Obama's Nobel Speech -- a Response

Yesterday, after church, one of my church members, came up to me and asked if I'd listened to or read President Obama's Nobel Acceptance Speech. I confessed that I hadn't -- but she encouraged me to do so, because she believed it expressed exactly her viewpoint. So, being a good hearer, I took the occasion to read the speech (something I've been meaning to do for nearly a week).

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.

As one considers this award and the speech, let us remember that it was an award that was not sought -- indeed, it was likely an award that really wasn't welcomed because it complicated the President's own sense of what needed to be done. Remember too that he has never claimed that our actions have some kind of divine blessing.

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.


John said…
I liked the speech. I listened to it twice to make certain I heard the whole thing. It was a determined defense of his approach to armed conflict, and specifically of his approach to the conflicted Middle East.

Whether you agree or disagree with his specific decisions, he made the case for why a government's actions must be guided in part by prudential considerations rather than exclusively by moral considerations. He argued that there is a place ethical principles but they must be balanced against the realities of an unjust and violent world as well as against the political responsibilities of the government.

However, I am not the government. In my heart I feel personally called to be an advocate for peaceful and nonviolent conflict resolution. The government has heard plenty of voices calling for force-filled solutions; I add my voice to those standing against violence and hopefully one day our voices will balance out the military din.

Anonymous said…
"according to Niebuhr, may not be applicable in its totality to political realities."

Then stay out of politics. Lead those with power and they will follow, like they always do.

The government never changes without being pushed by the people. Stop letting them push us back.

The powers that be always intend to cling to their powers and their big guns. And power corrupts.

If war helps the economy and helps get programs (health) through the senate, does this lessen the evil? I don't think so.

The Peace prize and the award money stinks like the large bonuses for leaders of failed banks.

No progress will be attained through complacency, this is just defeatism.

David Mc

Niebuhr makes just this distinction -- what we may hear ourselves called to be and do maybe different from what our government decides.

I've always believed that government is necessary (I'm no anarchist), but I also believe that no government -- including ours -- can approximate the kingdom of God. To expect that of it is to have misappropriated expectations.

I will continue to work for peace, even as I understand that in the realities of life, my government may take actions that at least on the face of them seem contrary to that vision.

I do think Obama gave good balance, and gave a good explanation. That Sarah Palin liked it is no reason not to like it. She likes Jesus too! Just not my vision of Jesus.

And David, you're right the government will not change without push back. Let's just recognize that no President will please all the people all the time!!
Anonymous said…
Relearn your history. The people > their leaders-


David Mc
Anonymous said…
I'm not worried about Obama being comfortable. Oh, I guess I do! David Mc
Anonymous said…
Excuse the fishing analogy Bob, but it’s obvious you have swallowed the administration’s position nearly “hook, line and sinker”. I fear once the “bait” dissolves you’ll simply be left with a pain near your heart and most of your innocent followers in a net. We can't elect and just sit back like we completed our job. Honestly, if this was a Republican administration doing the exact things, would you be singing a different tune? You’re apparently just another leader who needs some pushin’.

Give me some credit though; I’m not trying to be cruel. I haven’t compared him the Tiger (or is it cheetah now? Wasn’t he on a high pedestal by many?) yet. I am not acting out of ego, I've had these positions since Vietnam- and yes, it is the same situation. I don’t wish the plan to fail- I just think it’s the wrong plan. You can bet every time you broach this topic, I’ll respond- Unless you can’t take the heat. David Mc
Anonymous said…
On a brighter note- Computer technicians have found 22 million missing White House emails from the George W. Bush administration “It seems like they just didn't want the emails preserved."


Let's continue to learn from our mistakes- David Mc

I can take the heat -- most of the time.

I guess I'm not too up in arms because I knew he intended to put more attention to Afghanistan -- an effort he believed (and I believe) was ignored by the previous administration. I wasn't excited about going in in 2001. I wrote my congressional reps on this. But, I could see why this might be justifiable. My fear was -- and it was proven correct -- that the administration would take its eye off the ball, which previous admins had done.

Although Afghanistan is an unpredictable and unrulable place, I'm concerned that some on the left justify pulling out because these folks are -- well backward. I don't see the morality in this.

As for the differences in party or admin. I think it's important to remind us that the current President didn't get us into this mess, but he feels that this part of the mess needs to be cleaned up as best we can before heading out!

As you can tell -- I'm a pragmatist in my politics, even as my theology tends toward the idealist.

Philip Clayton calls this pragmatic idealism -- that's me!
Anonymous said…
I would never look down on a nation's people. I think we could benefit on being more "backwards" in our society. In fact, I look forward to a simpler lifestyle in the future. It is sorely needed for us to survive.

Anyway, I just read a story on a person I've always respected. We can learn from his approach I believe. I hope he doesn't disappear entirely soon- David Mc


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