Sinkford Meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation present Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with a gift.

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

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11 thoughts on “Sinkford Meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

  1. “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.”

    The problem is that President Sinkford and other UUA representatives *do* represent you and every other member of the Unitarian*Universalist Association of Congregations Sean. It is naive or disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Just look at the language that President Sinkford, the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, and the UU-UNO use in their presentations and press releases etc. They are clearly claiming to represent the U*U religious community as a whole more often than not. President Sinkford is the *spokesperson* for the UUA and he is clearly not speaking only for himself when he says –

    “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.”

    In fact it would appear that President Sinkford is pretending to speak on behalf all Americans, not just all U*Us, in some of his *we* and *our* statements. . .

    Who said it was *simply* an ego-driven decision by Rev. Sinkford? I don’t think anyone made that oversimplification but several U*U bloggers and non-U*U bloggers saw evidence of ego-driven statements in the UUA article about the UUA’s participation in the FOR meetings with the Iranian delegation, perhaps most notably President Sinkford’s ridiculous .parting shot swipe at President George W. Bush which pretended that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was much more forthcoming and forthright in answering questions about his actions than President Bush is –

    “I could not imagine the current U.S. president taking the time to honor questions about his actions the way Ahmadinejad did today.”

    Anyone who bothers to enter into a genuinely free and *responsible* search for the truth and meaning of the way that President Ahmadinejad responded to President Sinkford’s ever so “diplomatically” worded questions and concerns about Iran will quickly see that President Ahmadinejad barely honored them at all. He completely ignored aka totally evaded all but one of them, and evasively responded to President Sinkford’s question about the status of women in Iran with some flowery sexist BS. Does President Sinkford really believe that this is honoring his questions and concerns and that President George Bush isn’t much more forthcoming and forthright in his responses to hard questions about his actions on an alnmost daily basis? Sorry Sean President Sinkford’s behaviour and UUA press releases have ego-trip written all over them but I don’t think anyone suggested that this was the only or even primary motivation of Sinkford or other UUA representatives. Most of us saw it as yet another Unitarian*Universalist PR stunt intended to reap publicity for the UUA as well.

    “Rev. Sinkford sees something of value there, as do many other UUs.”

    See above. . .

    “I think it’s a mistake to conflate that with excusing or condoning violent repression.”

    Tell that to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who, amongst other things, said –

    “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people. ”

    and

    “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

    President Sinkford’s ever so “diplomatic” language was effectively silent with respect to the well-documented violent repression that has been going on in Iran for some time now, and you and other U*Us know it.

    Anyone who wants to see what I have to say about President Sinkford’s and the UUA’s uninspired bad faith and defectrive action know where to find it or can run an appropriate Google search. Here is a little poem for President Sinkford and other U*Us to ponder –

    Persian cranes bear strange fruit,
    Blood on the streets and more blood en route?
    Slack bodies swinging in the Persian breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the populist’s “trees”.

    Political scene from the land of Mahmoud,
    The bulging eyes and the hangman’s hood,
    Breath of Ayatollahs, sweet and fresh?
    Then the sudden smell of rotting flesh.

    Here is fruit for his crows to pluck,
    For his reign to gather, for his wind to duck,
    For the sun to rot, for his cranes to drop,
    Here is a strange and bitter crop.

    The “annotated” version may be found on The Emerson Avenger blog.

  2. It’s not the meeting that’s so much the problem.

    It’s the groups failure to speak any words of Solidarity for fellow Religous Liberals, Bahais, Sufis, Christians, and Jews who suffer persecution.

    The groups silence on this is ignored througout the world but does not go unoticed in Iran.

    The did much damage to Religous Liberals in Iran, and to our Church’s soul at home.

  3. Again, the fact that the questions were “filtered” suggests to me that no real conversation took place and that Sinkford honestly can’t have been expecting one, any more than Jeff Gannon would expect to get a real interview out of President Bush.

    And I don’t think one has to be acting alone to be doing something for ego reasons. To me the snotty (and I think patently untrue) comment about President Bush is quite telling. I get that the folks who do politics for our denomination have felt ignored for the last eight years. So have I. Maybe it would feel good to have a world leader listening to me, even if I was only allowed to express the opinions he wanted me to in phrasing he approved. But…um…sucking up to tyrants isn’t going to help. Indeed, it will only marginalize us further.

    You are correct that the harm hasn’t been significant. Sinkford going on about how honored he was to meet Ahmadinejad didn’t end up on Al-Jeezera, or for that matter, YouTube. Obviously, my worst fears about this haven’t come true. Thank goodness nobody but us reads our press releases. But that doesn’t mean that meeting with American religious leaders doesn’t give Ahmadinejad a certain moral legitimacy and that doesn’t mean we will be so lucky next time.

    ((“There’s that Unitarian guy who doesn’t even have the power to speak for his denomination.”))

    Do you say this about protestants? I don’t think, say, the guy who holds the equivilent of Sinkford’s job in the Presbyterians gets to speak for his denomination on political issues and I doubt people say this about him.

    And as I wrote in my post, the ACLU has such a disclaimer and nobody ever confuses them with shrinking violets.

    ((Could it ever be a good thing to come to the table and talk, even though the enemy is entirely unrepentant))

    Not if you come away from the table crowing about how honored you are and positively comparing the enemy to your own leader while your enemy goes home and goes right back to denying the Holocaust on Larry King

    CC

  4. I think I am often reminded of the idea What Would Jesus Do? I think that not only would Jesus have talked to him he would have extended love. It is through conversation that we make small ripples of change – we can’t ignore our problems by not talking about them. I know I am the lone voice in the UU blog world who thinks that talking to even our enemies is a good thing, but I stand by it as a radical act of love. We are not here to throw stones at one another we are here to listen, talk, and be present with people. Naive? I don’t think so. Radical, absolutely.

  5. I think that Bill Barr’s comment very nicely underscores the MLK quotes I referred to, especially the latter one –

    “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

    CC said – “Thank goodness nobody but us reads our press releases.”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Jacqueline, I and others are not opposed to President Sinkford or other U*Us talking to “enemies”. We are simply not favorably impressed with the quality of the talk that took place. . . I would be only too happy if President Sinkford and other U*Us in positions of responsibility and authority deigned to have a chat with me and other victims of U*U clergy misconduct, or other injustices and abuses perpetrated by U*Us. The fact that he and other U*Us not only refuse to do so, but take *radical* steps to try to silence me and suppress my criticism, only proves what outrageous two-faced hypocrites they are.

    President Sinkford’s meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had virtually nothing to do with love but it had everything to do with trying to raise his and U*Uism’s profile, reap publicity for himself and U*Uism, and to pretend to be doing something significant on the world stage to his home audience in the U*U World. Let’s not forget that this is the same UUA President who did not hesitate to cynically, and I have “reasonable grounds” to believe quite hypocritically, play off the tragedy of the recent Knoxville shooting in his fraudulent national advertising campaign for the UUA, apparently without even consulting Knoxville U*Us before doing so . . .

  6. It’s amazing how many “lone voices” there are, all expressing the same basic opinon, yet all feeling like the only one.

    The thing is, as far as I know, Jesus really didn’t hang out with political leaders. I don’t think a fancy meeting like that was his scene.

    But even if he’d wanted to, I suspect that if he’d been asked to submit his questions in advance to be “Filtered,’ so that Ahmadinejad was hearing only what he wanted to, Jesus would have shaken his head and sadly walked away.

    As for stone-throwing, that’s Ahmadinejad’s, department.

    CC

  7. I can’t imagine that there is any ego driving a rather naïve and self-congratulatory blog post from Adam Gerhardstein, the Acting Director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy aka UUWO, on its ‘Inspired Faith, Effective Action’ blog titled –

    When *I* Looked Ahmadinejad in the Eye

    can I Sean?

    “I am smarter and I am wiser. I now know what it is like to be in the room with President Ahmadinejad. I know how he carries himself. I know how he responds to direct criticism. I know how he defends his actions. If knowledge is power, then I am more powerful.”

    No ego there eh Sean?

  8. Hi Sean,

    I would appreciate it if you would post the comment that I submitted pointing out the ego leaping off the page of Adam Gerhardstein”s self-congratulatory blog post about the FOR meeting in which President Sinkford and other UUA delegates engaged the delegation from Iran. I see no reason to censor it. I am assuming for now that you have just been preoccupied with other matters and simply have not had time to deal with moderation of your blog but at a certain point I will have reasonable grounds to believe that you have chosen to suppress it.

    Robin

  9. Thanks Sean,

    I figured that you were probably just busy with other matters. Your posting of my critical comment is sincerely appreciated.

    Best Regards,

    Robin Edgar

    P.S. With any luck I might see you next summer. 😉

    Seriously.

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