Barack Obama looks back to Lincoln and in doing so identifies with a President regarded as our greatest. Lincoln presided over one of the most brutal conflicts in history. Barack also looks back to that preacher from Atlanta who sang We Shall Overcome and espoused nonviolence.
The entire history of the West is marked by an acceptance of violence and brutality as givens. Augustine, representing orthodox Christian thinking, exempted soldiers who killed from the commandment not to kill. No major theologian rejected war. The Crusades and the Inquisition manifested shameful violence and rapaciousness. Calvin in Geneva had no qualms about capital punishment.
I do not believe the mission of America will be fulfilled until this most violent of nations, whose homicide rate dwarfs those of other Western nations, indeed of the world’s nations, becomes a nonviolent country led by a President committed to nonviolence as a way of life and as a salient tactic in resolving domestic and international crises.
Will Barack be our first nonviolent President?
You would not gather it from his public pronouncements, The only evidence I can muster is his own evolution in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright flap. I see Barack now as a post-Christian in the way I would assume Bonhoeffer would be, had he lived to full maturity. I see him as a universalist who respects life and does not play favorites.
But as President he will be committed to preserving and defending the US. The question is whether we are best preserved by perpetuating our violent and aggressive stance toward all comers. I think it is demonstrable that the world can no longer afford or endorse its current commitment to armed conflict, toward the warehousing of victims of conflict in wretched camps where they are prey to genocide, toward the toleration of a culture which endorses or furtively tolerates the continued decimation of women and children via multiple means. Our evolution is stuck.
By now we should have learned to our sorrow that no ideology or theory has the capacity to organize society, largely because humankind is one and theories and ideologies divide and toss the world into a Hegelian mixing bowl where Matthew Arnold’s ignorant armies clash by night and by day.
The pragmatic test of this millennium is whether nonviolence makes more sense than the use of military power. And, if it does, whether we can evolve toward that stage.
My guess is that the answer lies, initially, in achieving a degree of honesty about our aims. If we want control and to defeat a great power, we will paper this over with falsehoods and patriotic gore. If, on the other hand, our honest goal is to protect the innocents of Darfur, we are justified in a nonviolent display of whatever force we need to deploy to achieve our aim. We are also justified in beginning to work for open movement of displaced persons throughout the world. For an end to refugee politics, one of the most noxious rationalizations of failed political capacity ever perpetrated.
Will Barack Obama embrace nonviolence? Will he see that there is no way to defeat forces that intend violence save by the enforcement of laws that are transnational? Only when there is legal authority that can be backed up by a neutral force, as was the case during our civil rights movement, can nonviolence work as a tactic.
Even if there is no existing international law, there are rights which can be backed by force. The difference lies in being willing to interpose force without attacking, in being committed to operating as a force that is merely defensive.
I do not believe we can, as a world, survive this millennium unless we arrive at a new equation to justify the use of force. The Clintonian tactic of limiting our involvement to air strikes that protected OUR combatants is hardly an answer. It is in fact a temptation to see conflict in terms of who can inflict the most damage while suffering the least.
We can only survive by making brutality and the inflicting of brutality by states taboo. And insisting that without successful negotiating there is NO solution.
We need to redefine the purposes and scope of power politics until it is simply a breach of civilization and a compromise of culture to continue to build our house on the sand of militarism and patriotic gore.
Is such a step to a new stage of humankind’s psychological evolution one that Barack can take?
That is the question that we might wish to ask if we want also to start thinking outside the box about how to resolve conflicts which have been intractable and which remain so as we speak. If Barack cannot lead, my guess is that the movement to global nonviolence will come from the people who have the least to lose, giventhe brutal status quo.
The most shameful aspect of this, to me, is the general silence or antipathy of organized religion to nonviolence. It is enough to recommend against religion as a force for good.