In accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, President Barack Obama not surprisingly - indeed necessarily, in light of his Afghanistan troop surge directive - spoke about how military action, and war, are sometimes unavoidable. He was eloquent in stressing the essential role of diplomacy and the gentle but persuasive power of nonviolence, while also calling on us to acknowledge that sometimes other, harsher measures are needed to address that range of situations in which imminent threats or wanton, inhumane acts are simply not ameliorated through appeals to reason. He spoke of the "just war," though it's not at all clear he convinced his audience - either at home or abroad - that the fighting in Afghanistan qualifies.
Speaking of war and peace, and affirming humanity's capacity to bend history in the direction of justice, he turned his attention, ultimately, to the role of religion. Sounding a theme he's used before, Obama observed that religion has been - and continues to be - invoked by some as a justification for heinous acts against others. He cited in particular the corruption of Islam by people who - from a safe haven in Afghanistan - engaged in the wholesale murder of innocents on 9/11, but reminded us also of the atrocities committed in the name of God during the Crusades. Last February, at the National Prayer Breakfast, the president noted how "far too often, we have seen faith wielded as a tool to divide us from one another - as an excuse for prejudice and intolerance. Wars have been waged. Innocents have been slaughtered. For centuries, entire religions have been persecuted, all in the name of perceived righteousness." In Oslo, Obama returned to such reflections.
Needless to say, contemporary examples of "faith wielded as a tool to divide us" abound. Whether manifested in ongoing Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian strife in Iraq, Taliban oppression in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or Jewish settler desecration of a mosque in the West Bank, to name but a few - those who claim to be agents of God's will and draw upon ancient texts to justify acts of violence against others continue to wreak their havoc in too many corners of the globe.
Indeed, as Obama pointed out, sometimes it seems as if humanity is moving backward. His message, though, was that we simply can't let that happen. And as the centerpiece to his campaign, this newest Nobel laureate repeated his impassioned call to those of all religions to struggle against what separates us from one another. Acknowledging that for many, fear of loss of religious or tribal identity has led to conflict with "the other," Obama urged us to find, beneath the veil of difference, the common humanity that binds us together. In fact, going further than he has before, the president observed that violent acts against others, inspired by the belief that one is fulfilling a divine mission, fly in the face of the "very purpose of faith," because "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."
By asserting that the very purpose of faith - and the "core struggle of human nature" - is to strive for closer adherence to the "law of love" in our relations with one another, Obama essentially neutralizes religious difference. Disparities in dogma among faiths become immaterial. Whatever one's belief system - whether religious or secular - it all boils down to the same crystallized essence, an "irreducible" something, as he puts it, that's simple and universal: the guiding principle embodied in the Golden Rule. Are Gandhi and King watching?
After Oslo, many are scratching their heads and wondering how so new a figure on the world stage, and one who has just escalated a distant, and probably unwinnable war, can merit the vaunted peace prize. These are valid questions. But if Obama can begin to lead the world into a new era of the Golden Rule, through actions as well as words - and he certainly speaks as if that is his mission - I suspect his Nobel Prize will have proven to be much more than aspirational.
Michael Felsen is a trustee of the Interreligious Center for Public Life and an executive officer of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring.
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