Barack Obama is the first sitting president of the United States to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The nation did not celebrate him. Instead, we gasped. We fumed. The world must think us idiots not to congratulate our own president. Most of us see Obama only in a political context and are incapable of evaluating his humanity as opposed to his political worth. The outside world both sees, acknowledges, and, as with Nobel, rewards Obama’s humanity, his place among other human beings on this planet. Our cynicism presumes they awarded Obama the Nobel for being the president, which is not true. They gave him the Nobel for being Obama.
Almost no one seems to be happy about this.
Barack Obama, perhaps, least of all. The president
is fighting an uphill battle with Congress on health reform
while trying not to repeat history by being either bullied by
his military or assassinated by them. The war in Afghanistan has
gone on for nine years at the cost of 4,139 American lives with
precious little to show for it. The previous president’s
investment was clearly in Iraq, where Osama bin Laden was not,
and our current president is evaluating our investment in
Afghanistan—where Osama bin Laden is not. Meanwhile, Pakistan,
where Osama bin Laden reportedly is, remains on the brink of
collapse into an Islamic terrorist state, Iran is now brazenly
flaunting the ballistic nuclear fruit of eight years of being
all but ignored by the Bush administration, and Israel continues
building illegal settlements on the West Bank. Domestically,
unemployment and foreclosures continue to rise even as
economists declare the recession over, the radical right
continues spewing race hate, polarizing the nation into For
Obama and Hate Obama while crying foul when obvious racism is
He’s made history again. Barack Obama is governing a nation now reaping the rewards of eight years of smug, intolerant, arrogant and belligerent conservatism. Of a political party whose winning game of divide and conquer has left deep scars on this country. A country Obama now has to find some way of uniting, even while dealing with all of the above, every bit of it dirty laundry having been left in an Oval Office closet. Believe it or not, the last thing the president needed was to wake up Friday and discover he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Barack Obama is the first president of the United States to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and not have the nation celebrate him. Instead we gasped. We fumed. We debated. We complained. My what idiots we are. In our current state, as a fractured nation of cranky eight-year olds unhappy about having to take our time-out for bad behavior, we are now seeing the absolute worst of America. Black and white, liberal and conservative, we’ve grown terribly narcissistic. So much so that we no longer have a sense of ourselves in any real global or historic perspective. It’s all I, my, and me, which is why we (myself included) were so aghast Friday. Amid all the noise—most of it generated by the conservative right who, while they are clearly conservative are hardly “right.” There’s so much yelling and then yelling about the yelling. We’re all hurting, all angry about something or about someone. We’ve become this nation of narcissistic navel-starers, so consumed by our own inner struggle to redefine the American ideal that this Nobel thing hit us like a brick upside the head. Nobel Peace Prize? For Obama? For…what?
It is perhaps uniquely American to see every contest as a zero sum game. After all, the Nobel in physics, split between Charles K. Kao for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication and the team of Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit, was awarded for specific achievements in their fields. So, we look to the president’s achievements and even his supporters find him lacking. He’s started a great many things, but he’s only started. His critics pound him for having been president nine whole months and not having solved world peace or fixed the economy. Most of those people are simple liars knowingly spreading propaganda as these men and women are, for the most part, over eight years of age and understand turning a bad economy around takes years, not months, and world peace will remain forever beyond our grasp until institutionalized ignorance, poverty and illiteracy are likewise stomped out. That we still have 120,000 troops in Iraq (the previous president signed an agreement to bring most troops home by 2011), that health care hasn’t been reformed (the Democrats were and remain too spineless to push it through Congress), and that bin Laden is still at large all seem to be proof positive that the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama is an abject failure. Or, at least, that’s the goods the conservative right are selling us.
The guy’s been president nine months. Any one of those issues could and very well may take years to resolve. In his first nine months in office, George W. Bush did absolutely nothing. Don’t take my word for it, look it up. Barack Obama has pushed more major policy, backed more legislation, in his first nine months than Bush did in his first term. I think Team Obama does a lousy job of getting the president’s agenda across to the American people. The wing-nut Glenn Becks are running away with the store, with hardly a peep out of the White House, thus allowing Beckisms to become de-facto truth.
The actual truth, however, is this president, while clearly stumbling along the way, is a marvel to behold. The last time we saw a guy charge in and take on the lobbyists and conservatives this way was a guy named Bill Clinton. Clinton got his hat handed him early in his first term, but I deeply admired his conviction and willingness to do himself political harm in the interest of improving life and liberty for the American people was inspiring.
It is precisely that kind of inspiration the Peace Prize is intended to acknowledge. Not reward, as you would a cocker spaniel for not peeing on the rug. The Prize is an acknowledgement of efforts toward global peace. And all these gasping people miss the point that the Nobel committee is acknowledging Barack Obama the man, not necessarily the Office of The President. Had Obama lost the election, he still might have been in the running for the Prize, as that prize was given to Obama not only for achievement in office but aspiration and inspiration in his persona. It is not a prize for best pig at the county fair or for having solved some conflict or even achieved some goal. The Prize was awarded as much for who Barack Obama is, for what he represents and for how he has advanced the goals of world peace simply by changing the posture of the United States from one of arrogant belligerence to one of sorority with the global community. The gaspers, both friend and foe, fail to understand the purpose of the award or why this president is the obvious and clear choice for it.
This is a story about perspective. How we see ourselves versus how the world—the universe—sees us. It’s difficult to accurately describe a bottle if you are trapped inside it. Or to have much perspective on your lawn if you never leave the house. We church folk, most especially, can become myopic (tunnel-visioned). We see the same faces, hear the same voices, and our sense of ourselves and the effectiveness of our ministry is based on wholly subjective means tests. It’s like being stuck at the kids’ table at a family reunion. For me, Ashley will always be eight years old. Well, Ashley’s 21 and has her own life now. I need to be reintroduced to her all over again, discovering who she is. I hope she is a good person. I hope we—her community, her family—did a good job. But, in my eyes, she’s eight. Sitting on the curb, bored out of her skull, hair uncombed, playing in the dirt with her friend from down the street. It’s only human nature: we freeze people at specific points in our memory. Which makes it very difficult for someone among us who’d been our peer or, worse, a child or someone we easily dismissed, to come and preach to us. Our hearts receive him in a patronizing fashion. Oh, isn’t that cute. Jimmy’s going to preach a sermon. Only Jimmy is 30, now. The Reverend James Douglas. And his sermon cuts us to the bone. And, whereas we’d maybe take that from the church pastor, we’re going to bless Jimmy out. How dare this kid talk to us like that?
John MacArthur said in his sermon:
There’s only one reason why people who know the truth of Jesus don’t believe, it is because they do not see themselves as the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed. You see that? Because you can’t be saved if you don’t. God offers nothing to people who are content with their own condition, except judgment.
And so, it says in verse 29, “They rose up,” all of a sudden bedlam broke loose in the crowded synagogue. They cast Him out of the city. They grabbed Him and in mob violence like a lynch mob, they roared out of the city, led Him to the brow of the hill in which their city had been built, Nazareth sits on a hill, many hills on the hill but it’s up a slope...we don’t know what brow of it, they found a place, a brow of a hill in which the city had been built in order to throw Him down the cliff. Deuteronomy 13 said that if you have a false prophet, you can do that, kill him. They were so entrenched in their self-righteousness, so unwilling to see their sin that when Jesus, the Messiah they had waited for for so long, the Savior of the world came, they tried to kill Him because He threatened their self-righteousness.
Perspective. Like many of us Church Folk, the Nazarenes’ little village was the center of their universe. Maybe 150 people lived there. And all they knew of Jesus was the magic tricks. Hey, Jesus, walk on water. Jump through hoops, Jesus. Heal my dog. Even in seeking Him, they were ridiculing Him, having not much respect for Him and not much perspective on how the world saw Him, how thousands knew Him as the promised Messiah. And how dozens of scheming political and religious leaders saw Him as a threat to their power. The Nazarenes saw Him as Jimmy. Mocked Him. And their lack of faith was, ultimately, their own undoing.
Here in America, we are so paralyzed by this left-right thing, by this black-white thing, that we’re missing who Barack Obama is, or why he was even in contention for the medal in he first place. That’s why we’re gasping. We’re gasping because our focus has been on the politics. Because we’ve allowed the politicians to nurture our cynicism to the point where cynicism is all we see. We have almost no perspective on the man or his real achievements at all. Barack Obama’s actual achievement is huge: he inspires hope. He makes us want to believe again. Believe we can be better people. Believe we can make a difference. Believe in a better world. Maybe that’s not an achievement we can quantify in terms of dollars or troop levels or even political change. But it is precisely that ephemeral truth that Nobel rewards. To say the president is undeserving is completely ignorant; a jaded and cynical view that measures worth only in terms of politics, money, and blood.
Many of us—too many—don’t respect Barack Obama as a “real” president. Some of that is Obama’s fault. He’s chosen to be himself, so far as he can. He plays basketball. He takes his jacket off in the Oval Office. He plays with his dog. He continues to behave, within allowable reason, much like he’s always behaved. He hasn’t found or had rejected the so-called “Presidential voice.”
He’s not phony. He doesn’t demand our respect. I imagine he certainly hopes to earn it, but my suspicion is Barack Obama knew the first black U.S. president would end up running a gauntlet, and respect at home, in America, where we see only his skin color, wouldn’t come easy to him. He seems comfortable enough in his own skin to not need to put on airs or insist people bow and scrape around him. While it must annoy him, on some level, that America seems fixated on his African heritage while wholly ignoring his Kansas heritage as not meaningful or irrelevant, he strikes me as someone determined to make a real effort to change the way things have been done in this country. He seems less interested in engaging on these kinds of topics, which only eat up time and energy that could be put to better use. His lack of engagement may tend to frustrate us, but I admire his resolve and hope I understand his choice to invest himself in things that matter and not spend four years in GOP rope-a-dope over the race thing.
The Nobel win, of course, aptly demonstrates our national myopia. We, a city-in-a-bottle, see only the politics and electric novelty of this presidency, while the world beyond focuses not on Obama’s skin color but on his vision. While we Americans fuss and scream and hurl racial slurs and death threats, Barack Obama’s sheer willingness to shake hands with the devils we know—Hugo Chávez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales, with initiatives to Cuba's Raul Castro, special envoys to Omar Hassan al-Bashir of The Sudan and Syria's Bashar al-Assad—and his engagement of the Muslim world has drastically changed the global political climate, dissipating nearly a decade of ill will with a smile and a handshake.
I know this sounds preposterous to many of us, but it is nonetheless true: Barack Obama has changed the world. And it is precisely that seismic event, that massive shift in America’s face and, therefore, the global environment, that Nobel is recognizing. The only reason we are gasping is we are ignorant. The world must think us idiots not to congratulate our own president and, worse, for not seeing past our own porch steps to understand the impact our president is having on this planet. Sill, despite all the gasping and incredulity from the news media, one inescapable fact remains: in less than nine months in office, the first African American president of the United States has won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, go stick that in your pipe and smoke it.
In considering the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, it is important to note that U.S. President Barack Obama was not selected because of any specific achievement or accomplishment, but rather for U.S. Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama’s overall potential to further the goals of peace in the world, and for U.S. President Obama’s changing of the global climate. On his first days in office, the president ordered the onerous detention center on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, closed, banned torture, ordered secret CIA interrogation camps around the world closed, and revered the global gag rule (also called The Mexico City Policy, U.S. government policy that required all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that receive federal funding to refrain from performing or promoting abortion services, as a method of family planning, in other countries). Obama’s friendly demeanor and willingness to engage both friend and foe in the service of world peace, has virtually overnight, measurably and demonstrably lessened global tensions and transformed the way the world views the United States of America.
The political conservatives hemorrhaging bile since the announcement only further underscore the near-180-degree turn in U.S. policy from close-minded ignorance (“You are either with us or against us,”) to a tone of reason, resolve, and outreach. Most especially this president’s outreach to the Muslim world, which, again, riled the very same conservative pundits. Here at home, the American mindset is so polarized into white and black, have and have-nots, conservatives and liberals, that we often fail to take in America from a global perspective. This president had been demonized and criticized in unprecedented ways, to the extent that conservatives actually cheered when the U.S. lost to Brazil for he 2016 Olympic Games. Those jerseys don’t say “Chicago” on them, they say “United States.” Obama didn't lose, Chicago didn't lose, we, all of us, America, lost the 2016 Olympic games. And they cheered. “The world hates Obama,” they crowed, and, days later, the world gave Obama the Nobel. And now these same pundits who applauded the international community for denying Obama Chicago is now calling that same community idiots for awarding him the Peace Prize. The conservative claim is the committee has forever diminished the worth and meaning of the Prize by rewarding Obama prematurely.
Which misses the point the Nobel committee is not a creature of the American political system and does not view this president through the disingenuous fog of American politics. Their view of us is as different as a view of the earth from the moon, a view that puts the entire globe in a planetary perspective and makes humanity’s petty feuds seem all the more ridiculous in the context of eternity. The view from eternity to Barack Obama is just as startlingly different, as the committee rewards not only the man but the vision. Barack Obama is the architect of that vision, a hopeful vision of not only a better America but a better planet. It both saddens and terrifies me that so few Americans see that.
The phenomena exposes an egregious lack of education and enlightenment on our part. Church folk, most especially, have a curious divide between emotion and intellect. Well-educated people with advanced degrees nonetheless come up woefully short in terms of their comprehension of global events. Awarding the present the Nobel is not an American transaction but is a global event, America as seen through the world’s eyes. Our gasping is a political reaction to a decidedly apolitical phenomena: America has changed. And, when America changes, the world changes. As seen by the world, America’s decision to elevate Obama to its highest office represents nothing short of a seismic refutation of America’s contemporary belligerence. Peace is not necessarily so, not even necessarily at hand, but peace is all the more possible not because of anything Barack Obama has necessarily done, but because of what America has done. America has changed its face, and because of that, the world has changed as well. We should be proud of that turn, proud of the truth that, at its core, America remains the shining hope of the planet. Instead, we gasped. We ridiculed. We criticized Nobel and Obama.
Regardless of what you politically believe, it is important to take your head out of your butt and look around the planet. To understand the tremendous change Barack Obama—as candidate and president—has effected on the entire globe. We can and should thank the president for that, but, more important, we need to look past him as the award really isn’t about him, really isn’t payment for anything he’s done. It is, rather, recognition of what we, what America, has done. Affirmation of who and what we are, and testimony to what we could be.
Christopher J. Priest
11 October 2009
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