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The Theology of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech

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 The Theology of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech

Plus: American-style syncretism, public view of clergy takes a hit, and other stories from online sources around the world.

Compiled by Ted Olsen | posted 12/11/2009 09:48AM

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/decemberweb-only/150-52.0.html

1. Religion plays major role in Obama's Peace Prize acceptance speech

President Obama's speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize is getting a lot of attention for its (ironic for the occasion) defense of war.

But religion pundits are weighing in on what was a very religion-heavy speech.

(There have been a number of these from the President lately: At the lighting of the White House Christmas tree, Obama spoke of the Christmas story as "a story that is as beautiful as it is simple. The story of a child born far from home to parents guided only by faith, but who would ultimately spread a message that has endured for more than 2,000 years—that no matter who we are or where we are from, we are each called to love one another as brother and sister." Then, as Ed Stetzer noted, the President's first words at his first state dinner were to point out that he was the first President to celebrate Diwali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) and the birth of the founder of Sikhism.)

Here's the relevant section, which evokes the "cling to guns and religion" remark that caused a furor during his campaign:

[S]omehow, given the dizzying pace of globalization, the cultural leveling of modernity, it perhaps comes as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish in their particular identities—their race, their tribe, and perhaps most powerfully their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict. At times, it even feels like we're moving backwards. We see it in the Middle East, as the conflict between Arabs and Jews seems to harden. We see it in nations that are torn asunder by tribal lines.

And most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint—no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it's incompatible with the very purpose of faith—for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Adhering to this law of love has always been the core struggle of human nature. For 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 of 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. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached—their fundamental faith in human progress—that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey. … Let us reach for the world that ought to be—that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls.

At Touchstone, James Kushiner is troubled. "No one believes human nature is perfect. But can it be perfected? He's not saying it can be. He's saying the general human condition can be perfected. So who's going to do that? The only way to do this is for some arrangement of human affairs and institutions that in the aggregate allow for a perfection of condition in which imperfect human beings can live without spoiling that condition. And the only way for such a condition to be arranged is for people who are specially gifted to make those arrangements on the behalf of the imperfect, people who see and understand the complexity of the issues, wiser men whom we can trust. This is an elitism that leads not to the abolition of war by a man of peace, but to the abolition of Man, which violates the Golden Rule, to put it mildly."

At National Review Online, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey say Obamas Crusades reference was misplaced. "The Crusades were no more or less violent and cruel than any other form of medieval warfare and, in contrast to the naked aggression of al-Qaeda, the Crusaders' stated goal was to recover areas that had been violently conquered during the first wave of Islamic Jihad, from the 7th to 11th centuries. Whether this effort was justified is a question for medievalists," they write. "More to the point, the Crusades have nothing at all to do with the rise and spread of radical Islamicist ideologies and groups today. … References to the Crusades and Crusaders are nothing but propaganda, and apologetic statements by Western leaders simply serve to legitimize the preposterous notion that today's Islamicist violence is somehow understandable, if not justifiable, because of events nearly 1,000 years in the past."

Obama's defense of "just war" ("Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies.") has Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan arguing, "If there were a Nobel Prize for Theology, large parts of President Barack Obama's Oslo speech could be cut and pasted into an acceptance speech for it."

It's this section of the speech that's getting the most attention (and had another religion line: "Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of 'just war' was rarely observed.  The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God.")

But Kushiner says the just war part of the speech seemed to be at odds with Obama's statement that "if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint--no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one's own faith." The whole idea of just war doctrine is that it's possible for a soldier to go to war believing that he is carrying out Divine Will without killing medics or mercilessly targeting pregnant mothers. Christian just war doctrine (as articulated by Augustine and others) suggests that the Divine will requires such restraint (jus in bello).

2. Pew Forum confirms American syncretism

Three years ago, the Baylor Religion Survey found that American evangelicals were nearly as likely as their neighbors to believe in astrology, communicating with the dead, and other paranormal activities. For example, 12.8 percent of Americans who believe astrologers, palm-readers, tarot card readers, fortune tellers, and psychics can foresee the future. (12.5% have consulted one of these or a medium.) By contrast, 8.8 percent of evangelicals believe such people can forsee the future, and 8.9 percent admitted consulting one. (You have to wonder about the evangelical respondent who apparently paid for a consultation he didn't believe in.)

Oddly, evangelicals were more likely to say they believe astrology "impacts one's life and personality" (12.3% of Americans overall said so, 13.6% of American evangelicals said so.)

Also odd: 19.9 percent of Americans believe it is possible to communicate with the dead, but only 15.7 percent of American evangelicals believe so, even though the Bible contains at least one instance of communicating with a dead person.

Anyway, a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey released Wednesday found similar numbers: About 10 percent of evangelicals say they have consulted a fortuneteller or psychic, compared to about 15 percent of the American population as a whole. And about 13 percent of evangelicals say they believe in astrology, while about 16 percent of the American population said so. (Evangelicals who attend church weekly are far less likely to agree.)

Beyond the evangelical numbers, Pew found that the proportion of Americans who say they have interacted with a ghost has doubled over the past 13 years. And the percentage of Americans who say they have had a "moment of sudden religious insight or awakening" is nearly double what it was in 1962, having made significant leaps in 1976 and 1994 surveys.

The survey also found that one out of four Americans sometimes attends religious services of a faith different from their own.

3. Only half of Americans think clergy are "highly" honest or ethical.

A new survey from Gallup finds that only 50 percent of Americans rate clergy has having "high" or "very high" honesty and ethics. That's down from the 60s in the 1980s, and down from 56% last year. Gallup notes that the clergy ratings are even "are below where they were earlier this decade during the priest sex-abuse scandal. Ratings of the clergy dropped from their 2008 levels among both Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and non-regular churchgoers"

However, the decline for clergy has been gradual, and only 10 percent of Americans give them a "low" rating. The rating for bankers, on the other hand, fell off a cliff: from 41 percent saying "high" or "very high" in 2005 to 19 percent this year. One out of three Americans now gives bankers a "low" rating—and you know it's bad when they rate you lower than journalists (31%).

4. Mormon Church to add "care for the poor and needy" to core mission

The Mormon "threefold mission," as articulated by Latter Day Saints president Spencer W. Kimball in 1981 (though its origins seem to go back at least to 1939) is to proclaim the gospel to every nation, to perfect the Saints through ordinances (like baptism) and instruction, and to redeem the dead through vicarious ordinances.

Now, The Salt Lake Tribune reports, Mormon Church President Thomas Monson will add "to care for the poor and needy" as part of its core mission. The change will appear in the next edition of the Mormon Handbook of Instructions.

Historian of Mormonism Jan Shipps told the Tribune that the prioritizing of humanitarian work seems at least in part to be tied to the church's effort at mainstreaming itself. "It's a move that tells the world that Mormonism is Christian more effectively than changing the logo to make the words 'Jesus Christ' stand out," she said.

It also may echo recent evangelical Protestant discussions (and other longstanding Christian debates) on whether works of compassion and justice are core to the gospel itself or are an important implication of the gospel. (See, for example, the recent squabble over The Manhattan Declaration.)

5. Minnesota church says Lutheran CORE

Urland Lutheran Church is one of the 15 or so Minnesota churches reportedly leaving the Evangleical Lutheran Church in America over the denomination's recent votes to allow clergy in same-sex relationships. Or maybe it isn't. The Minnesota Independent reports that Pastor Arthur Sharot asked Lutheran CORE—the group that opposes the change and is creating a new Lutheran body—to take the church's name off of its membership liste. But Lutheran CORE won't do it.

Mark Chavez, Lutheran CORE's director, "said that we needed a congregational vote to have our name removed. My council president phoned Lutheran CORE's office and was told the same thing," Sharot told the website. "We are sending a letter requesting our removal. We have no reason or necessity to have a vote to have our name removed from an organization we never asked to be a part of."

The congregation voted the join Lutheran Churches of the Common Confession before Sharot became pastor. Since then, that body merged with Lutheran CORE. (So far there is no mention of the controversy on the Lutheran CORE website.)

So who gets the final say on whether the church is a member of Lutheran CORE? It's an odd twist on the question that some mainline churches are fighting over. Who gets to say whether a congregation is part of the denomination? If a pastor says his congregation wants out, can the denomination (or reform body) simply say, "No it doesn't"?

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