03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Peace Is Not Enough: Thoughts on Obama's Nobel Speech

barack obama nobel peace prize 2009 acceptance speech transcript video textObama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, and his acceptance speech, a forum in which legendary statements are often made, was a bit of a dud--at least that's the impression I got from the media. "War President Accepts Peace Prize" said the headlines...or "President Accepts Peace Prize, Defends War." Even the Huffington Post headline was mainly focused on the irony of the moment, less on the content of the speech. Lucky for me, I actually read the speech, and my first thought was....what the heck is wrong with the media!!? (At least that's the PG version.)

This was a powerful speech, full of serious thinking and nuance, philosophy, and theology. Obama was staking out a very important and carefully considered realism that doesn't lose sight of our best ideals, and an idealism that is grounded in the world as we know it. So enough with the snide, isn't-that-ironic characterizations of the intelligentsia. It's like they can't recognize a sophisticated argument, a political statement that doesn't neatly fit into pacifism or militarism. And the left seemed to be particularly confused. So many commentators were highly critical of the speech (though there does seem to be more appreciation over the last day or so), perhaps because many are upset with the President's recent decisions on Afghanistan. But whatever one thinks about the difficult problems we face in Afghanistan, and I have serious concerns about Obama's approach, let me state unequivocally that a great speech was completely missed here, and that I agree with the thrust of the President's argument. In 2009, Peace--as an ideal, a political position, a philosophy, an attitude, a worldview--is simply not enough.

This issue is close to my heart. And it is one where the Left, with its nonviolent and pacifistic tendencies, too often cedes the wrong kind of ground to the Right, whose enthusiastic embrace of military might too often shows little of the subtlety, nuance, and complexity needed in this age of political self-determination. I actually spent a significant amount of time doing research on peace, pacifism, and nonviolence for an article titled "Is God a Pacifist? War vs. Peace in a Post 9/11 World" for j26-134EnlightenNext magazine. And what I realized is that peace is a very problematic concept, spiritually and even politically. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the absence of war and conflict as much as the next guy and long for the day when such peace will be global and universal to human life. I also feel strongly that if our species is to have a chance for a brighter future then we must find a way to end the war and violence that are now threatening the very structure of our planetary society. And there is no question that the ongoing development of technology is making the attainment of peace and security in this world an absolutely fundamental part of any sane and survivable future. But how do we get there? Therein lies the rub.

You see, for all the failures of war, peace hasn't always been a good alternative. Krishna knew it 2500 years ago, and it is still true today. Witness the tragedy in the Balkans or Rwanda, or the slaughter in the Sudan, or World War II not that many decades ago. No one has yet convinced me that there is or was a nonviolent solution to those conflicts, as much as we would like there to be. In the long term, of course, anything is possible. But we can't allow our dreams of peace tomorrow to cause us to make fatal and disastrous mistakes today. Obama spoke directly to this in his speech. And moreover, I'm convinced that the very idea that peace should be the goal of our human endeavors--politically, socially, and even spiritually--represents an outdated context for our moral and philosophical life. And this is where I would take a step, philosophically and theologically, beyond what the President offered. So what is the alternative to peace? Well, that's a complicated question that would take a great deal of time to explain, which is why I wrote that original 20-page article. Don't worry, I won't spend 20 pages explaining it here, but I did want to submit this simple essay arguing that, at the beginning of the 21st century, peace is simply not enough.

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We do hear a great deal about peace these days. In many respects, it is an extraordinary sign of evolution in the human character. In fact, peace movements, in the sense that they exist today, are a relatively recent addition to human culture, as are current forms of nonviolence which largely began with Gandhi in the early 20th century. Even the ideals of peace and pacifism have hardly been innate to human life. Most scholars agree that the earliest historical recorded peace King Ashokamovements date back to the first millennium BC. The great King Ashoka, who ruled most of South Asia from 273 BC to 232 BC, initiated perhaps the first large-scale experiment in peace and pacifism when he declared (around 250 BC) that the Buddhist ideal of nonviolence would be the moral law of his kingdom. He may very well have been the first such ruler for whom peace became not only a profound philosophical ideal but a practical way of structuring the life of his subjects. Of course, Ashoka had to subdue his many enemies and secure his kingdom before renouncing war, but nevertheless, the extraordinary policy of this peaceful Buddhist King stands out as one of the first times in history that an entire nation put down their weapons, not simply because there were no more enemies to fight, but because that was the spiritual and moral worldview of their culture.

Some scholars have also argued that this emerging concern for peace, all those centuries ago, was no accident of history. And it was not simply due to the extraordinary benevolence of an enlightened ruler. They suggest that it was influenced by the advent of the Iron Age and the increasing sophistication of weaponry that was introduced into human culture early in the first millennium BC. As kings, warlords, and would-be empires raged back and forth across Persia and the Middle East, from the River Nile to the River Ganges, armed with ever more deadly weapons, the brutality of life increased and so did the longing of those caught in the crossfire to find relief. It is interesting to note that it was also during the middle of the first millennium BC that many of the great religions were initially formed--promising that peace, freedom, and bliss can be found not in this world of suffering but in a transcendent realm beyond. From the otherworldly Nirvanic bliss of the Buddha to the messianic longing of the enslaved Jewish people, from the ideal realm of Platonic Philosophy to the heavenly perfection of Zoroaster, all across the ancient world there arose a sense that eternal rest and peace were ultimately attainable--even if in the here and now such notions proved elusive.

We've come a long way since the days when heaven seemed forever separate from earth and our spiritual ideals seemed hopelessly divorced from the reality of our political and social lives. While we may not exactly be living in a world empowered by love and harmony, peace, at least in a relative sense, is something we can now experience in our own lives and work toward as a practical universal goal. And personally, we enjoy lives of extraordinary peacefulness, ease, and rest compared to the ancients. Indeed, many today live in laps of luxury that once only kings and queens enjoyed, experiencing material and psychological comforts our ancestors could only dream about. And amidst this unprecedented explosion of freedom from strife and struggle, a new truth is beginning to emerge: Peace is not enough.

Even as we live lives remarkably free of violence and suffering, we have begun to recognize that peace is not the natural state of life. Change and flux is the natural state of life. And not just change as impermanence, or change for change's sake. In the last couple of centuries, we have begun to recognize that there is something else going on in this world besides the cyclical turning of the karmic wheel, or the unfolding progression of pre-ordained biblical or Koranic prophecy. We have begun to open our eyes to the fact that life is going forward. We, life, the universe, are all evolving--moving together in a grand forward march of matter and consciousness, hurtling toward an unknown and unexpected future. There is nothing peaceful about that forward march, but there may, in fact, be something spiritual about it. Indeed, this understanding that we are part of life and that life is evolving may just represent the greatest sea change in spiritual thought since our religious ancestors looked at the suffering around them and turned within to find a "peace that passeth all understanding." Today, we still live in a dangerous and disagreeable world, but looking within, we are discovering that the peace and freedom that we once thought were the goal of the spiritual path are actually the foundation for something much deeper. They are the context for the discovery of what spiritual leader Andrew Cohen calls the "ecstatic compulsion to evolve." This compulsion is a powerful Thomas Berrydesire to participate in what the late eco-theologian Thomas Berry called the "Great Work," which is the ongoing transformation and evolution of ourselves, our world, and ultimately our universe. This heartfelt desire to participate in the ongoing evolution of this vast universe may be joyful, difficult, overwhelming, thrilling, and even liberating. But one thing is for certain: it is not peaceful.

There was a time when, at the cutting edge of human development, the goal of our highest spiritual, philosophical, and moral endeavors was peace. This exerted a tremendous upward, positive pressure on a civilization still trying to escape the ravages of its more primitive urges. And it still does. It makes sense that in the human struggle for moral and ethical advancement, many of our first dreams of a better world would be dreams of peace. But as we understand more and more about the nature of life on this planet and in this universe, and as we discover more about the psychological and cultural development of individuals and human societies, slowly our attention is shifting. We are coming to understand that spiritually, socially, and even politically, the interests of our species are best served not just by the noble hope for an end to human conflict or by the understandable desire for a cessation to human suffering, but by participating in the upward surge, development, and evolution of human culture and consciousnesses at all levels. It is a new orientation to life, one that privileges the ongoing challenge of change and development over the psychological relief of inner peace and the political ideal of freedom from conflict.

How will this new orientation look and what will it mean in the practical realities of the day-to-day world? What will it mean for the individual, for the collective? How will it inform the organizations and structures of human society? We do not yet know. Living in such a world may not prove to be easy, and it may not even be peaceful or nonviolent, but whatever the case, a worldview genuinely oriented toward evolution and development, at an individual and societal level, will be unlike anything we have ever seen. Michael NaglerI have no doubt that the ultimate results of such a worldview will be an extraordinary global society the likes of which we can scarcely imagine today, as different from our current culture as ours is different from the war-ravaged societies of Persia 2500 years ago. But to make it there, we are going to need a guiding vision that transcends the attainment of peace. As peace activist and nonviolent scholar Michael Nagler once told me, "If people try to put peace ahead of evolution, they won't get either. If they put evolution ahead of peace, they'll get both."