Thoughts on Obama’s Nobel Theology Prize speech
If there were a Nobel Prize for Theology, large parts of President Barack Obama’s Oslo speech could be cut and pasted into an acceptance speech for it. The Peace Prize speech dealt with war and he made a clear case from the start for the use of force when necessary. While he began with political arguments for this position, his rationale took on an increasingly religious tone as the speech echoed faith leaders and theologians going back to the origins of Christianity.
It started with a hat-tip to Rev. Martin Luther King when he said “our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice” — echoes of King’s 25 March 1965 Montgomery speech saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Obama then went into the “just war” theory that says war is justified only if it is a last resort or self-defense, if force is proportional to the threat and civilians are spared if possible. This is a classic Christian doctrine elaborated by Saint Augustine in the fifth century and then by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. In 2003, Pope John Paul II used this doctrine to justify his opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Obama noted that this doctrine was “rarely observed” but called for new ways of thinking “about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace … Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.”
The president used the “just war” theory to put a theological interpretation on Islamist militancy, saying 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 — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but the purpose of faith.”
Then came the echoes of the man Obama has called one of his favourite thinkers, the 20th century American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The whole speech had a tone that American political commentators like to call Niebuhrian, either in its phrasing or its tough mix of political realism and moral thinking. For example:
— “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes”— Obama (” Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime” — Niebuhr).
— “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people” — Obama (We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power — Niebuhr).
— “We do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected” — Obama (“The sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world” — Niebuhr).
— Faith: he spoke out for the faith in human progress that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King showed: “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.”
— Hope: “The absence of hope can rot a society from within.”
— Love: “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.”
The tone remained religious right to the end: “So let us reach for the world that ought to be — that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.”
What do you think about such religious discourse from a political leader? Does it help clarify the issues involved?
Here’s a short video of Obama’s speech: