What did you expect?

The release of Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe from prison in Iran is wonderful news.  It has been a terrible injustice that she has effectively held hostage for these past six years and deprived of those years with her husband and her young daughter.  It has been so moving to see them re-united.

At the press-conference following her return to the UK, Nazanin’s husband thanked the foreign secretary Liz Truss for her part in Nazanin’s release. Others have also thanked Truss, including the Ratcliffe’s MP -and these are all people who have been significantly critical of the Government’s performance over the past 6 years.  However, Nazanin stepped in to correct them.  She said that she could not thank the Foreign Secretary.  This was because her release should never have taken six years and five foreign secretaries.

A few people have been quick to react to these comments accusing her of ingratitude. How dare she refuse to say thank you to someone who worked for her release.  I even detect a little bit of an undertone to the effect that someone so ungrateful is not worthy of help and rescue.

Now, as Andrew Lillico comments here, it is surely possible to disagree with Ratcliffe’s opinion on how the matter was handled without resorting to personal attacks against her.

We need to remember that Ratcliffe is the victim not the perpetrator here.  Iran stand accused of unlawful, cruel and abusive behaviour.  The British Government has been accused of failing to do enough to get Nazanin released, of allowing incompetence and ineffectuality to prolong her suffering.  She is accused of neither of those things. 

Secondly we need to remember that whilst she has lost much over the past six years in terms of her freedom and her relationship with her husband and daughter, all that Liz Truss will lose from a withheld thank you is a bit of kudos.

In terms of the substance of the matter and the accusations against the government, I would suggest that we need to acknowledge the complexity of the matter. In Truss’ defence we might note

  1. The Government were dealing with a cruel, rogue regime.  It was not in their gift to force the Ayatollah’s hand.
  2. The current Foreign Secretary should presumably be judged on her own actions not on the failures of the four previous foreign secretaries. I assume that’s why some of the Government’s toughest critics were willing to acknowledge her efforts and say thank you.
  3. Whatever the rights and wrongs of a debt repayment, this should never morally be attached to the question of someone falsely imprisoned being released. You can understand the Government’s reluctance to be seen in effect paying a hostage ransom.
  4. Previous governments including Tory, Labour and coalition have refused to pay that debt and questioned whether it was a legitimate requirement. This includes the last Labour Government who were in power under Gordon Brown when there was a ruling on the legality of the debt back in 2008.  Politicians should reflect on this before throwing stones around their glass houses.

However, we might also note that there were significant and obvious failures most notably the horrendous handling of the case by a certain previous foreign secretary who now happens to be Prime Minister.

We also need to recognise that whether the Foreign Secretary is motivated by genuine compassion, is more competent than her predecessors, was more committed to dealing with an injustice or is simply a calculating opportunist that the primary reason why Nazanin is now free has little to do with her personal efforts or anyone else’s.  Rather real politic has been at work.  There has clearly been a shift in priorities leading to a desire to bring Iran in from the cold. The Defence Secretary some time back had indicated that the Government was actively seeking to repay the debt.  However, the big shift in urgency was clearly the need to close the gap in world oil supply by bringing Iran in from the cold. In other words, we may not like to admit it but the primary reason for her release is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Not that I’m suggesting that anyone owes Vlad a thank you.

But I want to come back to something I said a little earlier about the attitudes I was detecting. It seemed that some were saying that if Ratcliffe couldn’t say thank you or show gratitude then she was unworthy of help.  The main point I want to make here is that we should seek to help even when we don’t think the other person is deserving help and even when there seems to be no gratitude.

This is particularly important for church leaders because often your work as pastors can feel like a thankless task. Indeed, often, doing the work well will mean that others won’t even notice the time and effort you’ve put in. Sadly there will also be plenty of occasions when the very people who you’ve done the most for, quietly, behind the scenes and at great sacrificial cost will be the very people who cause you grief, throw love back in your face, grumble about you, cause you trouble and even falsely accuse you.

I want to encourage you to keep going even when this happens and even though it is hard to do so. Why? Well because we don’t serve for human recognition and reward. We serve, love and care because of grace because of the Gospel.  The act of salvation is itself an act of rescue for people like you and me who did not deserve it.  And even though we express love, grace and thanks, we are convicted that this still falls well short of the gratitude that Christ truly deserves.  We serve because God’s Holy Spirit is the one who fills us with compassion for others. We serve, love and help because we follow in Christ’s footsteps.

It’s lovely when someone does come back and say thank you but we should not expect that or take it for granted.

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