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[Chalice] Thinking About Revolution [Chalice]

Presented September 13, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Listen to a recording of "Thinking About Revolution"
28:34 minutes - 11.4 MB - Thinking About Revolution .mp3 file.

Opening words from Aristotle:

"One may also observe in one's travels to distant countries the feelings of recognition and affiliation that link every human being to every other human being."

Thinking About Revolution:

What a summer, the summer of 2009. Dana, Sebastian, and I went away for a few months and so much happened. I think this will be a summer we will all remember for a long time. First there was the important election in Iran and then everything that happened in that country after Amadinejad's supposed landslide victory. The whole world was focused upon the events in Iran for weeks, at least until the death of Michael Jackson. Then for a lot of people, and not just Americans, his sudden and controversial death became the center of attention for weeks. And of course here in America there was the health care debate and these acrimonious town hall meetings we have been hearing about since we got back. And for sports fans this summer gave us 2 unforgettable events: Old Tom Watson's incredible almost victory at the British Open and the classic battle in the Wimbledon Men's Final between Federer and Roddick.

This was such an eventful summer that for the first time I started my classes at QU by asking all of my students what event this summer was most interesting and captivating to them. Most of them said Michael Jackson, a few said the health care debate, some of the football players spoke about Michael Vick. Some who had actually been to Honduras spoke of the situation there with the ousting of President Zelaya. Only one or two mentioned Iran, and many of them seemed not to know or not to remember what had been happening in Iran over the summer.

I am sure it would be different for us. I'd be willing to bet most of us were following closely the events in Iran over the summer. I know I wish I could have put myself in some Star Trek vaporizer machine and beam myself to a party or First Friday in July or August to see what you were all thinking and saying about the events in Iran. Probably for most of us it was the events in Iran that made this summer of 2009 one not to be soon forgotten, that's for sure.

I was more interested in this election in Iran on June 12th than I have been in any non-American presidential election in my entire life. I was anticipating it and looking forward to it, fascinated to see what the people of Iran would do. Would they reward their ultra conservative, anti-Western, Holocaust denying Ahmadinejad with another term or would they send him packing? I don't know why I was so interested in this election. Perhaps in some ways it was a chance to do the 2004 American presidential election over again and hope that this time the Iranian people, unlike the Americans, would do the right thing. I was expecting an interesting election, probably a run-off election to follow, and then that's it-just an interesting election. But of course as we know so much more happened in Iran this summer than just another election. Ahmadinejad won, quite remarkably in an incredible landslide, such a landslide that it wasn't even close to requiring a run-off. Of course the word incredible applies here literally: who really believed that the results of this election were credible, real, legitimate? The majority of people in Iran evidently did not believe in the results of this election. They felt the election had been rigged. They felt their vote and their right to choose their own leader had been stolen away from them. And they took to the streets in protest by the tens and hundreds of thousands and all of a sudden we found ourselves thinking not just about an interesting election but witnessing and thinking about revolution.

Revolution. And revolution in the old-fashioned sense and not merely in the less radical ways we have come to use the term, such as the sexual revolution or the green revolution. No, revolution in the sense of mass protest by the people against an oppressive government and its leaders. And revolution also in the old fashioned sense in that what was happening in Iran was obviously a violent revolution. Some of the people hitting the streets and protesting this election were getting beaten up and killed. What was happening in Iran was the old fashioned type of revolution which forces change through violence, death, and the willingness of sacrifice of people to sacrifice themselves and their loved ones. Perhaps we have become used to revolutions without violence. We've had the Velvet Revolution and the Orange Revolution. When the Soviet Union collapsed the revolutions that swept across central and eastern European countries were largely nonviolent revolutions.

Except of course for Romania. Thousands of people, and mostly young people, across the cities of Romania died in December 1989 during the revolution. This summer as I listened to the BBC following the events in Iran I would often take Sebastian to a park near Dana's apartment where the names of the young people who were killed in Timisoara during the 89 revolution are inscribed on the entranceway gate. As I sat there in that park holding my infant son and throwing him up in the air and making him laugh I thought about revolution. Do we believe so much in protest and political action and making, even forcing change that we are willing to sacrifice our own lives and the lives of those we hold most dear? Do we believe in revolution, not just in the watered down versions we have come to know but in the old fashioned kind of revolution where blood has to be spilled and lives have to be sacrificed to make change happen?

It became very clear at a certain point in time this summer that that is what was happening and might continue to happen in Iran if the protesters were willing to risk and sacrifice their lives. There had already been not only protests met with resistance and violence but there had already been beatings and killings of the citizens by the government when the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei showed up to speak at Friday prayers at the mosque at the University of Teheran a week after the election. The whole world waited to see what he was going to say. Was he going to decry the violence that had taken place? Was he going to assure the people that he would protect their right to protest as long as they did it nonviolently? The hopes of those of us who desired to hear some statements like that were dashed. The Grand Ayatollah said in no uncertain terms that the election had been both legitimate and decisive and that the protestors were illegally opposing themselves to their government. The supreme religious and political leader of the country said very clearly that the protests must stop, and if they didn't stop the government would not hesitate to use violence against them, and that when this happened it would be the fault of those people who were encouraging the protests. The Grand Ayatollah plainly was saying that if the protests didn't stop there would be a lot more blood, and then he washed the blood off his own hands by saying that the bloodshed would be the fault of the revolutionaries, not of the leaders of the government whom Allah Himself, after all, had appointed to their high places. That might have made our American revolutionary blood boil, as it perfectly fit the words of John Adams when he said "Power always thinks it has Great Soul and vast Views . . .and that it is doing God service, when it is violating all His rules."

At that point precisely, immediately after the Supreme Leader's speech during Friday prayers at the mosque it became abundantly clear to everyone: if the people of Iran were really going to protest this election and oppose the official version of their government, if they were going to continue the revolution .There would have to be more lives lost, sacrificed, more Nedas, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of young Nedas, willing to risk and sacrifice themselves to make change happen.

So here is my question to you, a question I have wanted to ask all of you all summer. Even in this context, with the more than threat but the certainty of violence and sacrifice, were you rooting for revolution to continue to happen in Iran? Did you want the people of Iran to continue to hit the streets in protest this summer and sacrifice themselves to continue the revolution? Are we believers in revolution?

We are, after all, Americans, and our own country was born in violent revolution in which people were willing to risk and sacrifice themselves to make change happen. But oddly enough, since then the American government has more often opposed than supported revolutions. The historian David Brion Davis begins his book titled revolution by asking why is it "that a nation created by revolution. . . should become in time the world's leading adversary of popular revolutions . . .and the supporter of Batista in Cuba, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Diem in South Vietnam, Somoza of Nicaragua, Duvalier of Haiti, and Pinochet of Chile?"

But that is just the actions and policies of the American government, what about the American people? Aren't we revolutionaries? With our collective revolutionary past, isn't the American public supporters of, fans of revolution? It might be hard to find a less revolutionary public on the globe than the American public, most of whom probably weren't paying much attention this summer to what has happening in Iran and certainly, like my students, paid far more attention to Michael Jackson. Think of all the outrages of the Bush administration from the probably stolen election of 2000 to no weapons of mass destruction to Abu Ghraib and still all this hardly made the American public become revolutionaries. The only thing that seems to whip up revolutionary fervor in our own country is the prospect of paying more taxes so that everyone has health care.

But what about us, progressives, Unitarians? Do we believe in revolution? Were we cheering on the people of Iran this summer as they risked their lives to defend their own basic rights and change their society and did we wish to see them continue to do that despite the bloodshed and the sacrifice of young people? Are we revolutionaries and believers in revolution?

If you approach that question by looking at some of our heroes, you'd have to say that yes, we are revolutionaries and believers in revolution. Thomas Jefferson, that great American revolutionary and Unitarian, wrote that there were causes that "were worth rivers of blood and years of desolation." Gandhi's life and his writings are all about revolution just as much as they are about nonviolence. His writings are really a long treatise about courage, masculinity, about developing inside yourself the ability to risk your life and to if necessary sacrifice your life to oppose injustice. He even says several times it is better to oppose injustice violently than to be a coward and accept injustice. For Gandhi, you must stand up and risk and at all times be willing to sacrifice your own life to make change happen. And we don't understand anything about Martin Luther King if we don't understand that he too, just like Gandhi, was a believer in revolution, even if it came at great personal cost. He risked his life and showed himself willing to sacrifice his life not just on that terrible day in Memphis but literally every day. He knew he could have been killed every day. Even when his house in Atlanta was bombed and all of his children could have been killed, he didn't stop. He believed in the revolution he led. He believed the change this revolution was bringing about was worth the rivers of blood Jefferson talked about.

So perhaps we Unitarians are the revolutionary Americans and the believers in revolution. Were we hoping even after the Grand Ayatollah's address at the mosque that the people of Iran would continue to hit the streets and risk and sacrifice their lives to make revolution happen? As I sat in that park this summer in Romania throwing Sebastian into the air and thinking about revolution, I found myself skeptical. Was there really anything more valuable than the life of Sebastian? Would there be anything worth sacrificing his very life for? What would I be doing if I were Iranian myself? Do I believe in revolution so much that I would be willing to risk my life and the life of my son to make change happen? And if I myself would not do that, should I be hoping that other parents and other young people in Iran are willing to do that to make revolutionary change happen in their society? Am I a believer in revolution, even when that revolution involves Jefferson's rivers of blood? Are we? Are you? Did you find yourself rooting for revolution or were you wanting the Iranians to stay inside and protect themselves and let change happen and history advance some other way than the old tried and true way of blood, and violence, and sacrifice?

This talk has no answer. It just asks this question, a question that came to me when Sebastian and I were in the park thinking about revolution and I am sure came to you too at some point this summer. This question about revolution became-thanks to the brave people of Iran this summer-the question of this unforgettable summer of 2009.

Closing words:

For those who think the what has happening in Iran this summer is over and the final chapter has been written, Thomas Jefferson wrote from France to John Jay in 1789 15 days before the storming of the Bastille: "This crisis now being over, I shall not have matter interesting enough to trouble with as often as I have done lately."

©2009 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2009. Thinking About Revolution, /talks/20090913.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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