At Oslo, Obama Asked And Attempted To Answer The Question: How Do We Overcome Evil?

In President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, I hear Obama asking and attempting to answer a fundamental question:  “How do we overcome evil?”

The question, “How do we overcome evil?”, is a great way to frame the question of “peace,” because, in the world view of many, what prevents peace in this world is something known as “evil.”

If we believe that it is evil that causes the bad things in this world — poverty, war, hunger, hatred, disharmony, ignorance — then how we define “evil” is of key importance. If it is a supernatural force that causes bad things, then, of course, bad things must always be with us, war and conflict must be perpetual. If we define our enemies as “evil doers,” under the control of a supernatural force, we can see them as less than human and we can justify many horrible actions of war to defeat them.

But, if we define “evil” not as a supernatural force, but as human failing — hubris, prejudice, psychosis — then, in order to defeat evil, we need a very different strategy.  We need a strategy that will heal human failings, we need a strategy that brings all of humanity into enlightenment.

Obama in the speech said, “Make no mistake. Evil does exist in the world.” This “make no mistake” finger wagging I found disturbing. No-one, obviously, makes the mistake to think that bad things in the world don’t exist. By, saying, “make no mistake,” Obama seemed to advance the fatalistic notion that “evil” is not just “bad things,” but that evil is a supernatural force. Many a preacher has said, “There is a big spiritual battle going on — of good versus evil, of God versus Satan — make no mistake.”

This idea of supernatural evil, of course, tickles the ears of Biblical literalists. Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich both praised Obama’s reference to evil. But the idea of evil is very dangerous. Evil, as an idea, is not only an impediment to peace, it is an encouragement to violence. The idea of evil, in this contemporary culture, must be subdued, not encouraged. To believe in evil often means to do evil.

Our whole world is facing the threat of extinction as a consequence of religious radicalism. There seems a good chance that irrational thinking eventually will destroy us. Encouraging belief in supernatural evil hardly seems like a good strategy, because, encouraging belief in a supernatural evil is an encouragement to fatalistic, unscientific, and irrational thinking, an encouragement to religious radicalism.

If he wanted to frame his speech by the phrase, “Evil exists in the world,” I found it strange that Obama did not develop the thinking of King and Ghandi concerning how evil can be overcome. The idea of “We Shall Overcome” is that the way to overcome evil is through “nonviolence.” The idea of nonviolence, preached by both King and Ghandi, comes from the founder of the Christian religion, who taught, “Resist not evil,” and from the words of St. Paul, who wrote, “Overcome evil with good.”

Obama’s Nobel speech dealt with two ideas — a “just war” and a “just peace.” The Christian teaching, that we can “overcome evil with good,” would have made a good bridge to Obama’s idea of promoting a “just peace.”  Having brought up the topic of “evil,” Obama missed the opportunity to develop an important pillar of Christian thought concerning how to deal with evil, a Christian perspective that inspired both Gandhi and King.

The idea of nonviolence, or active peace making, as a response to evil is an idea that seems lost to many Christians. I was amazed that Rick Warren in his interviews with Obama and John McCann addressed the matter of evil with this question: “Does evil exist, and if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it?” I would have thought that a prominent Christian, such as Warren, would have given the presidential candidates a fifth option, the Christian option for dealing with evil, by saying, “or, do we overcome evil with good?”

Is it possible to imagine a candidate for the office of the presidency of the United States to have said to this icon of evangelical Christondom, “Can you tell me what you mean by the word, ‘evil?’?” A better  Obama, I think, would have chanllenged the premise of the question, and would have shown his profound understanding of Christian thoeolgy.  I wonder why Barack Obama, with this great opportunity, did not. I am trying to understand Mr. Obama’s point of view.  His answer to Rick Warren — “Evil does exist. I mean, we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil in parents have viciously abused their children and I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely …” — is such a disappointment that it challenges one to imagine what the authenic Barack Obama of our hopes might possibly have said.

In his Nobel speech, Obama said that as head of state he cannot be guided by the nonviolent examples of Gandhi and King, because, in the real world, sometimes violence is necessary.  He said,  “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 nonviolent 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.”

Of course, this rationale for violence — “I face the world as it is” — is the same rationale used by anyone who is aggrieved and wants to start a fight. It’s a human response. But it is a rationale that was rejected by Gandhi, King and Jesus. In his eagerness to excuse his expansion of the Afghanistan War, Obama trashed the idea of nonviolence, illogically saying that just as a nonviolent movement would not have been effective against Hitler, it also doesn’t have a chance against al Qaeda.

Obama’s main answer to question, “How do we overcome evil?”, is that we must work to achieve a “just peace.” And, Obama says that this peace is much more than simply a cessation of hostility.  Obama’s “just peace,” he says, is, “based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual … and includes not only civil and political rights — it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

Wow. If we could have a “just peace” throughout the world, certainly, evil, however it is defined, would be overcome. A nonviolent movement that, after WW1, that succeeded in activating such a “just peace,” in Germany of the 1920’s, in fact, would have halted Hitler’s armies, because, under the influence of a “just peace,” Hitler would never have gained power. Successful nonviolence is about timing and activity. Waving protest signs in September 1939 would not have been effective. But achieving a “just peace” for Germans after WW1 would have changed history.

Hitler and his armies, and the destruction they caused, did not come from some supernatural evil, and were not inevitable. The Nazi movement could not have flourished in the context of a just peace. Similarly, if there had been a “just peace” for Palestine and within the entire Middle East, is it reasonable to think that the evil of al Qaeda also would never have become generated.

Obama’s answer to evil is the building of a “just peace,” yet in his Afghanistan decision he has committed huge American resources to war. His Nobel speech would have had more meaning had he, as U.S. president and leader of the free world, made some specific commitments, had pledged money, to work for a “just peace.” Obama should have used his speech, for example, to address the fact that over one billion people in the world daily face hunger. This injustice is a breeding ground for evil, however it is defined, and should be the focus of the world’s attention.

Since 2001, the U.S. has spent over $1 trillion on pursuing war. As an exercise, it would be interesting to know how far a just peace in the world could be advanced if we had the national will to spend a like amount of money, say $1 trillion over the next ten years, on pursuing a just peace in the world, pursuing an honest effort of “overcoming evil with good,” by working to bring “freedom from fear, freedom from want” throughout the world.

President Obama Nobel Peace Prize speech had its good points, but overall, had a lot of bad points as well. Obama brought up the topic of “evil,” and, in so doing, confirmed the view of many of his listeners that evil is a supernatural force. He brought up the topic of evil, and, by so doing, he aligned himself with the Bush viewpoint of “evil doers” and the Bush idea of the existence of an “axis of evil.” He encouraged his listeners to think of America’s enemies as “evil.”  He justified the use of violence. He disparaged the use of “nonviolence.” He equated the “evil” of al Quaeda with that of Nazi Germany.

President Obama had a very good point in his speech, that he attempted to develop, the idea that peace and justice are inextricable linked, the idea that the world must work for justice in order for it to achieve peace. This idea of a”just peace” is a powerful idea. It is the answer to the question, “How do we overcome evil in the world?”, regardless of how “evil” is defined. But what disappointed was that, as democratically elected leader of the world’s only super-power, Obama failed to develop this idea of a “just peace” to the point of conviction. He failed to take a stand. His discussion of a “just peace” finally sounded like the balanced words of an academician, not the guiding vision of a world leader.  By his command, America is sending 30,000 more soldiers  and spending billions of dollars to pursue what he sees as a “just war.”  It is disappointing that on the occasion of this Peace Prize speech, Obama could not have found a way to use this big opportunity to tell how America could advance equally ambitious plans to pursue  a “just peace.”

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One Response to At Oslo, Obama Asked And Attempted To Answer The Question: How Do We Overcome Evil?

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    Why indeed do not American Christians believe in overcoming evil with good? (If the creation museum people still follow this blog, perhaps they could give their view). I wonder if Warren did not ask that question because he doesn’t believe that good is the way to overcome evil, as most Americans don’t, or because that idea is considered (perhaps at the dictation of the candidates, or just understood) to be off the table as a serious political idea, one that would only embarrass the candidates.

    Most agree that by humiliating Germany and taking so much in reparations after WWI we laid the groundwork for WWII, a mistake that was not repeated. Fewer may agree that the lack of a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians would have in itself prevented al Qaeda (the other Middle East powers do not always go out of their way to help the Palestinians, the US funded bin Ladin during the cold war, and oil is a major issue in Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of al Qaeda, and in the rest of the region’s powers as well) but it is certainly gasoline on fires that may be caused by other injustices and economic conflicts. In any case there can be little doubt that America invests hugely in war and war making (with the demise of GM and NCR, Wright Patterson AFB and the surrounding contractors and academia is seen by many as the economic savior of Dayton.) and very little in peacemaking. Where your treasure is your heart will be also, and if an orthopedist looks at a problem and sees a knee operation, a country with a military budget that exceeds the rest of the world’s looks at a world problem, or the “problem of evil” and sees a war or the opportunity to threaten one. Even with all of this, the US has run out of resources running two wars in two comparatively obscure areas of the world. And if Pakistan is now the underlying major problem, it is not clear what long term benefit will come from a surge in Afghanistan, let alone a long term occupation. If anything the need may be to make peace between Pakistan and India, something the US seems particularly ill suited to do.

    As to the problem of evil as a matter of theology, it both stumps and fascinates us. This is evidenced by all the villainous variations Hollywood gives us, with the Joker, Javier Bardem’s character in “No Country for Old Men” and similar ones in anything else Cormack McCarthy writes, Hannibal Lecter, Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader and various other sociopaths, sadists and fear inducing power obsessed figures, down to perhaps that quintissential American, Michael Corleone. These villains are far more fascinating to us than the good guys, who we quickly forget. MLK and numerous others have recognized that the potential for good and evil lives in each one of us (which dog do you feed is an old Native American solution to the problem of evil). So rather than trying to kill all the racists and segregationists, MLK resisted nonviolently, often suffering their abuse, but by doing so changing the hearts and minds of many, and certainly did not produce the future anger and revenge that violence produces,thereby ensuring that future violence will occur. MLK himself were killed as were many others, but not nearly as many as were killed in these violent clashes against “evil” such as WWII and our wars in the middle east that aren’t done yet. It is possible to imagine a large scale effort that is being done now on a small scale by groups like Christian Peacemaking Teams making a large difference in conflicted areas, probably at some cost of lives but fewer than our culture and technology of violence accept now. How would we ever produce the “troops” for such a peacemaking effort, and a “peace industrial complex” (maybe industrial isn’t the right term at all in the sense that we make planes and bombs) to support it? But then how do we produce a culture where so many are ready to volunteer to suffer death and disability in war?

    Obama did not set out to become the next coming of MLK. He chose to obtain a position where warmaking is both part of the qualifications and in practice has been part of every President’s job. To sell these wars this he must debunk the alternatives. It is a slippery slope to the Bush view that we are good and “they” are evil, and from there to abu Ghraib, torture, rendition and drone assassination. “Realists” argue that the world demands action that inevitably does evil and that the struggle is to be morally better than the alternative, with WWII as the classic success story. However this may be the road to Robert McNamara.

    Perhaps some day Obama will allude to this Nobel Prize speech when he launches a massive investment in peacemaking in some part of the world where the US has been sowing death and destruction.

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