President Obama, Niebuhr, and his peace prize


December 11, 2009 by J. Madson

Updates Below…

For those of you who know me, you may know that I am a very big fan of the work done by John Howard Yoder in dismantling the arguments for Christian engagement with violence as proposed by Neibuhr. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus is a must read for anyone serious in understanding Christian ethics. It was my readings of Yoder that led me to discover Stanley Hauerwas, named the number one theologian in America by Time in 2001, and his many insights into Christianity and what he calls the “peaceable kingdom.”

I don’t know if Obama has read Yoder or Hauerwas but he has often mentioned Neibuhr as a major influence on his views of war and peace. He has also mentioned MLK jr. as the most influential source on his views of violence although I can hardly guess how. Contrary to his statements regarding MLK Jr.’s influence in his views, it seems that at the end of the day he is Neibuhrian in his views. It is truly a shame that Obama’s understanding of Christian ethics never progressed past Neibuhr’s views. This week he gave his nobel peace prize speech in Norway. As Ben Witherington wrote,

When you learn that both Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have praised President Obama’s speech in Norway this week, Gingrich even calling it historic, you know something is up

Why does this matter?

In Obama’s speech in Norway, he traces the history of war from ancient times to present citing the development of the concept of just war and other means to limit the carnage caused by war. It is shortly thereafter he begins what perhaps describes Neibuhr’s logic perfectly

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: 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.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. 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 work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. 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.

Neibuhr was what one could call a realist. He believed, as Obama argued here, that we lived in a fallen world and that it was improbable if not impossible to eradicate violence in the world. Humanity was too fallen, too base. It was for this reason, that the realist Christian could only conclude that if we could not eradicate all violence, then the next best thing we could do, short of taking the non-violent message of Christianity, Buddhism, and other faiths serious, was to try to make violence as moral as possible. The problem with such logic is that war cannot be made moral. If D&C 121 teaches us anything it is that it is the nature of nearly all men to use power to wicked ends. This of course was the perverted rationale of the war criminal Kissinger and his real-politik that orchestrated assassinations in Chile and illegal bombings in Cambodia, to name just two of his well known crimes among many more. Perhaps, this is why we have recently learned that the US has hired the defense contractors Blackwater, known for their Christianist crusader rhetoric along with a penchant for murdering in the name of God and empire, to assassinate our enemies in Pakistan (you can read Jeremy Scahill’s numerous revelations on Blackwater here), but I digress….

Obama stated it in this manner (note: this reads much better if you can hum Im proud to be an American in your head while imagining waving flags, fade in scenes of vast american landscapes, soldiers, even better if veterans, fireworks, etc.) :

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

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.

Two things stand out to me in this passage. One is Obama’s defense of US wars and conflicts which continues throughout the speech with his suggestion that although America has gone to war and probably has killed lots of people, that the blood we spilt is part of our effort to make the world better. We did this of course out of self-interest, but an enlightened one.

And more importantly to me is his suggestion that “war is sometimes necessary.” I applaud Obama’s statements in the speech that war should never be glorified, that holy war can never be justified, and his recognition that more civilians die in war than soldiers, but I am left with a fear that Obama’s speech amounts to little more than fancy words and rhetoric. At the end of the day, he not only believes that in a fallen world we cannot reject violence but that at the same time, he and others are holy enough and good enough (despite the world being fallen) to know when and how to unleash the hell that is war. He believes that despite the fact that more civilians will be killed than soldiers in any conflict we can trust he has some higher purpose, higher cause, indeed an enlightened self-interest that will usher in a world of peace and stability through the sword. It is too Neitzchean a worldview for me. I do not trust any man to weld such power and history is full of men claiming God, virtue, truth, etc was on their side while committing atrocities.

Obama’s speech is of course less about peace and more about his defense of his own war record including his failure to remove any soldiers in Iraq, escalate the now longest war in US history in Afghanistan, and continue drone attacks in Pakistan. perhaps summed it up best

Peace Doesn’t Work, Obama Informs Nobel Committee
Accepts Peace Prize by Defending Merits of War

[I]n what must’ve been one of the least humble and least appropriate speeches ever given before the Nobel Committee, Obama declared non-violence to be impractical and insisted that the “limits of reason” meant that the American military would continue to have to be used for “moral” reasons.

I can only end with Ben Witherington’s thoughts on this matter:

I quite agree with President Obama that only a warped view of Biblical religion could lead to a belief in a doctrine of holy war as carried out by fallible sinful human beings. Fallen human beings are incapable of carrying out a holy war, incapable of making the necessary moral distinctions so that right is always done in any given situation, or at least so that there are more rescued victims of injustices than newly created victims in the course of a war.

But I must confess to being doubtful even when we talk about a justifiable struggle that it ever becomes a just war. For what the President has admitted in this speech is that war is not merely hell, it is one of the ultimate expressions of human sin on earth, one of the greatest expressions of a violation of love of neighbor and even love of enemy imaginable.

Even if a convincing case could be made for a war of necessity, say WWII, it still involved so much killing of non-combatants, so much taking of innocent life, that as a Christian I have to insist that the most appropriate and necessary response to the conclusion of a war is not a victory parade, but a service of repentance for sin on a grand and grotesque scale. The sacrifices of the soldiers should be recognized, their safe return should be prayed for and thanked God for, but not without recognizing that we have asked them to go and do something that inevitably involves commiting sin on a grand scale! And such actions do indeed require repentance.

There are no clear cut winners in a war— its just that some lose less than others, some lose less permanently than others. As one of my favorite poets once said “any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind. Therefore do not seek to know for whom the bell, the death knell tolls— it tolls for thee.”

You can read ben Witherington’s review of Obama’s speech and the speech in its entirety here

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan remarks “It’s a remarkable address – Niebuhr made manifest.” and states the following

Obama has never been a pacifist. Never. His opposition to the Iraq war, as he said at the time, was not because he was against all war, but because he was against a dumb war. He is, in so many ways, a Niebuhrian realist. And with Niebuhr, there is the deeper sense that even though there is no ultimate resolution in favor of good over evil on this earth in our lifetimes, we still have a duty to try… This is why I have supported this unlikely man for several years now.

This is not particularly surprising given that Sullivan has never been against war himself, as his early support of the Iraq war indicates. The debate is not really over whether war is just or not but a line drawing exercise on how much war and what type of horrors we find acceptable.

UPDATE II: Glenn Greenwald gives a devastating critique of the speech, which should be read in whole, and why an Obama presidency in many ways is much more dangerous than the previous presidency:

Reactions to Obama’s Nobel speech yesterday were remarkably consistent across the political spectrum, and there were two points on which virtually everyone seemed to agree:   (1) it was the most explicitly pro-war speech ever delivered by anyone while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize; and (2) it was the most comprehensive expression of Obama’s foreign policy principles since he became President.  I don’t think he can be blamed for the first fact; when the Nobel Committee chose him despite his waging two wars and escalating one, it essentially forced on him the bizarre circumstance of using his acceptance speech to defend the wars he’s fighting.  What else could he do?  Ignore the wars?  Repent?

Greenwald summarized his speech as such:

Indeed, Obama insisted upon what he called the “right” to wage wars “unilaterally”; articulated a wide array of circumstances in which war is supposedly “just” far beyond being attacked or facing imminent attack by another country; explicitly rejected the non-violence espoused by King and Gandhi as too narrow and insufficiently pragmatic for a Commander-in-Chief like Obama to embrace; endowed us with the mission to use war as a means of combating “evil”; and hailed the U.S. for underwriting global security for the last six decades (without mentioning how our heroic efforts affected, say, the people of Vietnam, or Iraq, or Central America, or Gaza, and so many other places where “security” is not exactly what our wars “underwrote”).

What is so particularly dangerous about Obama’s worldview as Greenwald explains is that it has taken the excesses and dangers of the right and now brought left and right into a bi-partisan agreement around what could be called the Obama Doctrine

Yesterday’s speech and the odd, extremely bipartisan reaction to it underscored one of the real dangers of the Obama presidency:  taking what had been ideas previously discredited as Republican or right-wing dogma and transforming them into bipartisan consensus.  It’s not just Republicans but Democrats that are now vested in — and eager to justify — the virtues of war, claims of Grave Danger posed by Islamic radicals and the need to use massive military force to combat them, indefinite detention, military commissions, extreme secrecy, full-scale immunity for government lawbreaking, and so many other doctrines once purportedly despised by Democrats but now defended by them because their leader has embraced them.

That’s exactly the process that led former Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith to giddily explain that Obama has actually done more to legitimize Bush/Cheney “counter-terrorism” policies than Bush and Cheney themselves — because he made them bipartisan…

Most of the neocons celebrating Obama’s speech yesterday made exactly that point in one way or another:  if even this Democratic President, beloved by liberals, announces to the world that we have the unilateral right to wage war and that doing so creates Peace and crushes Evil, and does so at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony of all places, doesn’t that end the argument for good?

13 thoughts on “President Obama, Niebuhr, and his peace prize

  1. As it said in an old New Internationalist skit on American politics, using Star Trek: ‘We come in peace, shoot to kill.’

  2. Rod says:

    Well, said. I encountered Yoder in my readings of Hauerwas as well. I like Yoder so much better. Keep up the good work.

  3. […] President Barack Obama’s Christian Realism December 11, 2009 — Rod UPDATE: The Mormon Worker says that President Obama needs to read John Howard Yoder […]

  4. mormongandhi says:

    Well, I just read his speech – but has not been able to listen to it yet. I am wondering though, was I not judging him a bit too harshly yesterday? I know that the first part of his speech was pretty much justifying war and discrediting – to a certain degree – the values and the effectiveness of nonviolence (and just for that, I should outrightly dismiss the whole thing as rubish), but he did spend the second half of his speech on drawing up a vision of how we may achieve peace and I must say that I agree with many of his statements – call it the Obama doctrine, if you will, on peace – while the first part may be his doctrine on war (praised by the far right)…

    He quoted Kennedy and King several times and made reference to Gandhi a couple of times – also in a positive way. He mentioned that the international community must continue to offer support to demonstrations in Iran, to Ang San Suu Kyi in Burma, and spoke warmly about abolishing nuclear weapons. Yet, he did speak soberly about “What to do with the spoilers of peace?” and not necessarily by bombing them to the stone ages…

    He redefined the role of soldiers as peacekeepers and not warmongers, as respecters of Geneva conventions and not torturers – however without abolishing war and the soldier profession, which is what I would favor… Things take time – Gandhi would agree and war is the result of people not being willing to wait for change to happen in a nonviolent way. I suppose that is the seduction of war and the downfall of humankind.

    Norway should have given Obama more time to deliver politically on his doctrine of peace, since I ascribe to that (second) vision. I was afraid that this was going to be a 1984 speech (War is Peace) and it was portrayed that way by the media, but when you look at what he actually was saying in the second half, that was a seriously good speech about peace and on how to achieve it. I was afraid at first that his speech could well have been held at a war academy in the US, but I think that the second half of his speech was one of the better speeches in the last ten years on the issue of peace with the sobering starting point of having behind us 8 years with the Bush doctrine and the sadness and tragedy of war. Nice with a breath of fresh air, but more time would have been nice – also for him…

    So, if Palin, Gingrinch and others on the crazy far right of American politics praise it, they are probably hearing what they want to hear – and perhaps I am too, but I prefer looking at what Obama said and not what others said about what he said. That was my mistake this morning, when I woke up and read through the papers – and now, like I said, I wonder if I was judging him a bit too harshly… Correct me if I am wrong, please. You can dismiss the first part of his speech. i don’t like it… The passages you have selected J. are in that first part, right?

  5. Forest Simmons says:

    If Obama can get a peace prize, maybe Jay Bybee can too. Here’s link to a pertinent article about Brother Bybee:

  6. J. Madson says:


    yes most of the passages I cited were in the first part and you are right that there is something in there for everyone. Its almost as if he is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

    He did praise Ghandi. He did praise MLK Jr. He did suggest that we should torture and do more for non-violence. He did, however, at the same time argue that while all those things were great, he was the commander in chief and therefore had a duty to defend with force even. He even suggested his oath was to defend the US against its enemies. This is the same slight of hand Bush used as well. The reality is that he swore an oath to defend the constitution not the US.

    My problem with his entire speech is that it is essentially Christian realism as first espoused by Niebuhr. Neibuhr was a pacifist and even a member of the socialist party in the US before the outbreak of WWII. He eventually rejected pacifism and advocated war and even the creation of nuclear weapons. His philosophy was called Christian realism which essentially amounted to telling Christians to get real about the whole peace message and realize you are going to have to get your hands dirty. This is the philosophy and philosopher that Obama constantly praises. So does Obama argue for a more benevolent form of warfare? perhaps, but at the end of the day he is still a constantinian (meaning a christian who is not an enemy of the empire but willing to use empire and means directly contrary to those taught by Jesus (ie violence) to achieve their own utopian ideal.

  7. Isn’t the whole point of Christian ‘realism’ that “We have all these great ideals, but…”
    The right may be disturbed by the second part of Obama’s speech, but it’s the first part that matters: support for previous foreign policy decisions, support for continued military expenditure, support for ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way things might be’ which is surely why he got elected in the first place: CHANGE.

  8. mormongandhi says:

    In any case, it’s the first part of the speech that everybody talks about. So yes, I suppose that is the part that counts… Too bad we are still stuck with old paradigms. I prefer peace.

  9. mormongandhi says:

    “War is the result of people not being willing to wait for CHANGE to happen in a nonviolent way. I suppose that is the seduction of war and the downfall of humankind” – and perhaps also the downfall of the American Empire? Obama said things would change – for the better – but did we know how we would go about bringing that change?

  10. Tariq says:

    The Nobel Peace Prize ceased to have any meaning ever since they gave it to Henry Kissinger back in the day.

  11. J. Madson says:


    you are prob right about that one. Kissinger should have been tried long ago for his crimes.

  12. Joseph says:

    Not much of an expert on Yoder or Hauerwas or Neibuhr, but I am going to get nitpicky and take on the use of the word “Neitzchean” here. I’m not necessarily an expert on Neitzche either, but I minored in German as an undergrad, and I know enough about Neitzche to know how badly taken out of context his ideas have been. Neitzche’s ideal people were artists and saints, people who rebelled against and rejected society, not who became leaders of society. “Ubermensch” is very poorly translated as “superman” and has been misused by authoritarians on all sides of the political fence. And “Umbermensch” doesn’t fight for or against evil, because they are “beyond good and evil.” Not that such a person can do whatever they want, it’s more a state of mind thing (which I don’t agree with, but it is closer to Buddhist or Taoist thought than any political philosophy). Just trying to set the record straight. I don’t agree with Neitzche, and there are very problematic contradictions in his work, but he can take you through an interesting thought process. A more accurate description would be potentially authoritarian or totalitarian.

    I’m going through some really emotionally difficult times right now, so I’m avoiding politics like the plague it is, so I haven’t read Obama’s speech. It does seem he’s painted himself into a corner. I’m afraid, however, that this country is way too right-wing and if we leave Iraq and Afghanistan in defeat (which seems pretty much inevitable) and the economy doesn’t improve, the reaction against Obama is going to be very fascist, nasty, and likely violent. So I for one am hoping that Obama can pull something together in this mess. I’m sure in the future the main thing about Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize will be that he was the first African-American President of the United States. Hopefully it won’t be under some fascist regime that blames everything that’s gone wrong on having elected an African-American President. I’m sure the wars we are in will only be a footnote since we’ll have moved on to still other wars by then. Well, I’m going to go listen to that old Christmas song of Longfellow’s poem and see if I can cheer myself up. Not gonna take on Obama’s (or any politician’s) speech for a while.

    I do enjoy coming to the Mormon Worker because I simply can’t align myself to the Republican Party, but I am certainly a firm believer in the Gospel of Jesus Christ (and without it I don’t know what I would have to hold on to), so I do enjoy seeing everyone bring a different perspective to the LDS religion. I’ll end on that more positive note.

  13. Joseph says:

    *above when I refer to “a better description would be authoritarian or totalitarian” I was referring to this post’s use of the word “Neitzchean” in reference to the Prez of the U.S., not to Neitzche himself, since the best description for Neitsche is “existentialist.” The existentialists are the more legitimate heirs of Neitzchean philosophy.

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