I read the speech after reading Reinhold Niebuhr's essay on pacifism, an essay in which he defined many definitions of pacifism as being heretical. Niebuhr made a distinction between heretical and non-heretical pacifism. The latter, as exemplified by Menno Simons, never made any pretense to active engagement in the world of politics. It was instead a commitment to active disengagement. One might suffer for one's faith, but one would not engage in the political world -- which in the 16th century was seen as a political act. Niebuhr sees this form of pacifism being an important voice, largely because it didn't emerge from the Renaissance assumption of the goodness of humanity as the basis of peace.
Niebuhr rejects the pacifism that he observed that seemed rooted in this embrace of the goodness of humanity, so that all that was needed was our embrace of the "law of love." While I'm not one who has embraced the traditional idea of original sin, I have come to believe that Niebuhr is correct -- we cannot in our own power live perfectly the law of love. Therefore, we must live in grace -- recognizing our own weakness and inadequacy. This understanding led Niebuhr to abandon pacifism for a more realistic view of reality. Thus, the ethic of Jesus, as much as we wish to embrace it, according to Niebuhr, may not be applicable in its totality to political realities.
I don't have space to engage fully Niebuhr's text, but as I read Obama's speech I did see, as I had been hearing, the echoes of Niebuhr. Now, you may disagree with Obama and with Niebuhr, but its important to note that Obama came into office as one influenced deeply by Niebuhr's "realism." If you read the speech, he seeks to lay out a rationale for the use of force that might lead to peace, always understanding that it will fall short. There is, in Obama's speech a recognition of our fraility, and of his own responsibility to lead a nation that is at war.
There is an important word here that I think needs to be heard as we listen to Obama's speech.
But we have a right to remind the absolutists that their testimony against us would be more effective if it were not corrupted by self-righteousness and were not accompanied by the implicit or explicit accusation of apostasy. A pacifism which really springs from the Christian faith, without secular accretions and corruptions, could not be as certain as modern pacifism is that it possesses an alternative for the conflicts and tensions from which and through which the world must rescue a precarious justice. (Reinhold Niebuhr in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed., Harper-Collins, 1989, p. 253.)
With Niebuhr's warning in mind, perhaps we can better understand Barack Obama's perspective as he concluded his speech, a speech in which he acknowledged those who said that he hadn't done enough to deserve the award or that he didn't deserve it because he was a war president. He acknowledged the criticisms, but also sought to explain himself and his vision.
So let us reach for the world that ought to be - that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he's outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protester awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.
Let us live by their example. We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of deprivation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that - for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.
I know that some will accuse me of defending Obama right or wrong, but I need to remind them that the President didn't claim that he would base his presidency on the principles of Ghandi. He did promise a new way of engaging in the world, and by and large he has tried to do so. I've not agreed with everything that he has done or said. He has kept some Bush era policies that would be best done away with. This surge in Afghanistan may not prove to be a good decision. I would probably be happier if we were not increasing troop levels there. Still, let us not get overblown with hype that this speech was some how either immoral or stupid, because it isn't. It is a well laid out Niebuhrian defense of current actions.