I live on a pretty thin diet when it comes to “The News”, so I may be less fed up than some of you are with the entire topic of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace. What I have heard, apart from the bare facts, which are simple and easy to relate, is a lot of noisy squabbling concealing a missed opportunity. In the poisonous atmosphere of our country’s current political climate, it has proven impossible for members of either of the dominant parties to take a deep breath of calm reflection on what this prize might mean for us. But for us as Christians, questions of war and peace and the obstacles to human unity have real weight, and do not take a back seat to whether or not one supports a particular President.
So, what if the Nobel judges actually had something important to tell us? The laureate himself seemed to think so—in his brief and self-deprecating comments the day of the announcement he said, “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the twenty-first century.” My hunch is that the President read the Nobel judges’ intentions exactly right--he, and by extension, we, are being rewarded for acknowledging that the problems of our day are all interconnected. National security, in particular, is not a problem that can be addressed apart from economic instability, which in turn is related to ecological sustainability, which is not separate from humanitarian law. Furthermore, these common challenges do not just transcend conceptual boundaries; they also cross geographical frontiers, so that any realistic solution will require international cooperation, diplomacy, and multilateral agreements.
I don’t think that is such bad message for us to take home from this whole fracas, and it will be interesting to see what the President has to say to the world when he goes to pick up his trophy. That said, I am skeptical about the whole business. It is not so much that I am concerned about the Nobel committee’s intentions, nor that I am discomfited about Barack Obama’s fitness for the honor. Rather I feel a sense of doubt, tinged with tragedy, about the ability of the President, any President, to make peace. One name that I have not heard mentioned in the last week is that of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the last sitting President of the United States to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. He received the award in 1919, when, victorious in the “War to End All Wars,” he presided over the Versailles Peace Conference and hammered out the charter to the League of Nations. That charter was rejected by the United States Senate the following year, and Wilson died a broken man less than five years later. And of course, it was only twenty years from the awarding of Wilson’s prize that the world had again descended into the inferno.
I offer this cautionary tale, not to breed cynicism and despair, but only to suggest that we must not misplace our fondest hopes. They say that politics is the “art of the possible”—so let us pray that our President, along with the leaders of all the nations, receive grace to accomplish all that is possible for the cause of peace and security in the world. But as Christians we are not permitted to be satisfied with the merely possible.
It is almost impossible for us to believe that the Jesus’ way of servanthood is the only really effective path to peace. Jesus’ disciples found it just as hard to accept. Three times in Mark’s Gospel Jesus explains to them how he is going to be condemned and killed. And after the third time James and John come and ask him to be awarded special honor and share in his glory. They can’t believe that Jesus could be humiliated and defeated in this way, because they are afraid, and we have the same fear. We are afraid that God does not have an answer to human violence and injustice. We are afraid that the weapons of our enemies—lies, spies, slanders, threats, terror, and death--are more powerful than the gifts of the Spirit. We aim for peace, but when the risk seems too great, we fall back on what we know, what we can control, what we are able to do. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,” asks Jesus, “or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And James and John say to him, “We are able,” and thus they reveal the depth of their ignorance.
When I heard that Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first person I thought of was the last African-American to receive the honor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I found myself hoping that the President was thinking of him too. In his book, The Strength to Love, Dr. King has a chapter entitled “Our God is Able” which describes God’s power to create and sustain the universe, to subdue evil, and to sustain hope and courage in those who have faith. He concludes the chapter with a personal experience. After relating describing a happy and untroubled early life, King tells how his sudden emergence as a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott brought him face to face with “the trials of life.” In particular, he began to receive threatening phone calls and letters at home, which increased until, he says, “I began faltering and growing in fear.”
“After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the phone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all my fears had come down on me at once.”
“My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’”
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”
Like his master, Jesus Christ, Dr. King discovered the power that is able to make peace in this world. This peace can work in us and through us, but often it seems that it only comes to us when we meet our fears head on, and surrender any thought we have of being able to vanquish them by our own power. In Dr. King’s case, as in Jesus,’ this inner peace also manifested as a resolute compassion for those imprisoned by fear of enemies and those captivated by the illusion of invulnerability. This, in turn, led them into a deeper and deeper confrontation with the root causes of violence, a confrontation in which they gave their lives. And it is there, in the seeming totality of defeat, that God showed himself most able, raising Christ from death so that all might finally understand that the impossible is not only possible, it is only thing really worth hoping for.
We may never find ourselves asked to bear the responsibility of leadership that Barack Obama has, or Martin Luther King had, and we know we need not do the work that Christ accomplished. Our trials may never be as severe or our destinies as historically fateful. But all of us endure the temptations of power, to assume for ourselves what only God can accomplish, and all of us have fears that we think will overwhelm us, and moments when we know we have to speak up, or take a risk, in order to be true to God’s will. The stands we take can cost us intense suffering as others react with anger or disappointment, but if we endure with firmness and love, relationships can actually be transformed in a way that reveals the power of the Holy Spirit. And believe it or not, it is these little increments of real change that world peace, the true and lasting peace of God’s kingdom, is made of.