake in Iran. The grassroots fight for change in Iran not only has the opportunity to shape the country itself, but is changing the way many people across the globe view Iran and the entire Muslim world. As Hurricane Katrina revealed a world of poverty that many in America did not realize existed, this election and the resulting protests have revealed to the world young Muslims seeking renewal of their faith and reform in their country.

In an era of instantaneous global communication, there has never been a greater opportunity for individuals and communities around the world to recognize one another's common humanity and never a greater danger of denying it. It was just a few years ago in the United States that Iran and all Iranians by association were lumped into one category, the "Axis of Evil." Last week, one of my young staff members wrote an open letter "To my brothers and sisters in Iran" that reflects these changes.

A connection has been made. A connection clearly seen between a young generation here in the United States and a young generation of Iranians who have taken to the streets. It is a connection that will be a factor in determining the political future of Iran with the rest of the world. I do not think our government will be so quick to drop bombs when so many in our country have now seen the faces and heard the voices of those who might very well hit. The end results of these protests are still not clear. The world should be, as President Obama said, "appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the past few days." But, our response can not be one to a broad caricature of Iran as simply a member of the "Axis of Evil." Rather, it must be based in that radical challenge of the Justice of God -- to recognize our common humanity with all God's children of this world.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at

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