Dialogue is Not a Dirty Word

September 26, 2008

Last night, several religious groups hosted a dinner and dialogue in the hopes of furthering peacemaking efforts. Groups involved included the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, Quaker United Nations Office, Religions for Peace, and World Council of Churches. The event sparked a lot of protest from other Christians. The disagreement came because among those invited to participate at the event was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who critics of the event say it was wrong to include. There are, however, major flaws with their arguments.

The first major problem is that some critics of the event wrongly cast the event as "honoring" Ahmadinejad, which simply is not true. Either these critics were lying or misinformed, but either way they should not be offering false claims about their brothers and sisters. For instance, Wendy Wright, President of Concerned Women for America, claimed:

These groups have lost the right to call themselves Christian leaders when they honor a man responsible for persecuting Christians, oppressing women, killing innocent people, and threatening the extinction of Israel.
And the International Christian Embassy argued:
We cannot fathom why his Christian hosts would debase their own faith so shamelessly by honoring him at this occasion.
Yet, that is simply not true. As the Mennonite Central Committee explained in a statement before the event, it is "a misconception that it is meant to honor President Ahmadinejad. The dialogue is intended to be a respectful conversation about the need for religious involvement in peacemaking, and it is not intended to honor the president or any other individual." MCC's Executive Director Arli Klassen explained:
It doesn't mean that we agree or support everything or anything that the person does, but it does mean that we recognize their humanity, and that God has created us all, and that we need to find ways to live together.
It is disturbing that Christians would make false claims about other Christians. This was a dialogue and dinner with many religious and political leaders, not a dinner to honor one particular person.

The second major problem with the critics of the event is that they seem to believe that dialogue is a bad thing. Since when did it become a bad idea to try and understand each other and work out things in a peaceful manner? Even if it does not succeed, should we not at least try? As the MCC's Klassen explained:
As Christians, we take Jesus' Sermon on the Mount very seriously and say 'Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. ... Right now the U.S. and Iran are defining each other as enemies and so, as Christians, we are trying to promote dialogue, understanding and bridge-building, rather than leading to war.
Yet, other Christians apparently just want to demonize and attack. Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious, called it a "disgraceful meeting." He added:
I am appalled at the moral obtuseness of people ... We condemn those useful idiots who help his evil causes by their witless complicity in meeting with him.
The most bizarre response came from Baptist Press columnist Kelly Boggs, who actually pointed to Hannibal Lecter, the fictional serial killer, as a wise man to listen to about why dialogue was a bad idea. Since when did we quote Hannibal Lecter instead of Jesus?

The problem the critics have is that they do not believe one should waste time trying to talk with someone like Ahmadinejad. Will dialogue make a difference and help keep peace? Perhaps not, but I sure hope it will. We must work to bring peace even if it seems to be an impossible task. That is our calling as peacemakers, whom Jesus called the children of God in Matthew 5:9. I will pray for efforts like this rather than protest it.

The third major problem with the critics of the event is that they made false claims about what would be said at the dinner. They suggested that the Christian leaders at the dinner would not challenge Ahmadinejad. For instance, Joseph K. Grieboski, President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, said:
Simply holding a welcoming dinner is not enough to engage a repressive leader such as President Ahmadinejad. ... The hosting organizations, whom we hold in such high regard, must directly question Ahmadinejad on Iran's policies towards followers of minority religions. Silence on these issues is simply complacency.
Richard Land similarly claimed:
My mother and father always taught me that you should never, by your silence, be mistaken to be in agreement when hatred or evil is spoken in your presence.
The mistake of these critics, who spoke before knowing what was said by Christian leaders at the dinner, is that Ahmadinejad was challenged by speakers at the event. Perhaps Grieboski and Land should have waited to offer their judgment until after they knew what was said at the event. The MCC's Klassen told Ahmadinejad during the event:
We ask you to find a way within your own country to allow for religious diversity, and to allow people to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow.
Klassen also challenged Ahmadinejad on the Holocaust:
We are deeply concerned when your statements about the Holocaust minimize or diminish its impact on our world today and on Jewish people today. ... We ask you to change the way you speak about the Holocaust.
Sounds like the event hit exactly the notes that the critics wanted. Additionally, those at the event were able to actually make this point to Ahmadinejad, unlike the protesters. The thing about dialogue is that one has the opportunity to talk with the other person and actually share one's concerns.

All of this strikes me as quite interesting. It seems odd that some Christians would be so opposed to a dialogue that is part of an effort to bring peace. Even if they personally do not want to participate in such a dinner, why must they falsely attack their brothers and sisters who feel led to host such an event? Of course, this is not the first time a dinner has created a religious controversy. As we read in Matthew 9:10-13:
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."