The Common Good

Ordinary People and Just Peace in the Middle East

When we think about world events, we often think about them in relation to larger-than-life people -- the leaders of nations or of revolutions. We think about the meaning of events within the contexts of impersonal political and economic ideologies. However, at the end of the day, the meaning of world events is the impact that they have on the lives of ordinary people.

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When I listened to President Obama's speech on the Middle East (May 19, 2011), I paid attention to his references to ordinary people. Presidents often tell the stories of ordinary people in their speeches to give their policies a human face, but we often forget these stories. Perhaps this time his emphasis caught my attention because it reminded me that local and global peace not only comes from the efforts of world politicians, business leaders, and diplomats representing nation states, but it also comes through the work of ordinary people living their lives day by day with the intent to build a more peaceful world. It comes about through how ordinary people understand the possibilities of peace.

Just peace theory is a structure that systematizes everyday steps toward peacemaking with the purpose of avoiding the moment that triggers violent conflict. In my opinion, for the most part, President Obama is a just peace president. I say the Obama doctrine of foreign policy is a just peace doctrine. His speech again shows evidence of this.

Truth, respect and security are three pillars of just peace theory, and the president's emphasis upon political reform that strengthens civil society and allows for people to enjoy universal human rights falls under the categories of truth and respect. His recognition of the necessity for economic reform and its relationship to the preservation of human dignity is also a necessary ingredient of respect. And, all of these reforms lead to more stable and more secure societies.

This is especially true in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. President Obama certainly expressed my own frustration when he said: "The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

However, peacemakers, children of God, are obligated to keep praying and working for peace. We understand that the Israeli/Palestinian problem is so intractable because neither side trusts the other. Moreover, the two sides are stuck. Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinians, especially Hamas, until Hamas says that it accepts Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Hamas will very likely not give such recognition because to do so relegates Palestinians who are citizens of Israel to second class status by definition. The truth is: the two sides will have to negotiate without such an acknowledgement.

The good news is that ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are not waiting on their leaders to start the work of reconciliation. In the documentary "Encounter Point" we see the work of Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones to the conflict working toward reconciliation.

President Obama made this speech on the 86th birthday of El Hajj Malik El- Shabazz, a.k.a. Malcolm X. Malcolm started his life in very ordinary circumstances, came to public prominence as a preacher preaching racial separation but ended his life as a man working for unity and for universal human rights. This work goes on, and it is all of our work to do as we follow the imperative of Psalm 122:6, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem."

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.

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