The Common Good

Obama in Cairo: A Just Peace

Sojomail - June 4, 2009


You can raise pigs to be very strong and very fat. But a pig is still a pig. And a pig has no rights.

- Liu Suli, who served 20 months in prison for his role in the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, on the idea that “his fellow Chinese have made a devil’s bargain, trading the freedom that he and his fellow protesters sought for a chance at a car and a bigger apartment.” (Source: The New York Times)

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Obama in Cairo: A Just Peace

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Truth. Respect. Security.

These three elements of just peace theory found their way into President Obama’s speech, delivered in Cairo. He spoke the truth about our common humanity and a common purpose of creating and keeping peace in the world. He did not deny hard, ugly, bloody facts of history. He faced today’s tough and touchy problems with a determined steady gaze. He described a vision of a world at peace. Wisdom teaches that where there is no vision, a people perish. This is so for all of humankind.

The historical truth he told recalled both the good and the bad: conflict, religious war, colonialism, Cold War, the Holocaust, the dislocation of Palestinians, slavery, apartheid, America’s role in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran, the subjugation of women, 9/11. He spoke of the contributions of Islamic civilization to the world in mathematics, navigation, writing, art, architecture, poetry, music, religion, and spirituality. He spoke of Islam’s relationship with the United States from the nation’s beginning. He spoke of Islam inside the U.S. and of the contributions of Muslims. He spoke of the civil rights movement and of the efficacy of nonviolent protest, of democracy and human aspiration, of inter-religious dialogue, women’s rights, and economic development. He spoke of the interdependence of nations, what Martin Luther King Jr. would describe as a network of mutuality. Financial crisis, viral infections, nuclear proliferation, and genocide are not local concerns. The whole world weeps. Ending the suffering is a global responsibility.

This is important.

We live in a moment of human history where no one nation can say: “Do what I tell you to do or face grave consequences.” The days of disrespectful rhetoric, of what the U.S. will or will not allow, are over. The truth is no nation has ever held such power. The very concept is delusion and deception.

President Obama spoke of seven main issues: violent extremism; Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world; nuclear weapons; democracy; religious freedom; women’s rights; and economic development. He observed: “All these things must be done in partnership. Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life."

Such an approach has the power to bring true security to the world. We are accustomed to thinking of security in terms of military power, hard power, negative power, power that works its will through violence or the threat of violence. However, security also comes when we deploy soft power, the positive power of everyday effort working at the grassroots to assure every human being on the face of the earth that which is necessary to sustain life and to allow joy.

Truth. Respect. Security.

President Obama was right to remind us that peace on earth is the will of God. He was right to remind us that it is our work to do.

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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