Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ghosts at the Peace Podium

Accepting the Nobel Prize, Barack Obama deferred to "Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela" as well as Ghandi and a long line of peacemakers in parsing the irony of a wartime leader being honored in their company, as he acknowledged "the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.

"I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago, 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naïve--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."

It is this display of what Obama at one point characterized as "moral imagination" that may best explain why he was standing there today. In the crowd of ghosts around him at the podium, perhaps most significant was the one never mentioned, George W. Bush, whose lack of such sensitivity was surely critical in the Nobel Committee's decision to honor his untried successor, the 21st century figure who frightened the world with a vision of where power without it can lead.

In all the sneering at Obama's unworthiness for the award, it may be best seen as being given for his embodiment of the hope that morality does not have to be divorced from power in this dangerous world.

"As the world grows smaller," he said today, "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...

"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 Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

"Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam...These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint...

"Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith--for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

"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...

"For if we lose that faith--if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; 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."

No wartime leader ever said it better.

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