Friday, December 11, 2009

Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech in a Spiritual Context

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech reads to me, in many ways, more like a sermon than a political or ideological treatise. That those who report and announce the news are either commenting upon a very small segment on that which was said, or taking a very minor section of the speech completely out of context like the increasingly malcontent Howard Fineman is regrettably par for the course. Nothing silences more than visionary language and far-sighted analysis, and notably none of it can be spun out into confusion by two split-screen talking heads yammering away at each other on a simultaneous satellite feed. We do a lot of talking these days, but frequently not a lot of listening.

Kathleen Parker and other pundits responded merely to this section, as it is the easiest to pick apart, but much like everything else in the world, full context is crucial to fullest understanding.

"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."

With those words, Obama aligned himself with conservatives, who believe in the fallibility of human nature and in an enduring moral order. At the same time, he left room for moral conundrum: the difficulty of reconciling two seemingly irreconcilable truths -- "that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly."

As for the former assertion, not necessarily. As a Quaker, I daily navigate this own moral conundrum, as Parker phrased it. No amount of eloquent justification will ever sway me from the belief that war in all forms and for all reasons is morally wrong. Still, I do believe that while evil and good might be indebted to shades of gray, I do not believe in a hierarchy of sin and transgression. Wrong is wrong in a moral context and I leave it purely to the law of humans in a court to determine which wrong is more offensive than the next. Moreover, believing that human nature is inherently imperfect does not necessarily mean that we ought to wrap our arms around this fact and fail to continue working to improve conditions for our fellow person. Though I might believe that direct revelation from the Inward Light of God is a deeply, personal individual one which may vary from being to being, I do not believe that the liberty inherent in embracing one's own path means one also gets the right to formulate for himself or herself precisely what constitutes good or evil, divisive or unifying. Peace, as Obama mentioned later in the speech, comes with sacrifice and sacrifice is a team sport. We will never arrive at it as a people unless we devote as much common energy towards securing peaceful means as we do when we channel our blood lust in the direction of an enemy who has wronged us.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

Again, I disagree with the President. But to return to conundrums and paradoxes, in this instance I recall the 1927 film version of the famous anti-slavery book Uncle Tom's Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The original novel portrays Quakers in heroic terms, eager to put their very lives on the line by actively transporting slaves by way of the Underground Railroad to Canada. One of the main characters, Eliza, miraculously makes her way across a frozen river into the North, pursued by dogs, and carrying her child with her. After being rescued by a kindly man from an adjacent farm, she finds a settlement of Friends who agree to send her towards freedom. She and her young son eventually escape slavery and settle beyond the reach of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required even Northerners to return runaway slaves under penalty of law.

The movie version, however, modifies the original plot considerably. Eliza makes her way across the frozen river as before, but is this time rescued from the ice and the damp by a particularly dexterous Quaker man. He and his wife eagerly agree to give both Eliza and her child a place to stay for a while, but notably do not stand up to an armed slave catcher by the name of Loker when he knocks at their door the next day. Full of good intentions, naive, utterly helpless to resist, and wholly powerless in the end is this version's portrayal of Quakers and non-violent resistance. Both renderings have their own bias and both border on propaganda at times. Both, it must also be pointed out, have a degree of truth to them as well.

That aside, to me, the very heart of the speech lay in this passage.

As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are, to understand that we all basically want the same things, that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.

And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities: their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we are moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

This passage challenges me to examine again my own goals and intents. The urge to surrender our individual identities on behalf of progress or perceived progress can sometimes be believed as doing away altogether with the depth and breadth of religious expression. While this is a fear of conservative people of faith more so than their brethren on the left, even I am gripped at times by a similar anxiety. In a desire to keep alive the rich uniqueness of my own faith group, I do not wish to see it incrementally reduced to nothing in the process. In that spirit, I push hard that we Friends might never forget the biblical underpinnings that inspire what we believe and which led to the formation of our Testimonies. Average Americans already, if a relatively recent survey is to be believed, selectively choose the precepts they incorporate into their own individual canon from a variety of religions.

By a three to one margin (71 percent to 26 percent), Americans say they are more likely to personally develop their own set of religious beliefs than accept a comprehensive set of beliefs taught by a church or denomination, a Barna study, released Monday, shows.

Born-again Christians were among the groups least likely to adopt an a la carte approach to religious beliefs, but even most in this group say they have mixed their set of beliefs (61 percent).

In other words, the Barna survey’s findings show that people no longer look to denominations or churches for a complete set of theological views. Rather, combining beliefs from different denominations, and even religions, is becoming the norm.

While tribalism and factionalism, particularly along religious lines has done much to set us apart from each other and has even compelled us to kill others in times of war, I find nothing wrong with separate identities, provided they do not separate us in the process. The Esperanto movement in linguistics, for example, sought to provide a international secondary language. The concept was predicated on the belief that the human race was needlessly divided by language barriers and that men and women could use Esperanto as a lingua franca to be used in conversation with those of other nationalities or those who spoke a different primary tongue. The intent was never that Esperanto would replace one's native language, merely that it would facilitate diplomacy.

If this process were merely the latest evolutionary step, I would not have reason to be afraid, but I sometimes worry that we are jettisoning not just our religious identities, but our shared sense of purpose and love for our fellow being. The post-modernist believes that all we are these days is that which we ourselves have created and that we are only as deep as our own constructed reality. What a sterile world that would be, were it to be true! Let us not make idols of our own cynicism, too.

One must not forget the paradoxical story of the Tower of Babel as found in Genesis.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved toward the east, they found a plain in Shinar [Babylonia] and settled there...They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." But the LORD came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building.

The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel--because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

At face value, one would assume that God's purpose in this act was to keep people divided, else they find more value within themselves than devotion to a God. In accordance with a literal interpretation, God is a jealous deity who desires no rivals and quickly strikes back against the idea that humanity through collective action might eventually believe that it feels it no longer has no use for God. Perhaps it speaks to the very idea of faith, as well, and with it the assertion that human endeavoring and human construction can never fully explain the divine or rationalize away the need for a higher power. Some interpretations over the years have seen the building of the Tower as a contemptuous and rebellious act toward God himself, in effect declaring war on God's supreme authority. God does work in mysterious ways, after all.

So are we meant to be divided, else total unity rip our moral fabric and station to shreds? Is division just a part of life that serves as a deterrent, else we get too big for our britches? If one is a Christian, one believes that we are all a part of the metaphorical Body of Christ. Some faith groups or denominations have sought to define it different ways, but the concept itself is more or less the same. Though often used to reinforce this belief in shared Christian fellowship, St. Paul's words in his first letter to the Corinthians can be read to go beyond just devotion to a particular religion or a particular cause.

Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us...There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.

He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.

President Obama concluded his speech this way, saying,

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.

But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The nonviolence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached - their faith in human progress - must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

For if we lose that faith - if we dismiss it as silly or naive, if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace - then we lose what is best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.



Bill Chapman said...

You wrote that "The Esperanto movement in linguistics, for example, sought to provide a international secondary language." I'm not sure that the past tense is needed. The Esperanto movement continues to promote a useful linguistic tool which can bring us together.

I am no less British, no less involved in the life of my home community because I speak Esperanto.

Esperanto is not a panacaea, but it does enable communication on neutral ground with people who simply do not share my mother tongue.

Comrade Kevin said...

I understand. Thank you for providing some clarity. One hears only of Esperanto in terms of how it was created, not how it currently exists.

I never intended to imply that Esperanto was a panacea, but rather that it was an attempt made to bridge gaps in comprehension.