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Thinking Out Loud

Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

by User Not Found | Jun 28, 2011
This blog post was guest-written by F. Morgan Roberts.

As most of us look forward to summer travels, relief from regular work, and time for reflection and study, many of the Hispanic migrant children whom I tutor weekly will move from Florida, following the crops to another state, and not returning until weeks after school has started in the fall. They will live in substandard housing; their summer will not be like that of my own grandchildren. As I thought of my migrant kids, heading off to their “different summer,” a doctor who teaches in a nearby medical school told me about a man in his country who devoted his entire life to the education of nomadic children whose families follow their herds.

The hero of my friend’s story was a man who, even though his noble birth afforded him a formal education in law and fluency in English, German, and French, never forgot that he himself was born in a tent, the son of a tribal chieftain. And so he went and pitched a “white school tent” among a nomadic people. From that simple beginning, as others joined him, there began a movement that grew so rapidly during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that, by the end of his life, having established 550 nomad schools, a half million nomads could read, with the most promising students going on to a nomad college that graduated 9,000 trained teachers (many of them women), with other graduates moving on to careers as physicians, lawyers, and engineers.

Of course, this man’s movement encountered strong opposition; particularly because the education of so many women threatened the status quo of those for whom an uneducated populace, raised by illiterate mothers, was a source of profit and power. So threatening was the success of his work that, finally, his enemies paid him the supreme compliment: they accused him of being a CIA operative! When he died in May of 2010, the gratitude of his graduates was so overflowing that, at his funeral, 24,000 mourners were in attendance.

Such stories somehow don’t make our front pages—maybe because all of this took place in Iran, and his name was Mohammad Bahmanbeigi, and he was a

Muslim. Rather surprisingly, however, this man devoted his life to something strangely and beautifully Christ-like. Like the Word in John’s gospel, who became flesh and “pitched his tent among us,” this man stepped down from a higher, nobler place and “pitched his tent” among a people deeply in need of the light of literacy.

How is it that, every so often, people who make no claim at being Christian end up doing something fully as Christ-like as that which is being done by Christians? Here’s a question for summer reflection: Does it matter that Mohammad Bahmanbeigi was not a Christian?

One of the regular listeners to my Sunday night radio program from Shadyside Church in Pittsburgh was a Jewish rabbi. I first became aware of this when he sent me a sermon he had delivered on Rosh Hashanah. I liked one of his stories, and so I phoned to ask permission to use it in one of my sermons. “No problem,” he replied. “I use lots of your material.” “How can you possibly do that?” I asked, “So much of my material seems specifically Christian.” “It’s easy,” he said, “I just take it and make it Jewish.”

Isn’t there a basic truth in what he was saying? A true word is a true word no matter who utters it. A just action is a just action regardless of who performs it. Does God look down from heaven to see if people are wearing the right label?

While my migrant children are gone for the summer, I will spend some time reflecting upon those words that seem to deny the notion that God’s spirit is somehow a prisoner of the church: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

The Rev. Dr. F. Morgan Roberts is an Honorary Life Trustee of Louisville Seminary, well-known Presbyterian preacher, and Pastor Emeritus of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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