Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool.

2 October 2008

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” – Matthew 10:16

Bill Sinkford, president of my estranged religious home, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has decided he wants to have a dialogue with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. There’s a great debate going on about whether this, and the crowing press release from the UUA, was a good idea. I think it was a bad idea, not just because it was with the president of an oppressive regime, but because it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to be prophetic which is wrong and naive.

What makes or breaks a democracy is not “public dialogue,” but widely distributed political power. Ahmedinejad can “dialogue” precisely because an oppressive political system means that he is never forced to be responsive to anything that may emerge out of the dialogue. This doesn’t hold anyone accountable because it doesn’t force them to be responsive.

The prophetic voice is one that builds organized, strategic power to hold power people accountable for their bad actions. Instead, we put out press releases and pass resolutions. This episode is not a prophetic stand. This is masturbation, only more dangerous. (And probably messier.)

To be prophetic we don’t just want a relationship — “king-to-jester” is a relationship — we want a relationship of mutual respect. I would want my (future) kid to talk to bullies, yes — but to stand up to them, not to “ask them questions,” and certainly not for the fleeting thrill of poking some other bully in the eye. We get respect with public officials by being powerful.

To be prophetic, we have to talk as equals. In other words, not “dialogue,” but negotiation. Moses didn’t go up to Pharaoh to get to know him better, he did it to negotiate: “Do this, or else.” And he could do that because he had power to back it up. In his case, God’s plagues; in ours, the power of organized people.

President Bush may not hold as many press conferences as I like, but he is accountable for this as for other things in a way the Iranian president never has been — witness the initial failure of the bailout, or the 2006 congressional elections. And Bill Sinkford and the UUA have never done anything I know of that has made any public official more accountable.

As for the idea that we should have a relationship with them for “pastoral” reasons, i.e. to help him see the error of his ways, this is (1) stupid, given that UUs don’t even count as “people of the book,” and are thus unlikely to be listened to by a conservative Muslim, and (2) is better done in private anyway, if we really care about the state of his soul.

Updated: a couple of times for clarity and typos.

Updated again: My further comment on this issue, in response to this comment by Fred:

There is a need to develop some level of talking points in any conflicted relationships. There is a need to have some sort of level playing ground from which to build to those more difficult points of disagreement. The current adminstration has stated that no conversations with Ahmadinejad would occur without some sort of pre-conditions. Of course, then Condi Rice did meet with his representatives so one has to wonder what were the pre-conditions if any, to allow that meeting. Some of those pre-conditions might occur at a lower level of interaction. Enter the Peace and Reconciliation folk.

They have no authority to alter current foriegn policy with Iran but they can show a different face to that country. It is the same strategy used when we invite or are invited to a cultural exchange or to have a student exchange. It is a grass roots development that allows for human interaction at the human level not the political level which is conflicted.

Me again: But, Fred, the problem is that if you want human, not political, interaction, than the last thing you should do is go meet with a political leader.* All meetings with political leaders are inherently political, and call for a prophetic stance, not a pathetic one.

[*You should go meet with regular folks. I’m told that the FOR does arrange for this, which is good as far as it goes.]

I also think it’s impossibly naive to think that political conflicts are primarily motivated by a lack of “understanding,” and if we only showed each other “different faces” our problems would be solved. Political conflicts primarily arise from serious — and legitimate and real — disputes about resources, self-interests, and values.

And I want to be clear — I think the prophetic failure here is not just that Sinkford et al. entered into dialogue without holding Ahmadinejad accountable, but that they do so having also, over many years, failed to hold our own government to a more rational, compassionate and progressive relationship with Iran (among other places). By being more concerned with ego than with being both ethical and effective in the public sphere, the UUA has enabled the current problems in our Republic no less than they have enabled Ahmadinejad. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a pragmatic stance in politics but is a sorry basis for prophecy.


6 Responses to “Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool.”

  1. […] Simply talking does not make you a prophet. Sometimes, it makes you a fool. […]

  2. Chalicechick Says:

    “”It has always been the prerogative of children and half-wits to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the half-wit remains a half-wit, and the emperor remains an emperor. “”

    Neil Gaiman.

    One of my all-time favorite quotes.


  3. Bill Baar Says:

    Sinkford does harm with this. Not just to UU’s but too Liberals in Iran who look to the rest of the world for support.

    That’s what’s most unforgivable about what Sinkford has done here. If he must talk to the Tyrant, at least ask of the fates of those fellow clerics the Tyrant holds in prison for simply preaching a version of Islam so close to our own vision.

  4. […] that met with Iran’s figurehead president  Mahmoud Ahmendinejad in NYC recently.  One blogger stated that simply talking does not make one a prophet, sometimes it makes you a fool.  He states […]

  5. Robin Edgar Says:

    Hopefully these Emerson Avenger blogs posts will help UUA President Bill Sinkford to see the error of *his* ways, aka wake up and smell the coffins. . .

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