Obama's Nobel Speech: What If?

By Jarrod McKenna 12-17-2009

What if? What if Obama's speech had not simply referenced Gandhi and King but followed them in following the way of Jesus? I have a number of friends, like Nobel Prize nominee John Dear and Ken Butigan, who have articulately raised concerns about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings and example being admired while simultaneously sidelined as impractical in Obama's Nobel speech. As Obama stated, "But as a head of State ... I cannot be guided by [Gandhi and King's] examples alone."

Which raises an interesting question for me: "Can we as Christians be guided by Christ's example alone?"

Is Jesus' example enough? Is Jesus' way realistic? For both Gandhi and King it was central to their program, but is Jesus' example alone enough for a president? Or does our hope, our example, our salvation lie elsewhere?

My concern is not just for Obama as someone who shares these philosophical influences of Gandhi and King with me, but for Obama as a brother who, in the Nobel speech, sidelined the teachings and example of Jesus as Lord. While this is not any different from any other world leader, it might be worth pointing out what many might have missed: Obama in this respect has not been any different from any other world leader. Cornel West and Travis Smiley continue to remind us of Obama's need for us to hold him accountable. Desmond Tutu said this week about Obama, "You are now a Nobel laureate -- become what you are."

This got me thinking, "What if." What if instead of Reinhold Niebuhr being Obama's favorite theologian, it were Martin King, Dorothy Day, or John Yoder? What if Obama, like Gandhi and King, looked to Jesus' example not as an ideal but as a practical program for transformation? What if Obama had made a study of the few places nonviolence was tried against Hitler (like in Denmark) and successfully halted Hitler's armies and saved the lives of 7,000 Jews? What if instead of merely quoting the Balkans, Obama made a real study of the nonviolent movement "Otpor!" that brought down Slobodan Milosevic? What if Obama fought terrorism by taking the billions in his war budget (which exceeds that of George W. Bush), and invested it in grassroots community development, health care, and education in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq (and at home)? What if Obama saw what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the love ethic of Jesus" as the pragmatic and realistic way forward? What if a head of state could risk being guided by Christ's example embodied by Gandhi and King?

What if Obama had not taken a step back from the Black Churches (in which he had come to faith) because their impassioned prophetic rhetoric became a liability? What if Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to preach his next sermon, which he had titled "Why America May Go to Hell"? Would Obama still have referred to him? It would be hard for any president to be part of King's congregation that day, let alone respond "amen."

There is a danger in quoting King and Gandhi as embodiments of abstract ideals to admire rather than fiercely pragmatic examples to follow. Instead of following them as they follow Christ, we might just end up "believing in him" while playing chaplain to empires, the likes of which put him on the cross.

Obama is right in saying "For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world." But it is dangerous to talk of evil unless he also states evil is NOT located in our enemies alone, but that any "axis of evil" runs through the heart of us all (Romans 3:9). Biblically, the only way God and us can overcome evil is with good! (Rom. 12:21)

But none of this need concern us if Jesus is only a guru, or a philosopher, or wisdom teacher, or incidental means of atonement. But if Jesus is Lord, then "loving your enemies" is not an abstract ideal that you can work toward with bombs; rather, it's a concrete practice and program for overcoming evil by imitating the transformative nonviolence of Christ, as Gandhi and King did. If Jesus is Lord, then the way of the cross, the way of militant nonviolent love even unto death, is our only "realpolitik" (despite the brilliant theology of Niebuhr) and may cost us our lives like it did Gandhi and King.

We must pray for our brother Obama; we must provide him with accountability; and we must refuse to cooperate and collaborate with any 'realism' that undermines what is most real for us as Christians: our Lord Christ Jesus and his nonviolent example.

This Christmas, let's pray that the way of Christ would not be lost in rhetoric as an ideal, but be found in practice in our communities as we live the grace God has shown to us. The nonviolent power and wisdom of God seen in the manger, in the life, in the teachings, and ultimately in the cross and resurrection is not merely our "highest aspiration" -- it's our salvation.

portrait-jarrod-mckennaJarrod McKenna is seeking to live God's love as a dad, husband, brother, activist trainer, and [eco]evangelist. He is a co-founder of the Peace Tree Community serving with the marginalised in one of the poorest of areas in his city, in Western Australia heads up an award-winning multi-faith youth service initiative called Together for Humanity, and is the founder and creative director of Empowering Peacemakers (E.P.Y.C.), for which he has received an Australian peace award in his work for empowering a generation of [eco]evangelists and peace prophets.

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