It seems that among UU bloggers, there has been significant negative reaction to the President of the UUA, Rev. William Sinkford, meeting with the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Interestingly, when the topic was brought up on the Ministers’ chat list, the only responses were positive. I’ve been mulling that over and trying to figure out what might be up.
I think, in part, it has to do with freedom of the pulpit. As ministers in the free church tradition, we depend upon freedom of the pulpit–the idea that, as ministers, we are free to express whatever our conscience and common sense tells us needs to be said. It’s a lot like academic freedom, and I think most ministers know that while we need to be free to speak our minds, we also need people to understand that we speak for no one but ourselves. Unlike some other faith traditions, we don’t speak for God, we speak of God. We don’t speak for our tradition, but of our tradition and what we believe God and our tradition may call us to believe and do. No matter how passionately I may speak or write, I know–and I need the people of my congregation to know–that I speak only for myself.
Because of this, I don’t feel particularly outraged when Rev. Sinkford takes a position that I disagree with. He may be the President of our Association, but he doesn’t represent me. I agree with Chalicechick that it would be nice if this were made explicit not just within our association, but in the world as well–though I know it would be misunderstood and might lessen the impact of our administration’s participation. I can imagine some folks saying, “There’s that Unitarian guy who doesn’t even have the power to speak for his denomination.”
That aside, I also think the critics of Sinkford’s actions have unnecessarily vilified his intentions. First of all, this is not something Rev. Sinkford did alone. He was joined by, “Adam Gerhardstein, Acting Director of the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, Bruce Knotts, Executive Director of the UU-United Nations Office (UU-UNO), Marilyn Mehr, Board President of the UU-UNO, and Helen Lindsay and Marion Ward, both Unitarian Universalists who traveled to Iran with Fellowship of Reconciliation peace-building delegations.” Clearly, this was a decision made in partnership with others. To act as if it was simply an ego-driven decision by Rev. Sinkford is an oversimplification that reveals a lot of our rampant UU anti-authoritarianism.
Another objection to Sinkford’s participation is that he was simply a “shill for a tyrant.” This argument has some merit, though I’m not sure it’s as big a deal as people seem to think. My guess is that Ahmadinejad is not going to suddenly gain some kind of legitimacy and improved reputation because he was able to meet with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. And no one would have noticed if they refused to meet with him either. I don’t think affecting Ahmadinejad’s reputation was the point.
So what was the point? According to the Fellowship of Reconciliation, they hoped to engage Ahmadinejad in a direct conversation, “…enabl[ing] diverse voices to directly address Mr. Ahmadinejad. A range of pointed concerns were raised, from foreign policy issues – such as “back channel” negotiations toward regional stability with Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan; Iran’s nuclear aspirations; and recognition of and relations with Israel – to religious and political freedoms within the country; from efforts to achieve environmental sustainability to the role of youth in Iran’s democratic process…” The title of their blog post about the meeting was “engage, don’t demonize,” and in his remarks at a meeting of religious leaders the night before, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, said, “I support dialogue as a religious obligation.”
It looks like their point was to model respectful dialogue while raising difficult issues. Rev. Sinkford did this with his remarks:
“Central to our religious heritage as Unitarian Universalists is the defense of religious and political freedoms and full equality for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or national origin. In the United States we struggle to make these freedoms and that equality real.
“The reports we receive about the treatment of women and political dissidents in Iran raise questions and concerns for us. Is Iran moving towards allowing its citizens more freedom of choice and affiliation? Is the government working towards equality for women in public life? Are protections being created for citizens who identify with different political parties, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations?
“Our governments and our cultures are very different. Given those basic differences, I would like to hear from you how the U.S. and Iran can best work together to find non-violent resolutions to our differences.”
Did it solve anything? No. Did it harm anything? I don’t think so. At worst, it was naive. At best, it was a group of religious leaders living up to their own sense of what is required of them. (To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God…??? Micah 6:8) Has Ahmadinejad done terrible things? Clearly, he has. (So has President Bush and his cronies, though hopefully not to the same degree. But who is to say for sure? What if we were seeing it through the eyes of Iranian values and morality?)
Frankly, I think the Fellowship of Reconciliation simply lived up to their name. Rev. Sinkford sees something of value there, as do many other UUs. I think it’s a mistake to conflate that with excusing or condoning violent repression. Rev. Sinkford’s are not the strong condemnation I would like to see. I think he could have done better than, “questions and concerns.” He could have directly named acts that he saw as immoral.
Perhaps the real question we might be asking is, “What is necessary for reconciliation?” What level of “repentance” must occur? (A good question for Yom Kippur!) And not so different from the question of whether a president might meet with our enemies “without precondition.” Could it ever be a good thing to come to the table and talk, even though the enemy is entirely unrepentant