Mohammed Khatami’s speech at the National Cathedral

As you may know, we’ve been in the midst of a bit of controversy here on the National Cathedral close over the past week. Last night, former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami spoke at the Cathedral.

Lucy Chumbley, editor of our diocesan newspaper Washington Window covered the event, and we shared her story with the Episcopal News Service.

The text of Khatami’s speech, accompanied by photographs of the event are available on the Cathedral’s Web site.

Dean Samuel Lloyd did what I thought was an excellent job explaining whythe Cathedral extended an invitation to a controversial figure such as the former president, and I am trying to get a copy of his remarks. Bishop John Chane offered a response to the speech, which you can find by clicking on the “keep reading” button below.

Bishop Chane’s remarks:

Your Excellency, Mr. President, Dean Lloyd, and invited guests, it is with great humility that I have the opportunity to conclude our time together this evening sharing some thoughts and reflections about the subject, Interfaith Dialogue and the Role of Religion in Peace.

First I wish to thank The Rev. Canon John Peterson and his staff at the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation and Dean Samuel Lloyd and the cathedral staff for making this evening possible. I would also like to thank His Excellency, President Mohammad Khatami for his presence among us. It is critically important that we gather here in this great cathedral tonight because religion, as known to us especially through the three great Abrahamic Faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam has seemingly become the fault line for so many of the hostilities, acts of terror, violence and wars that are currently a blight on the human race and threaten the very future of the whole creation. Such actions demean the kerygma of the one God who claims each of us as his sons and daughters.

I would also like to publicly thank the United States, Department of State for making President Khatami’s visit possible, and for reinforcing through his visit to our country the gift of American Democracy that upholds the principle of freedom of speech. As Americans we like other people throughout the global community have our own collective faults and yet we are blessed with living into the great gift of religious freedom. It is just this gift of religious freedom that allows us to gather tonight in the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the National Cathedral to continue our work that ensures that individual human rights for all persons are uplifted and protected not only by the diversity of our religious voices but also through the inherent gifts of the Bill of Rights and Constitution of the United States.

Recently someone asked me, why such an event as this should occur here, in the sacred space of this cathedral?” “Won’t politics and political philosophy be discussed and reflected upon tonight?” “Isn’t the cathedral running the distinct danger of being used as a platform for positions and points of view that are contrary to its position as a great church for national purposes?” “Why then should we use sacred space to discuss the secular?” Well, we have not been about discussing hard politics tonight, but rather the necessity of bringing the gifts of East and West together in religious thought and action to begin anew the quest for global peace. And yet I also need to say that cathedrals are the places, and probably the only places left in the world where the sacred and the secular can and must meet, to touch one another and then ultimately be embraced by the divine. For this is the hope of creation! And this cathedral will continue to live into its legacy as a “House of prayer for all people.”

And I must say to those who would challenge the merits of our engagement tonight with his Excellency, President Khatami in this, the sixth largest cathedral in the world, that his presence among us presents a real hope for an emerging, constructive dialogue at the highest international levels that has been long overdue. For if we cannot gather together as brothers and sisters of Abraham, who have claim to and worship the same God, and cannot be open to those issues and histories that have both divided and united us, and to touch both the pain and joy in it all, then there is very little hope that the politics of international diplomacy and statesmanship by themselves can solve the complex disputations and conflicts that currently demean and too often are destroying the creatures of God throughout the world.

This cathedral above all others, through its Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation must now move beyond this night and build upon the good will and presence of President Khatami as a significant part of “next steps” leading us to find peaceful solutions to the rising levels of terrorism, hunger, illiteracy, disease and human rights violations that place millions around the globe in bondage and that have lead to feelings of hopelessness, unrest and despair for so many.

It is my hope that the Cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation will have an opportunity to explore the work of the newly formed Center for Dialogue among Civilizations based both in Geneva and Tehran. It is also my hope that through other global inter-faith initiatives we can come to a point where the phrase, “war is the ultimate definition of human failure” becomes an accepted reality demanding from each of us our very best efforts at seeking to end peacefully, current global conflicts through the examination of the role of religion as it finds itself manifested in such conflicts.

Theology is broadly understood to be the “study of God, and man’s relationship to God.” Theology is not only impacted by the evolutionary study of physics and astro physics, the broad sciences, psychology, sociology, medicine and the result of cultural shifts and changes that impact the human condition but it is also impacted by the negative influences of post modernism. The study of God is not a static, unchanging reality, but is bound up in the constant search for the truth in all things as that truth is related to the God of all creation. The desire to retain and live into a static, unchanging theology by adhering to strict, scriptural interpretations of God’s nature, untouched and unchanging, provides for the chemistry for religious violence that confront a rapidly changing world.

The impact of post modernism places a heavy value on the principle of individuality and individual rights with the resulting loss in an understanding of the nature of community and the living in community. Such isolation along with the heavy impact of post modernism places an individual and a society at risk, and tends to generate a psychosis of emerging fear in an individual and culture, that can be unleashed as aggressive behavior against another. Without a spiritual center, and without an authentic relationship with God, human beings can do unbelievably horrible things to one another, and justify their behavior on fear or on a limited, back to basics, fundamental interpretation of theology and sacred texts. Such impacts upon the three great Abrahamic Faiths are real and are currently causing great dis-ease within the ranks of the truly, moderate, faithful.

Human beings have value because they are loved by God and are created in the image of God. This vision of human creation comes to us through the reading of the sacred texts of the three great Abrahamic Faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It therefore stands to reason that no one has the right to take the life of another in the name of God, and yet such violence occurs on a daily basis throughout the world. Such behavior must end in the name of God, and for those of us who walk in the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we must now begin the hard work of togetherness to end the violence carried out in God’s name.

If there was ever a time for religion to engage in the process of global reconciliation it is now. But to engage in such reconciliation, persons of faith, who are balanced and represent the moderate centers of their faith traditions must come together in honest and often tough dialogue with the intention that such creative work can have an impact on the ongoing efforts at diplomatic solutions to the world’s problems. This must not be an effort to water down or demean another’s religious faith tradition but to honestly seek the common elements in each and to be clear about those issues where there is disagreement. Disagreement however must no longer be the reason for using religion as a violent tool of either repression or change. No longer can diplomacy or pure political statesmanship alone be expected to resolve the complexities of the current conflicts that threaten regional and global stability. I say that because of the current religious implications that are imbedded in the ongoing violence, regional wars, and conflicts that are threatening the very future of the global community.

The fact that President Khatami is with us tonight, and the fact that we are gathered in this cathedral to listen and to hope for a better world is a new beginning. The fact that this former President of Iran has come to this country at some personal risk to his own safety and credibility to begin what all of us hope will be a new Chapter in interfaith, inter-religious dialogue, leading to new and creative ways in which religion, can be a positive force in enabling greater communication, building new relationships and fostering better understanding among nationalities, religious and ethnic groups is a hoped for blessing. But it can only be a blessing if we are willing to work for it! Too often religious folks are long on talk and dialogue and very short on action steps and the hard work that must follow. I place before this cathedral the challenge tonight to become a leader and companion in the way of such needed work. I place before the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation the challenge to carry this work beyond tonight! And I respectfully challenge the former President of Iran to partner with others in such a quest.

As a sidelight, it is critical that politicians and religious leaders tone down their rhetoric now in speaking about those who are deemed adversaries, enemies, threats to a nation’s security or religious infidels. Too often religion and politics have been guilty of using language as a weapon where individuals, cultures and nations are demonized by denigrating phrases and half truths and outright falsehoods. Such use of language must end if we as God’s children are to work for the common good of the global commonwealth. Demonizing one another either in the name of God or through the process of political statesmanship must be ended if real dialogue and engagement is to occur. Too often religious and political leaders leveled racist and theocratic broadsides against their neighbors as a rationale for covering up their own insecurities and deficiencies. Too often religion is used as the weapon of choice against individuals, cultures and nations that we disagree with or who we judge not to be in a ‘right’ relationship with God.

Too often nations have used religion to fuel their own need for defining their supremacy over others as a God given mandate. As a Christian I am reminded clearly of Jesus teaching about judging others and reminding his followers that judgment ultimately rests in the hands of God and not within the frailty of the human mind and heart.

And in all of this I am constantly reminded that Christianity was founded and named after the Prince of Peace, and that Judaism is a religion of great compassion and lives into the care of the alien, and Islam is derived from the Arabic word salaam, meaning peace. Simplistic as it may seem, when one looks at the radix of these three great faiths, they hold far more in common than that which divides them. It is now time for us to move with all speed and good faith to realize and live into the core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and make a major contribution of being the peacemakers in a world that has known no peace for too long now. For our failure so far to do so must make our God weep. Jews, Christians and Muslims need each other now more than at any other time in the history of the world. May our one God grant us the strength to join together in a new alliance that can make a difference in a world waiting for a difference to be made.

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