17 December 2009

Nobel lecture

Barack Obama gave his Nobel Lecture in Oslo exactly a week ago. A day later, I finally got a chance to look at it, and I admit I was very impressed.

In terms of content, I think both Joe Volk ("Obama’s Peace: A Now But Not Yet Kind of Thing") and David Brooks ("Obama's Christian Realism") provided excellent commentary, and I agree with most of what both said, although they come from different viewpoints.

As Volk pointed out, Obama recited all the usual obligatory justifications for a just war. However, Obama did so with a sense of regret and modesty -- something rarely heard in recent presidential speeches. In the midst of the current fashion to praise the military to the skies, we expect to hear the first part of a statement like this, but how often do we hear the second part? -- "So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."

The Richmond Declaration of Faith is utterly clear on where Friends stand historically in the just war debate:
We feel bound explicitly to avow our unshaken persuasion that all war is utterly incompatible with the plain precepts of our divine Lord and Law-giver, and the whole spirit of His Gospel, and that no plea of necessity or policy, however urgent or peculiar, can avail to release either individuals or nations from the paramount allegiance which they owe to Him who hath said, "Love your enemies." (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:27) In enjoining this love, and the forgiveness of injuries, He who has brought us to Himself has not prescribed for man precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them. We cannot doubt that they are incumbent now, and that we have in the prophetic Scriptures the distinct intimation of their direct application not only to individuals, but to nations also. (Isa 2:4, Micah 4:1) When nations conform their laws to this divine teaching, wars must necessarily cease.

We would, in humility, but in faithfulness to our Lord, express our firm persuasion that all the exigencies of civil government and social order may be met under the banner of the Prince of Peace, in strict conformity with His commands. [from quakerinfo.com]
This Declaration is part of our yearly meeting's Faith and Practice. I interpret these words to be a standing challenge to all policies that involve war and preparations for war. They require me always to consider how to advance an alternate Christian vision of conflict resolution, and how to withdraw my own cooperation from the machinery of death.

But they are also an evangelistic mandate. "Just" war ultimately comes from counsels of despair, from functional atheism, from unwillingness to put God absolutely at the center of our response to evil. Obama is right -- "We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes" -- but I'd add, this is true in part because we humans will persist in our rebellion against God.

The rebellion of evil people and powers is more obvious, but the rebellion of those who respond to evil from places of anger, racism, fear, and corruption, even when they claim to be defending themselves, and even when they use God language, also needs to be confronted. Fear, racism, anger, corruption -- these are all spiritual issues as well as political ones; all require engagement in the name of Jesus.

In this post-Christian world, evangelism is a process of dialogue. And here's what I appreciate about Obama's speech: there is so much in it that gives us material for dialogues. Just a few examples:
  • Summarizing the "just war" doctrine, Obama observed, "Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of 'just war' was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God." So how in the world do we think we Americans, inventors of the atomic bomb, will escape or overcome these abiding temptations?
  • "I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war, " admitted Obama. "What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace." What frustrates me is that so often it seems that 99% of the USA's federally funded "hard work, and persistence" is being done by the Pentagon. At the very least, when will we seriously fund and develop the alternative structures, laboratories, and peace incubators that might give us a far wider range of responses to conflict? (I've argued before that the worldwide Christian community, with its unparalleled potential for independent intelligence, should also be part of the picture.)
  • As the USA's commander-in-chief, "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." I continue to argue that a nonviolent movement, mobilized early enough, might well have halted Hitler before he even had armies; and no highly visible Western leader has made any kind of a direct attempt to confront, courteously and persistently, the leadership of al Qaeda on their very specific bill of grievances. We persist in the circular argument that they are evil, therefore not to be negotiated with (except tactically through back channels, which does nothing for our press among disaffected and radicalized Muslims), and then count the predictable reaction from the other side as proof of how evil they are and how they can't be negotiated with.

    By the way, I fully accept that al Qaeda are enemies of the USA, because they say they are. The first step in engaging them must not be either infantilizing or sentimentalizing them. But the category of "enemy" is a pragmatic and always temporary category, not a designation for someone who is subhuman and incapable of reason. When Jesus said "love your enemies," perhaps the most evangelistically powerful command in human history, he knew exactly what power he was unleashing.
  • Back to Obama's argument: "To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." We can grant that not everyone advocating force is a cynic. But if we recognize human imperfection and the limits of reason in history, we should also recognize two other historical truths: we keep trapping ourselves in situations where force is the only apparent escape, because we don't make creative, adequately resourced, and timely plans for alternatives; and history also records how the "victories" of force are so pathetically temporary.
  • Obama again: "The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." I wholeheartedly agree with this and find that it gives a real opening to work for common goals. This requires evangelicals and progressive people to consider laying down one of the most beloved and overused weapons in our own artillery -- withering invective. Both of our communities (and I live in the overlap) sometimes seem to love denouncing others, but this just won't get us where we want to go. We cannot build genuine communities of prophetic advocacy by building up lists of enemies, villains, and heretics.

    However, for us to trust this "painstaking diplomacy" as being a genuine force for human rights, we must require transparency wherever it actually can be provided. If it turns out that we have trusted "engagement" that turned out to serve only the interests of global corporations and importers, the sense of betrayal could set us back a generation.
  • Toward the end, Obama said, "We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached -- their fundamental faith in human progress -- that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey." In the partnership of realism and idealism, sometimes it seems that the realist's job is limited to reminding the idealist that humans aren't perfect. It seems to me that realists also have to remind each other of the same thing. Idealism fails not necessarily because the ideals are wrong, but because they are too easily set aside; that North Star is lost in the fog of war or demagoguery. We Quakers, at our best, are congenital idealists; let's keep finding new and engaging ways to point ourselves and our dialogue partners--including Barack Obama--toward the North Star.
Friday PS: Jim Wallis on Obama's Nobel Lecture, with comments. And an e-mail from the Pew Forum reminds me of their "Obama's favorite theologian" Faith Angle Conference that I may already have linked to earlier this year.

Very Short Stories:

I selected some of the six-word stories from this issue of Wired and used them in a couple of English classes at the New Humanities Institute. A few of our favorites: 

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer? --Eileen Gunn 

God to Earth: “Cry more, noobs!” --Marc Laidlaw 

The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly. --Orson Scott Card 

Kirby had never eaten toes before. --Kevin Smith 

Easy. Just touch the match to --Ursula K. Le Guin 

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time --Alan Moore 

Then, with some hesitation, I challenged the students to write their own six-word stories. 

Group 302 came up collectively with this story: Fingers -- why twelve? Bring the knife. 

Not to be outdone, a second-year group in the high school division provided a whole set of stories. Here they are, with permission: 

Oh, stop shooting. Bring the axe. --collective 

Jack, catch the axe. Got it? --Masha Kazantseva 

Night. Forest. Three men digging a --Magda Malyukova 

This delicious cake was the last. --Lena Korolyuk 

Granny -- why do you have such --Magda Malyukova 

Wake up. Take your sleeping pills. --Masha Kazantseva.

Righteous links:

A group of Palestinian Christians publish their "Kairos Palestine" document. In the midst of its extraordinary and costly statements of hope, and its call to faith in Jesus, how do we evaluate its specific assertion of the role of the city of Jerusalem?

Marketing and the Millennial muddle

Seven-word story: Interesting to see how a headline can make a bald statement ("Qaeda planner in Pakistan killed by drone") that the body of the story weakens considerably: "strong indications" ... "Little is known about Mr. Somali, but one American official said he was probably responsible for plotting attacks against the West." (My emphases.)

A discussion on Muslim followers of Jesus.

Three articles on microcredit: "The Kiva Effect." PBS: "A little goes a long way." "Does microcredit really help poor people?"

Wess advocates "An Amazon-Free Christmas"--note the comments, too.

Martin E. Marty writes about "the decline in conservative churches."

"Is it time to lay down Friends Journal?" This letter is as thoughtful as any I've seen from the leadership of a nonprofit. Interesting follow-up discussion here.

Every week, I take this blues podcast with me to the gym. For an hour, during my workout, my body is in Elektrostal, and my ears are in the world of blues. This podcast is still the best way I have to expand my blues horizons beyond my beloved list of tried-and-true artists. No. 251 from last weekend is a great sample.

Dani Wilde Band visits Germany.

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