Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Realism Triumphs Over Idealism

About the same time I was making my last posting (on Dec. 10), President Obama was giving his Nobel Lecture in Oslo. “A Just and Lasting Peace” was the title of the President’s 36-minute speech as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, and I assume all of you have heard all or at least part of that talk.
In responding to an e-mail from one of my “thinking friends,” I said that I thought the speech “showed the triumph of realism over idealism, which is probably the necessary position for any President to take.” When I told June what I said, she disagreed; she thought the President still holds good balance between realism and idealism.
I agree that the talk itself showed idealism as well as realism, and maybe a good balance between the two. But the speech came on the heels of the President’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was because of that decision that I maintain that realism has triumphed over idealism.
The President’s “lecture” was given partly to justify his decision to deploy more troops to combat terrorism, with the goal of creating a just and lasting peace. But can war ever do that? Since the time of “the Great War” (WWI), which was to be “the war to end wars,” every war this country has been engaged in, with perhaps the exception of the war against Iraq, has been for the express purpose of creating “a just and lasting peace.”
As a pacifist, I do not believe war can or will lead to peace. As a Christian pacifist, I do not believe war is consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ. In this regard, I think the Swiss Anabaptists had it right. They maintained that Christians should not be magistrates, for that inevitably demands compromises. One such compromise springs from the necessity of replacing idealism with realism.
As several commentators have pointed out, President Obama’s speech seemed to reflect the influence of theologian/ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971). In the late 1930s Niebuhr rejected pacifism and propounded “Christian realism.” He became one of the main Christian ethicists to urge the U.S. to become involved in the war against Hitler in Europe. Mennonite theologian/ethicist John Howard Yoder (1927-97) was a strong and vocal critic of Niebuhr. But politicians have almost unanimously agreed with Niebuhr, which perhaps they inevitably must.
When there was question about his ability to serve as Commander in Chief, Jimmy Carter made reference to his agreement with Niebuhr’s views. When he was still a candidate for President, Barack Obama referred to Niebuhr as his “favorite philosopher.” Niebuhr probably had more influence on national politicians in the twentieth century than any other theologian, and his influence continues to be seen in President Obama's talks and actions.
So, as Niebuhr was a strong advocate of realism, there is ample theological/ethical support for realism triumphing over idealism in the combination of the words and actions of President Obama. But the question still remains, will that, in fact, bring about a just and lasting peace? I hope so, but I am afraid not.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if idealism triumphed over realism in this instance. The idealism of war to vanquish all foes runs deep in this country, despite the realities taught by Vietnam and other conflicts. The idealism of war to end all wars has proven to be just that, an idealism, as we learned after the first World War. There is an illogical idealism that violence will bring peace, which runs so deeply that we continually modify our definition/concept of success or peace, to justify continued aggressions --- why are we in Afghanistan at this time? We've yet to get a definitive answer, and our answers for Iraq and Afghanistan deviate from month to month, year to year, as we continue to decimate communities and societies, and lead our young men and women into harm's way.

    More specifically, history has shown that invasions of Afghanistan do not bring victory to the invader. This is the reality, yet we've been swept up, once again, by the fervent idealism that with enough bombs, soldies and might, we can bring an everlasting peace. Reminds me a bit of the Pax Romana and the same idealism that pervaded the Roman Empire. Yet it was, and is not, Empire, that brought or brings peace, rather it was and is the antithesis of Empire, a baby born in a manger --- Emmanuel.

    If peace is too "idealistic" then my faith founded by the Prince of Peace is as well. And if we rationalize such that peace is the idealistic prize, and war the permitted, "realistic" exception, then, as history shows us, we will never extricate ourselves from the banalities of war.

    Realism has not prevailed, rather the idealism of war has prevailed.