An Exercise in Christian Realism: My Response to Rabbi James Rudin
Rabbi James Rudin, a respected voice in Jewish Christian relations wrote a strong critique of the Christian delegation's trip to Iran in his Religion News Service column of March 8, 2007. The following published by Religion News Service yesterday, is my response to Rabbi Rudin.
GUEST COMMENTARY: An Exercise in Christian Realism, Not Spineless Diplomacy By SHANTA PREMAWARDHANA c. 2007 Religion News Service
The late William Sloane Coffin, standing squarely on the tradition of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and preaching from the pulpit of Riverside Church, said: "The axis of evil is not Iraq, North Korea and Iran. A much more formidable trio is environmental degradation, the pandemic of poverty and a world awash in weapons."
That is Niebuhr's Christian realism at its best, the type of Christian realism that Rabbi James Rudin says he admires. Yet Rudin might say to Bill Coffin, "There you go again!"
I'd like to respond to Rudin's March 8 column for Religion News Service, "An Exercise in Spineless Christian Diplomacy." Rudin wrote about the delegation of Christian leaders to Iran last month led by the Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee.
I was a member of that delegation.
I am astounded that Rudin, a respected voice in Jewish-Christian relations, began his column with a condescending and derogatory remark made by Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, "There you go again," to insult the necessary and critically urgent work of peace-building undertaken by the Christian delegation to Iran. His ire for Christian initiatives in peace-building, particularly with foreign leaders, colors this one.
Far from "swooning," as Rudin says, the delegation recognized the dire circumstances of the region, engaged Iranian religious leaders in dialogue, argued with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and clung to the slightest ray of light that might illuminate a way forward.
My close relationships with Jewish colleagues -- including those at Rudin's organization, the American Jewish Committee -- have made me deeply sensitive to the issues around the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust and the denial conference he held in December are clearly despicable. We at the National Council of Churches have said so, and loudly.
As Rudin himself acknowledges, I raised the question forcefully and forthrightly with Ahmadinejad, indicating in no uncertain terms our strong disdain for his views. I believe he needed to hear that challenge from someone other than a Jew. It is good that he heard it from an American Christian.
Refusing to engage the so-called "enemy" is a prescription for disaster, yet that seems exactly what Rudin would have us do. Consider the following:
-- Ahamdinejad told us he is not building nuclear weapons because Iran is an Islamic country and Islamic Scripture forbids them. Ayatollah Ali Khamanei has issued a fatwa against such weapons. On the other hand, as a signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), he said, Iran has every right to develop nuclear energy.
Rudin, rather than seize the slight ray of light that is in that statement, would disregard that comment and continue as if Iran is building nuclear weapons. And to what end? Would he encourage President Bush to attack Iran? Would he encourage Israel, which unlike Iran is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to use its nuclear weapons against Iran?
Perhaps Rudin is pushing for the military option. That, in my opinion, does not fit into any definition of realism, let alone a Christian one.
-- Second, Ahmadinejad told us there can be no military solution to Israel/Palestine conflict. Does Rudin disagree with that? Even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems ready for a political solution.
Ahmadinejad's solution to holding a plebiscite of all the people in the region is totally unacceptable, and I told him so. But again, I look for the single ray of light. The point is that the solution must be political and not military -- which means that we must engage in talks.
-- Third, Ahmadinejad said he is willing to talk to the U.S. government. He said he had written two letters: one to President Bush and another to the American people expressing his desire for dialogue.
The U.S. government is placing conditions before dialogue can take place. Show us some goodwill and we can talk, Ahmadinejad said. Here again is that ray of light. He referred to an old Iranian saying: If you take one step toward building a bridge, I will take 33 steps towards you.
Sometimes it is hard for governments to talk. Even if they do talk, governments know reasonableness sometimes can be misconstrued as weakness. This is when citizens must step in to the gap, and religious leaders must lead the way.
Citizen diplomacy can significantly grease the wheels to enable governments to talk to each other. If this delegation even cracked open the diplomatic door for other religious leaders, for other people-to-people dialogues, then that is an achievement in Christian realism.
(The Rev. Shanta Premawardhana is the associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches in New York.)