Obama and King: A Conversation on Peace

Two millenium ago, a child was born in Bethlehem who taught us how to live.  We have yet to heed his message of love, compassion and peace, but during this holiday season we should renew ourselves to that higher calling; to love one another as we want to be loved.  The following conversation is composed of statements regarding peace from President Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture (2009) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech (1964).  I was moved to write this because it was apparent to me from President Obama’s lecture that the simple concepts of peace and justice are made complex and exhausting.  While he praised Dr. King’s non-violent movement, he alluded to the fact that he was a statesman and had to view the world as such; however, spreading peace and love knows no titles, positions, race, gender, sexual orientation, creed or class.  We should be reminded this season that the only means of bringing  peace is to live it.  In Dr. King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, he wrote, “Contructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means, because in the final analysis the end is preexistent in the mean.”  This holiday season let us reflect on the peace we seek to bring to the world and act in accordance.  Happy Holidays.

A conversation on peace between 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient President Barack H. Obama and 1964 recipient Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

Obama: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”

King: “After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.”

Obama: “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

King: “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”

Obama: “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.  For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world.”

King: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

Obama: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies.  Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms.” 

King: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

Obama: “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” 

King: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction.”

Obama: “So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” 

King:  “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.”

Obama: “But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.”

King:  “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.”

Obama: “So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths – that war is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.” 

King: “I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”

Obama: “Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. ‘Let us focus,’ he said, ‘on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.’” 

King:  “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsom and jetsom in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.” 

Obama: “This brings me to a second point – the nature of the peace that we seek.  For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict.  Only a just peace based upon the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” 

King:  “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” 

Obama: “Third, a just peace includes not only civil and political rights – it must encompass economic security and opportunity.  For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

King:  “I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.”

Obama:  “As the world grows smaller, you might think it would be easier for human beings to recognize how similar we are; to understand that we all basically want the same things; that we all hope for the chance to live out our lives with some measure of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves and our families.  And yet, given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities – their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict.”

King:  “I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.”

Obama:  “Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and fall victim to the temptations of pride, and power, and sometimes evil. Even those of us with the best intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us.  But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place.”

King:  “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”

Obama: “So let us reach for the world that ought to be – that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls. Somewhere today, in the here and now, a soldier sees he’s outgunned but stands firm to keep the peace. Somewhere today, in this world, a young protestor awaits the brutality of her government, but has the courage to march on. Somewhere today, a mother facing punishing poverty still takes the time to teach her child, who believes that a cruel world still has a place for his dreams.”

King:  “I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.” And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”  I still believe that We Shall overcome!”

Obama: “We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice. We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. We can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace. We can do that – for that is the story of human progress; that is the hope of all the world; and at this moment of challenge, that must be our work here on Earth.”

King: “This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.”

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