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Power and Freedom, Some Thoughts on Iran

The Guideposts senior editor shares his thoughts on the Tehran rallies and photos on Internet.

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I keep thinking about Iran and I’m not sure why, especially since not everyone shares my obsession. I began a conversation with a GUIDEPOSTS writer the other day gushing over the latest developments in Tehran. The rallies, the photos smuggled out via internet, the prospect of change in a country deeply at odds with itself over how to live in the world.

“Yeah,” the writer said, “I think I saw something about that on the news. What’s happening?”

I realized my preoccupation is a little unusual. It might be that I recently read a book about Iran. That book, by an Iranian-born journalist who has lived much of his life in America, cut through stereotypes and explored the true complexity of an ancient culture still struggling to adapt its religious and intellectual heritage to a rapidly changing world. I felt when I finished the book that I’d almost been inside Iran, witnessing first-hand its fascinating contradictions.

Or maybe it’s that I grew up in Los Angeles, where many expatriate Iranians live. Or maybe it’s simply that ever since that day in 1979 when Iranian militants took control of the American embassy in Tehran I, like most Americans alive then, have considered Iran a place in permanent tension with the United States, a place about which it is impossible to feel neutral.

Actually, it may be simpler than all of that. If there’s anything I really, truly hate, it’s watching someone get away with something unjust. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of Iranian politics or society. But what is happening in Iran smacks of people in power betraying even their own principles for the sole sake of retaining that power. And so far they’re getting away with it.

The Islamic Revolution that brought the current Iranian government into being was at least ostensibly an effort to bring a form of democracy to a country that had long suffered under a dictator. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ousted by the revolutionaries, had ruled Iran since 1953, when he was installed in a military coup backed by American and British intelligence. The Shah brutally repressed all forms of dissent and was particularly insensitive to Iranians’ desire for religious freedom.

The Islamic Revolution replaced the Shah’s government with what has turned out to be one of the Middle East’s most durable functioning democracies. The democracy is not perfect—important powers over the military, judiciary and aspects of government are reserved for unelected Islamic clerics. But it is real, and moderate candidates at odds with the clerical elite have been elected president.

Now, though, even this partial form of democracy seems at risk. And therein lies what I think is most compelling—and most relevant even for people who never give international news a second glance—about what is happening in Iran.

Power, of course, corrupts. Everyone knows that. But mostly that phrase is used to describe other people, people with more power than you and I will ever know. The implication is that, actually, power only corrupts when there’s lots of it. Everyday people like you and me have nothing to worry about.

I wonder, though. Aren’t we all a little like those elites in Iran, clinging to a power we don’t even know how to let go of? The very condition of living, of trying to stay in control of life’s basic elements, sometimes feels like a hopeless quest for power. A subtle kind of power, yes, a power so basic we take it for granted. But just the idea of individual selfhood, of a me that reserves the right to make final decisions about my life, excluding others and God—what is that if not a desire for power?

I think I’m fascinated by what’s happening in Iran because, in some primary way, it’s a drama that plays out inside me, too. Part of me yearns to stay in control, and sometimes I’m tempted to betray even my own principles to keep that control. But another part of me wants to let go, to live in the midst of a larger community, to acknowledge that unpredictability and the wisdom of others often charts a better path than I could ever chart myself.

I hope it all doesn’t end in violence. I hope that power, met with peaceful resistance, can let go its death-grip and allow a deeper kind of freedom. I hope that happens for all of us.

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Contact him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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