The Consequences of Dealing with Iran Diplomatically

In 2003, President Khatami offered a broad peace proposal to the US. He was rebuffed. The next election, Ahmedinejad was elected president.

The previous president, while perhaps correct in assessing Iran’s ambitions, was successful in two things: making Iran the most powerful player in Iraq; and consolidating Iranian – and all Muslim – public opinion against the US. The president of Iran could use his own propaganda to cultivate a nationalist fervor that suppressed internal opposition in his own country.

Iran is a deeply divided country. As the riots indicate, change is on the way against the mullahs. A good way to empower the theocrats, however, is to take a threatening stance against them.

I believe that the consequence of Obama taking a softer, yet clear, stance toward Iran is the unleashing of the Iranian opposition. Without America acting like the great Satan, the hard-line element in Iran loses it’s greatest ally: an aggressive USA.

But if Israel or the USA bombed Iran, it would be the greatest gift for Ahmedinejad and the revolutionary guard. All they know is war, and are egging for a fight.

Obama knows that the real battle is not the USA vs. Muslims. Right now, it is really Muslims against Muslims.

We are a side show. Best to stay out of the way and watch the wheels of progress turn.

From an Iranian human rights advocacy group:

American policy makers will feel the need to react. But they need to remember this isn’t about us. This is about Iran and Iranians seeking the right to determine their own future. The United States can help little and harm much by interjecting itself into the process. The Obama administration’s approach to the election — keeping its comments low-key and not signaling support for any candidate — was exactly the right approach. While tempting, empty and self-serving rhetorical support for Iranians struggling for more freedoms serves only to aid their opponents. History has made Iran wary of foreign meddling, and American policy-makers in particular must be sensitive to giving hardliners any pretense to call reform-minded Iranians foreign agents. That’s why Iran’s most prominent reformers, including Nobel-laureate Shirin Ebadi, have said the best thing the U.S. can do is step back and let Iran’s indigenous human rights movement progress on its own, without overt involvement from the U.S–however well intentioned.

What were the real results? Here.

Fr Cutie: Some thoughts

A few weeks, The Rev. Fr. Cutie, aka “Father Oprah” the most famous Latino Roman Catholic priest in Miami, and possibly the world, was received as an Episcopalian. In a year, he will be consecrated as a presbyter in the Church of God, Anglican division.

Apparently, he’d been thinking about the switchover for about two years. Which, coincidentally, was about the time he met his fiancée.

Is it a scandal? Not changing religions. We fought those wars. Luther changed the order after being irked by Italian impiety. Soon after, the English King and a handful of other skeptical types reformatted the faith, offering a freedom from the imperial church, who seemed to be opposed to good times and making money for anyone else except its own cardinals.

Change? Old news. If you aren’t forced to do it by the sword, maybe there’s another church that will make you richer and establish you with the right crowd.

Denominational fluidity has especially been a hallmark of our American Culture. It’s more about who’s parties you like than the distinctions between goats and sheep. Fortunately, we all think we’re in the right place when we get there.

For a variety of reasons, Roman Catholics find it harder to switch. It’s not because most actually believe that the pope is the best dressed guy in the world, or that the RC church has the stairs to the kingdom in some Vatican back alley. It’s a family, and nobody wants to abandon the family. To leave out of personal convenience seems tawdry. Sometimes we don’t agree with everything our mom says, but we don’t go and get a mother who agrees with us. We don’t go sleeping around with a bunch of younger, sexier religions just because our partners are getting a little dowdy. It’s for life.

It’s an old story. Catholic priest wants to get laid. God calls him to be a priest. And he thinks that Episcopalians are Catholic enough. So again, the Roman Catholic church has lost a guy who couldn’t remain in the church because he liked an adult women. To rub salt in the wound, he’s hot.

The real reason this is interesting is not the conversion. What’s wild is that he is a a celebrity. How many Episcopal priests have a TV show that’s not cable access? Most of the hand wringing isn’t because he’s moved over, but because the media does what it always does: compress time and space so that everyone is shocked and left feeling a bit bruised. Modernity allows us to create our own identity, to seek truth apart from culture. Postmodernism just speeds it up a hundred times.

More interesting, he chose the Episcopal Church. It would have made more sense to some if he had become Pentecostal, which is growing immensely in the Latino Community. Instead, he joined a church whose roots are not in Latin America but in the British Isles, a church that was once called the “Republican Party at prayer,” had FDR and Thurgood Marshall as members, and has ordained a gay bishop.

How was this possible? He chose the church for theological reasons. This is an example of a faith delinked and unmoored from cultural identity. If it had only been sex he could have stayed Roman and remained a layperson. But his cultural identity as a Roman Catholic was challenged by the cultural hegemony of American Protestantism.

Perhaps what has happened is that he represents the continued alteration of European-American culture by the Latino community. America, by making religion another commodity in the spiritual marketplace, will unmoor Latinos them from their own geography and traditions. That one can choose a faith demonstrates the cultural power of capital. Like most Americans, Latinos will find it easier to choose whatever faith suits them. Cutie chose the Episcopal Church.

I suspect, however, this will not be a one way change. What will also change is the Episcopal Church. I’m not sure if he will be eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking Gin and Tonics at our garden parties. Instead, we Episcopalians will be serving beans and rice and drinking Mojitos. Not a bad change for us. Let’s welcome it.

Why Organized Religion can be a Good Thing.

Here is what a church can do:

1) Build trust among its diverse members;
2) Advocate for the less fortunate;
3) Care for those who do not get care;
4) Harnesses the highest cultural ideas, if imperfectly;
5) gather out of mutual affection rather than necessity or profit;
6) foster ideas, talents and relationships of intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, worth;
7) provide down (or “sabbath”) time;
8) deepen and encourage reverence and respect;
9) teach that there is power in numbers;
10) reveres the limits of our individual power;
11) contain the madness of individuals in the culture;
12) engage in conflict in a safe and manageable way.
13) ease the burdens of people who aren’t its members;
14) build reliable and strong hearts;
15) reinforce an appreciation for the world.

Lectionary, Proper 6, Year B

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 and Psalm 20
Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

How do we choose leaders? What was it about David? He was the youngest; he was also the one doing the work. This is counter to the way leadership is often handed: to the eldest.

I’m also intrigued by the liturgical element. We anoint people for a variety of reasons. Our anointing people is a way of reminding them that they are kings; as subjects to Christ they have their own personal authority.

Why did the leaders fear Samuel? After all the men had passed Samuel, he didn’t choose any of them, but the boy who wasn’t there? David wasn’t respected, it seems, in his own family.

The psalm today is a great example of the church being for people: 20:4 May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your plans. Amen to that!

How does work give us meaning and make us feel powerful? The last verse in Ezekiel is I will accomplish it. Accomplishment – how does it work with grace and God’s power? That we can accomplish things is an analogue to God’s creativity; our work is a mirror and reflection of God’s work. This might be an entry into seeing our own lives, our work, as callings. Psalm 92 develops this sense of God’s work.

Paul is considered, by some, a great humanist – he’s like a positive psychology cheerleader. I think the reading is provocative: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! A human point of view is through status, success, failure. In Christ, we see people through their passions, desires and dreams. We see them each as kings. We are confident in them. When we talk of faith – let us first discuss what we have confidence in.

The Gospel is the Mustard Seed parable. A few notes to remember: the mustard seed is like a weed. It’s everywhere. It also doesn’t take much to harvest. Sometimes when parishes work to hard, they are missing the point: it is better to work naturally, to harness the gifts that are already present. Play to our strengths.

Thomas Frank: The Republicans Aren’t Dead Yet

One of my favorite intellectuals.

Thomas Frank writes about how Republicans may gain power again: conservative anti-elitism.

In that situation, Republicans may well decide to press their offensive against the elite by depicting the Democrats as the party of Wall Street. I know this sounds counterintuitive, possibly even hypocritical. And yet, if they choose to take that route, Republicans will have a lot to go on. Mr. Obama’s great success in reaping campaign money from Wall Street, to begin with. Or his mystifying tendency to give important economic oversight jobs to former hedge fund managers and investment bankers — rather than, say, regulators or experts in corporate crime.

He may be right, but a lot of it depends on health care. If health care passes, it marks the end of the Republican party, and inevitable left-ward shift in American politics.

One Critique of Religion

I’m trying to understand the general critique of religion and religious institutions that I hear among severe … anti religionists or atheists. Not humanistic atheists (who may think of religion as a neutral event), but those who are angry at what religious language represents. they are hostile against facts and desire there to be no confusion between facts and the imagination.

This is what I gather.

1. Stupid people are stupid. And religious.
2. Violent stupid people are stupid and violent. And religious.
3. Violence and stupidity = religion.
4. Religion hates sex, unless it’s for babies.
5. Peace and smarts = something else but its not religion.
6. Religion hates women (see #4).
7. Assholes = religion.
8. Osama Bin Laden, Hitler, Stalin, George Bush and everything evil = religion (see #7).
9. People who are religious don’t think for themselves (see #1).
10. Everything bad about religion in the media is true.
11. Everything good in church is merely good human beings who may accidentally are a part of a religious institution.
12. Immature people = religion.
13. Religion is something, but whatever it is, it is bad.

In my experience it is… more complicated. If they think religion is that “organized” I doubt they have spent that much time in religious institutions.

Religion cannot be easily reduced to a set of beliefs. As David Hart says, defining religion is like hunting the snark.

Later in the week, I’ll give reasons why religious institutions are good.

What Gordon Ramsay Knows about Churches

I’m fascinated by the show Kitchen Nightmares.

Gordon Ramsey is a famous chef, and the star. He had previously hosted the show Hell’s Kitchen. Over a season, 12 chefs would compete and the winner would have their own restaurant.

In “Kitchen Nightmares,” Ramsey would go to a restaurant that was in serious need of help. The food would be awful; the kitchen, unmanageable; the cooks, often clueless; sometimes the refrigerator would be unsanitary. The decor and design of the restaurant would occasionally be a mess. The maitre’d would be on his cell phone. The owners, frustrated and deeply in debt.

In comes Ramsey. He tastes the food. Its old, stale, gimmicky. He takes one or two bites and then puts it aside. Ramsey takes his time – he looks, smells and chews – and the food is sent back. Always. And the chefs are almost always surprised.

It is the show’s point.

He then goes into the kitchen to inform people what’s wrong, usually in salty – and direct – language. The next morning, before the restaurant owners get there, he checks out the stove and refrigerator. With the appropriate music, the closeups of the filth and vermin, unworkable stoves and unclean containers become drama.

Ramsey always has it out with one of the players. Sometimes the owner has no idea how to manage people: they get angry and hostile at the customers and yell at the staff. Others are milquetoast. The chefs are disempowered to do what they know; other times the chefs are incompetent. The excitement of the show comes as Ramsey identifies the weak links, bangs his head on the refrigerator, and pulls his hair out. Then he offers dramatic commentary.

Ramsey then demands at some point, that everyone gets involved. They clean – really clean – the kitchen. They exchange roles. Can Ramsey actually convince the owner, the chef, the manager, to do what needs to be done? Will people listen to his demands, or will they condemn him as an interloper? With a newly designed menu and refurnished restaurant, the restaurant finds itself halting the steady slide into failure.

At heart, “Kitchen Nightmares” is a show about repentance and redemption. Ramsey exposes the truth. He calls people to take ownership in their skill and be accountable. He works with the challenging party by reminding them that they have a desire and passion for good food. He changes the way people think about themselves and about each other. He brings families together by taking no prisoners, by telling them what nobody else would say.

He changes the menu: he identifies a niche, makes the menu fresh and simple according to the talents of the chef. The restaurant then opens up again, with hundreds of customers (brought usually by Chef Ramsey’s celebrity). Then there is another rough patch: but as the evening ends and the people realize they can do much more than they thought they could.

It helps that Ramsey finances the redecoration of the restaurant, buys new stoves when necessary, sometimes brings in consultants. He doesn’t, however, become a substitute cook. He becomes the coach, the truth teller, the cheerleader.

The secret to a good restaurant? Care about the food. Use fresh ingredients. Pay attention. Play to your strengths. Name the problem and then rearrange the relationships. Have high expectations. Communicate openly, honestly and clearly.

There will be swearing.

It wasn’t just the restaurant that was transformed, but all the relationships in the families, staff and customers.

You’ve probably gotten the analogy by now. I won’t take it any farther. Ramsey is not exactly to the restaurant industry as Jesus is to the church. He’s had a few failures, after all. But if one of the central roles of the community is hospitality: to give people a place where they know they will be taken care of – Chef Ramsey illuminates real challenges for churches and our personal relationships. We too should be able to serve good spiritual food that feeds the body and the soul.