Friday, December 18, 2009
Barack Obama's Nobel speech, what did we expect?
I didn’t get a chance to watch Barack Obama’s Nobel speech live, but I’ve read the transcript and found very little in the speech that couldn’t have been given by any number of past presidents—including George W. Bush. Granted, absent from the speech is the grandiose rhetoric of “Bring it on”, “You’re either with us or with the terrorists” and “Ridding the world of evil”, but should being less arrogant than Bush qualify someone for the Nobel Peace Prize? Probably not. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s rejection of unilateralism, his willingness to dialogue with enemies, and his understanding of the limits of power—howbeit nuanced—make him about as good of a president as we can expect on the foreign policy front given the current state of American culture and, more specifically, the American Church.
According to the CIA world fact book, roughly 77% of the American people are self-identified as Christians. From its inception, America has been a nation of people that name the name of Christ on the one hand and trust in the power of their military might on the other hand. The American civil religion of God, guns, and country has been around for a long time and it’s the height of naivety to think that a few good speeches and a teleprompter are going to change that. If Obama’s escalation of the Afghan conflict has taught us anything, it’s that liberals can be just as susceptible to the value system of might equals right as conservatives can be. Those of us that oppose the escalation can chastise the president all we want, but the fact is there was very little political wiggle room for the president to make any other decision than the one that he made. Even the “liberal” networks of NBC, CBS, and CNN are steeped in the tradition of glorifying military heroes and showing off the Pentagon’s latest weapons technology.
As much as I would love to flatter myself, I know that Barack Obama is never going to read this article, and neither is he going to read the tens of thousands of editorials and blogs calling on him to change his mind. With all of the attention going towards one man, and whether or not he deserves a peace prize, I fear that a larger point is getting lost; and that is that history is defined less by people on top and more by people on bottom. Wars are fought because cultural, religious, media, and economic establishments support them. Wars are ended when the groundswell of the population refuse to support the institutions that make them possible. Until the words “fighting for freedom” become more associated in the average American mind with strikes, boycotts, and voter registrations than with ground invasions and bombing raids, no president is going to be able to deliver on a “change we can believe in” slogan.
To borrow from Jared McKenna’s What if scenario, what if out of the 77% of the American population that self-identify as Christians, the vast majority of them became convinced that following Christ and renouncing the sword go hand in hand? What if John Howard Yoder replaced Augustine as the intellectual giant of the Western Church? For that to happen, a lot more Bible- believing Christians are going to have to be convinced that Romans 13 is not a carte blanche for Christians participating in state-sanctioned violence, that the Old Testament is a poor pretext for just war theory, and that John the Baptist wasn’t condoning violence when he didn’t tell the Roman soldiers of their day to give up their occupations. If there’s one thing to be learned from Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, it’s that Biblical paradigm shifts can have vast political consequences. It can happen again, but it’s going to take all hands on board. Any volunteers?