Obama, Gandhi, Jesus: Realism and Nonviolence

Cambridge, MA. As you know, President Obama gave his Nobel Prize speech the other day in Oslo. It is a fine and thoughtful speech, well worth our meditation, so be sure to read it. It should make us proud that we have this very intelligent and insightful man as our president.

I worry, though, that his intelligent words, quite appropriate for a man who strove very hard to become president of the United States, might seem to count as universal common sense of the sort that sidelines radical non-violence. Yes, he returns several times over to the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi (who was never awarded the prize) and the Reverend Martin Luther King (who did receive it), with great respect. But in the heart of his speech, he also looks beyond their wisdom, as if he is the greater realist:


The President said: “We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: It merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life's work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King. But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. 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. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaidas leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

To a large extent, Gandhi would have agreed with this sentiment, and the President is quite honest about his respect for proponents of nonviolence. Gandhi knew about realism; he had, after all, helped the British (albeit in nonviolent ways) in World War I, and favored the Allies in World War II. Yet he was also clearly skeptical about well-intentioned realists who do use violence, even reluctantly, to fight evil. Sensitized to the Indian doctrine of karma, perhaps, he knew that violence leads to more violence, in the long run.

My guess – since I am not a Gandhi expert either – is that he would admire President Obama’s thoughtful position, but also argue that those of us who have not chosen to be politicians and political leaders can do better: We are the ones who can and will not stand idle in the face of evil, letting others fight in our place. We, who are not politicians, can dare to be more radically non-violent, drawing on a greater realism and deeper Truth (in satya-agraha), to face down the lies, cowardice, concealed systemic oppressions that are the perfect breeding ground for the overt violence that gains headlines only once in a while.

The inconvenience with Gandhi’s position, of course, is that it is not radical merely at the moment when violence erupts, but long before that. If we wish to be nonviolent, we need to find ways to live radically truthfully, without security, rejecting the comfortable ways in which societies such as ours hide injustice and oppression. We have to be bolder in refusing to live in peace — while others fight wars on our behalf. As if to say: if you can do only so much, then be a political leader; if you are capable of more, leave aside political and military power and practice non-violence as a way of life.

I think Gandhi, whose views I have merely sketched vaguely here (and I welcome comments from expert readers), is more right than President Obama. Yet I close with two other comments. First, my own position is contradictory, since I do not practice what I preach (or blog). I live in a very nice section of Cambridge, MA, and I would be shocked if someone broke into my Jesuit house or my office and started taking things or threatening me — and it would be a great shock too if the police did not come, guns in hand, to protect me and save my body and my books. It is easy to imagine being personally nonviolent when others carry the guns. So the harder issue is, if I agree with Gandhi (or the Reverend King, or Dorothy Day) more than the President, what are the implications for the life of the Jesuit scholar? How does a Jesuit and Harvard professor live out radical nonviolence, while still a professor? How do you, my reader, live out radical nonviolence at work, at home?

Second, it is interesting to note that the President, while mentioning Rev King, Gandhi and others, never refers to Jesus. This is understandable, I suppose, given the audiences that Presidents have to address; the President is not, thankfully, chief preacher of the United States. But we here at the America blogsite cannot get off the hook so easily. I think I am right in saying the following: Jesus, the ultimate realist, would not drop bombs on Al Qaeda hideouts; would not have gone to war against Hitler; would not shoot someone breaking into his house; would not, did not, fight even to save his own life. He would, however, keep confronting violence close-up, letting the truth be known and secret systems of wickedness be uncovered; he would keep turning the other cheek, and when necessary die again, in vulnerable love, in the face of violence. Such is Life: imitatio Christi.

While we may be secretly glad that Jesus is not President or in charge of security in the towns where we live, and while we may honestly thank God for our very good young president, if we are serious about our Faith, we know deep down that it is not one government or another, whatever its philosophy, that will save the world, but rather this Jesus who refused to take up arms, who died at the hands of his oppressors.

Isn’t this the Truth that sets us free? Let me/us know what you think.

PS: Thanks to everyone who commented on my previous entry, on the Mass after Vatican II. I did not agree with every comment, but appreciate them all very much: they constitute a course in themselves!

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Devon Zenu
9 years 1 month ago
I agree with your comments fully. "Win over" was a poor choice of words on my part. Nonviolence is abused (and I think it is ultimately not effective) if it is simply used to advance a political or strategic agenda. For a nation such as the United States to be guided by nonviolence would require the conversion and transformation of that nation. I think for us it would require a significant reduction in economic and geo-political power. It would also require us to accept a much higher level of risk from attack. Clearly, that would not be an acceptable outcome to 99.9% of Americans. That is why evangelization is important.
James Lindsay
9 years 1 month ago
Dave is correct, one may chose martyrdom for oneself, but may not mandate it for others.

Brett is incorrect on the aggresive nature of Afghanistan. The organization we are attacking is still involved in aggressive acts of terror against the United States and its allies. Preventing them with military force is within our right of self-defense.
9 years 1 month ago
Does Afganistan pose an imminent threat to attack the US or any other country?  No - therefore, the escalated war is unjust and Obama's use of just war theory amounts to propaganda.
Also, there are less than 100 al queda in the country (according to the military) - it has been eight years since the 911 attack and the actors have relocated.
Again, this is not about absolute pacifism; this is about Obama's misuse of just war theory.
9 years 1 month ago
PS - if Obama thinks he can have both "guns and butter" he has obviously not studied American history or the Johnson administration.  Or he could just look around at the state of the country.
The war is also immoral due to the fact that we are financing it will borrowed money that future generations will have to pay for...
Marie Rehbein
9 years 1 month ago
The idea behind sending in more troops is not to make life in Afghanistan more violent or to use force to persuade the Afghans to take our side.  The situation there is such that the existing population is vulnerable to influence.  Presumably the presence of more Americans will be a better influence upon them than the absence of Americans and the subsequent increase in Al Quaida friendly Taliban.  Life in Afghanistan still has to become normal, and the presence of Americans is likelier to help that along than the absence of Americans would.
People who oppose things (like war or abortion) solely on principle and imagine that stating principled opinions forcefully or repeatedly is an effective way of positively influencing these situations that disturb them are mistaken. 
Aloysia Moss
9 years 1 month ago
During World War II in a French village called Le Chambon the people practiced non- violent resistance to the Nazi occupation .  When asked after the war  why reprisals had not been made against the town the head Nazi answered that against such behavior there are no weapons . 
So , was Jesus on to something ? 
No doubt these people had children . Were they fearful for those young lives ?  wondering about reprisals ?  was it cavalier to risk suffering and death of the vulnerable ? Or did they see it as owing  the young  a heroic example of love and trust and of refusing to buy into the mindset of violence ?
At Fredericksburg Robert E. Lee said it was good that war is so terrible else we should grow too fond of it .
I am wondering if we might benefit from some " holy suspicion " regarding our noble sentiments and motivations for self defense , defense of others and of our country , feedoms , liberty , way of life , and all the other buzz words we dearly love .
9 years 1 month ago
Marie: "Life in Afghanistan still has to become normal, and the presence of Americans is likelier to help that along than the absence of Americans would."
Or we could view this as Afgans do and call American soliders what they really are - an occupying army that is an insult to the dignity of all Afgans. 
Were the presence of American troops in Vietnam "likelier to help" in the long run - or was countless additional blood and treasure spilt in the name of American pride and saving face?
To oppose war and abortion is morally consistent and grounded in reality of God's creation - to promote war and abortion is to distort reality in the name of theoretical abstraction and "progress."
Bill Collier
9 years 1 month ago
I remember reading a long time ago that Gandhi said he believed his satyagraha ("truth force") would eventually prevail against Hitler, though he acknowledged that there would be grievous loss of life along the way.

Thanks to Aloysia for the story about Le Chambon. I'd never heard that story before. There would have been great loss of life if there were more Le Chambon's during WWII, but I'd like to think that a great number of German soldiers would have eventually acted like the German commander at Le Chambon. Most of the German soldiers were not Hitler fanatics; many were professional soldiers, and significant numbers were either impressed into service or they joined for reasons of pride of country. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on my part, but the wholesale slaughter of an unarmed and passively non-violent populace would hopefully have sickened and repulsed many German soldiers.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
Someone (?) said that, after 2000 years, the radical notions of Jesus about loving your enemy, have yet to be tried.
If Obama had expressed the radical, pure nonviolence of Gandhi, he would have never been elected president.  I did read recently, when asked who he would most like to have dinner with, Obama said "Gandhi".  Obama really is out there on his own, with no other world leader (perhaps Mandela?) to guide him in the ways of protecting a nation without the use of force..
Yet there are individual Christians who have grasped what Jesus was saying - Franz Jaegarstaater, specifically, comes to mind.  Do we give away our own individual responsiblities to act nonviolently when we think that we have a leader to follow? Is nonviolence an individual endeavor, or a collective one?  Or both?  And how is this done?
Do we really believe Jesus' message that LOVE is the strongest force in the universe?
You've given me much to think about, and I may need to chime in again after I've given your post some more thought, Fr. Clooney.  Thank you.
9 years 1 month ago
This President, this very intelligent and insightful man who give us a fine and thoughtful speech, is the same man who supports abortion and homosexualtiy. Let us pray for his conversion of heart toward true non-violence.
Marc Monmouth
9 years 1 month ago
The President did not quote Jesus because he probably doesn't believe in Him. Not to change the subject, but to give an example, the Obama Family considered not putting the traditional creche in the White House this Christmas. After testing the public opinion polls, the Obamas reconsidered and the creche was welcomed or at least displayed. With all due respect, Father Clooney, I am surprised that you are surprised the President did not quote Jesus. I also think you give the man too much credit for his intelligence. If the speech is well written by his staff and the teleprompter is working, he does have a gift for reading it well.  You should be praising his reading skills. He has not demonstrated great intellectual skills when the teleprompter is not working. 
9 years 1 month ago
Interesting post.  I was just reading recently about Tolstpy and his interest in non-violence.  The Wikipedia page on Tolstoy has this about Gandhi ...
"A letter Tolstoy wrote in 1908 to an Indian newspaper entitled "A Letter to a Hindu" resulted in intense correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time and was beginning to become an activist. Reading The Kingdom of God is Within You had convinced Gandhi to abandon violence and espouse nonviolent resistance, a debt Gandhi acknowledged in his autobiography, calling Tolstoy "the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced". The correspondence between Tolstoy and Gandhi would only last a year, from October 1909 until Tolstoy's death in November 1910, but led Gandhi to give the name the Tolstoy Colony to his second ashram in South Africa."
S Bond
9 years 1 month ago
Maria, how does support of homosexuals go against the teachings of non-violence?
Related - I am glad the White House finally issued a statement condemning the proposed law in Uganda that calls for the rounding up and execution of gay people.
9 years 1 month ago
"He would, however, keep confronting violence close-up, letting the truth be known and secret systems of wickedness be uncovered; he would keep turning the other cheek, and when necessary die again, in vulnerable love, in the face of violence. Such is Life: imitatio Christi."
Very true - and a very Girardian statement.
Violence in the name of "peace" or sin in the name of "progress" are the two lies that Satan uses to control humanity and keep us from the truth of Christ. 
Both parties are guilty of promoting such lies: radical individualism in business and war promoted by republicans and the radical individualism in sexuality and technology (abortion, stem cell research) promoted by the democrats.
Unfortunately, this blog seems to fail to see the latter and continues to promote sin (homosexuality) and war as a means to alliviate suffering or promote promised "human progress."
PS - why no mentions of Rene Girard when he is a brilliant theorist of violence and the sacred?
9 years 1 month ago
Here is an introduction to Girard to those who are unaware of his ideas:
He will knock your socks off!  (if you read 'I see Satan fall like lightening')
Devon Zenu
9 years 1 month ago
I was impressed by the intellectual rigor and self-evident moral honesty of the president's speech. Even though I disagree with him on a number of points, I respect him for giving this speech which was sure to be displeasing to large numbers of people both in Oslo and back home.
I've been waiting for someone to analyze the President's speech from a pacifist perspective, so thank you Fr. Clooney for starting the conversation. As the Church has said, finding nonviolent responses to situations of conflict must be a priority for Christians, even those who adhere to the just war tradition. So, I think that you are right to ask the question of how we can live out radical nonviolence in our everyday lives.
I think it has to begin on the intrerior level. Before I can approach nonviolence on the social level, I must have mastered it on the interpersonal level. And before I can be nonviolent in my individual relationships, I must be nonviolent within myself. I must become aware of how my patterns of thought and habits of emotional response contain within them the seeds of violence. I cannot hope to lead or inspire others to nonviolence until I banish violence from within myself. And the difficulty of accomplishing this task will make me much more forgiving and patient towards the violence of others.  
9 years 1 month ago
Devon: "And the difficulty of accomplishing this task will make me much more forgiving and patient towards the violence of others."
Do we really want to react to violence with patience?  (Especially governmentally sanctioned violence done falsely in the name of justice??)
Please don't take this the wrong way; however, it is not about your "personal" effort to abolish violence because (like all humans) you would never be able to do so. 
This is not about effort (Obama's or yours) this is about recognizing the reality of God's creation and the gift of Christ who alone has exposed the cycle of violence for what it is and, therefore, conqured death. 
We do not need to look to or "master" ourselves - we need to imitate Christ - now.
Brian Gallagher
9 years 1 month ago
It was certainly the most bellicose Nobel Peace Prize speech in living memory.
Obama defended his dispatch of tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan, and ominously referred to Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Darfur in Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe and Burma, any or all of which may become targets for future American military intervention.
In Orwellian fashion, he declared that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace,” that “all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace,” and that imperialist troops should be honored “not as makers of war, but as wagers of peace.” Wagers of peace!
He admitted that masses of people around the globe were hostile to imperialist war, noting regretfully that “in many countries, there is a disconnect between the efforts of those who serve and the ambivalence of the broader public.” But the popular will and democracy be damned: “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”
Obama arrogantly spelled out Washington’s belief that it can intervene in defense of US interests when and where it likes, no matter what the human cost.
Obama offered his audience—which included Norwegian royalty and politicians, along with Hollywood celebrities—a potted, misanthropic history of human civilization (“War … appeared with the first man … Evil does exist in the world”), before launching into a spirited and lying defense of America’s global role.
The president presented the post-war period as one of peace and prosperity bestowed by a benevolent US. “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace … The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. … We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will.” The levels of hypocrisy and falsification are staggering.
Obama later made the extraordinary claim that “America has never fought a war against a democracy, and our closest friends are governments that protect the rights of their citizens.” Aside from the historical fact that the US has fought wars with Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary, when all of them had parliamentary systems, Obama deliberately sidestepped the long, sordid history of US interventions against peoples of the oppressed countries, from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean region in the first part of the 20th century, to Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Indonesia, Chile, and Nicaragua in the postwar period.
As for Washington’s “closest friends,” that list presently includes brutal and corrupt regimes in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Uzbekistan (along with the puppet governments in Iraq and Afghanistan), among others, all of which practice torture and widespread repression.
Obama made reference to the Nobel prize speech delivered 45 years ago by Martin Luther King Jr., in order to repudiate its oppositional content. King, unlike Obama, delivered a short address, calling attention to the ongoing repression of blacks and opponents of racism in the South. King insisted that “Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.”
Before his assassination, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. It is his identification of militarism with oppression and barbarism that Obama and the entire American political establishment instinctively find threatening and seek to discredit.
The Nobel speech is a further stage in the political unmasking of Obama. The candidate of “change” is revealing himself not only as the continuator, in every important aspect, of the Bush-Cheney policies, but as a deeply reactionary, foul figure in his own right. He is not feigning his obvious relish for the military and war; this is who and what he has become over the course of his political career.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
It seems to me that the problem President Obama faces with the use of force is the same one that we face as individuals - how do you handle "the bad guy(s)"?  How do you disarm someone who is bent on destroying you?
Jesus says to lay down your arms.  That there is no greater power than that of nonviolence.  Martin Luther King told the blacks of the South not to retaliate when the police came after them with power hoses.  Gandhi told the Indian people not to fight back when the British attacked them.
I have often wondered what would happen if the Palestinians, en masse, simple sat down in the streets as the Israeli tanks came to clear the land for another settlement.  What would happen?  Would the tanks roll over them as they sat there?  Or would they stop short, totally befuddled with what to do next?
These are all difficult questions, requiring creative responses.  Do we, as Christians, have the courage, the faith?
Is this the role of the President?  Or is it ours?  How can we ask Obama to be something that we, as Christians, are not?
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
I am hesitant to paste a quote into a comment section ... it seems somehow like "cheating", when what is called for is honest, spontaneous response.  But this quote from Thomas Merton is so pertinant to what is being discussed here, that I'm going to break my own rule :-) ...
"For some “faithful” – and for unbelievers too – “faith” seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong. Such faith can be immersed in a world of violence and make no objection: the violence is perfectly all right. It is quite normal – unless of course it happens to be exercised by Negroes. Then it must be put down instantly by superior force. The drunkenness of this kind of faith – whether in a religious message or merely in a political ideology – enables us to go through life without seeing that our own violence is a disaster and that overwhelming force by which we seek to assert ourselves and our own self interest may well be our ruin.Is faith a narcotic dream in a world of heavily-armed robbers, or is it an awakening?Is faith a convenient nightmare in which we are attacked and obliged to destroy our attackers?What if we awaken to discover that we are the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves?"Abbey of GethsemaniAdvent1967
S Bond
9 years 1 month ago
''I have often wondered what would happen if the Palestinians, en masse, simple sat down in the streets as the Israeli tanks came to clear the land for another settlement.''
Yes, yes, and more of this.  How unreal it would have been if, instead of bombing Afghanistan, we had walked in, with our allies, and said, ''You are harboring the people who did this.  We don't want to bomb you.  How would you like to proceed?''  We had so much good will on our side, from the world over.  And I write this as someone who supported the war, I'm embarrassed to say.  I was angry.  Which leads to your Merton quote - it's the violence in our own hearts that has to be our first target, so to speak.
My five-year-old wants to live the life of a radical Christian.  I'm now trying to follow his lead.
James Lindsay
9 years 1 month ago
Ghandi would be deeply ashamed that Pakistan, which was once a part of India, has become a haven for a world-wide campaign of terrorism.
David Pasinski
9 years 1 month ago
I agree with Fr. Clooney's reflection grounded in his awareness of his own desire for force-ful protection should his life or possessions be threatened.  I believe that that is the heart of the issue- how does one really think about personal protection for one's self, loved ones, anyinnocents, or even possessions in the face of an aggressor? I may very well choose not to resist if my own llife is threatened, but do I have the right to neutralty or non-forcefulness when another innocent is being attacked? If I would not stop an aggressor - even at the cost of force or, most awfully, taking his life - to protect one or more innocents because I am "non-violent," am I acting morally? It is this microcosm projected on the world stage that keeps me from espousing a dogmatic pactificism despite my fitful affiliations with Pax Christi and othe peace groups.  I just cannot espouse non-forcefulness (of which non-violence seems to be an exopresion) in the face of an aggressor.
9 years 1 month ago
This is not about "non-violence" as a principle - this is about the president using the Catholic "just war" theory to sanctify his escalation of force in a punitive war.
Just war is justified when it is used in a defensive nature; however, the war in Afganistan is not a defensive war - neither were the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, for that matter.  These wars are projections of force and violence in the hope of future peace and such warfare - no matter how eloquently described - are not "just wars."
Obama - like most politicians - takes Christian virtures such as the common good, regard for the victim and just war and uses them as rhetoric to promote abortion, moral relativism, and endless war.
War in the name of peace (vietnam, iraq, afganistan), killing in the name of kindness (abortion, assisted suicide)...
As Dostovesky character in the Demons said:  "I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start.  Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.
Devon Zenu
9 years 1 month ago
One of my biggest points of disagreement with the president's speech came when he said, "A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."
While I agree that negotions alone won't win over al Queda, negotions alone are hardly an adequate description of nonviolent resistence. And I believe that a massive non-violent movement could have stopped Hitler's armies. It would likely have cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but millions were killed in the war as it was.
The big question I wrestle with though is how does a state use organized nonviolence? Successful nonviolent movements seem always to be grassroots efforts, not government sponsored operations.
Brett- my first comment was not meant to suggest that I thought I could master my inner violence on my own. I, of course, have no hope of doing so without God's grace. I just meant to emphasize that my efforts to live as part of God's already-present nonviolent Kingdom, inaugurated by Christ, must begin in my own heart rather than on the international level.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
Nonviolence is rooted in spirituality, not politics.  The truth of nonviolence can never be used as a weapon.  We are the instruments of truth, truth is not our instrument.
The idea is not to win over al-Queda, but to enter into a "place" (for lack of a beter word) with our enemy in which both of us will be changed and freed from the we-they conflict. 
I've found that grass-roots peace movements (at least in the USA) identify too much with political groups and ideologies. 
Gandhi realized that most of his followers were not spiritually prepared, and did not truly believe and trust the power of nonviolence.  They were simply using it as a political strategy. 
Perhaps Hitler's armies could have been stopped using nonviolence, but I only know of one person who refused to participate based on spiritual beliefs, and that was Franz Jaeterstatter.  Even his bishops were telling him to fight, that his soul would be fine.
It's going to take some time to bring people, spiritually, around to the ideas of nonviolence ... not as a means to a political victory ... but because it is the very truth of our being.
I hear that there is a tribe of people somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan / Afghanistan, who refuse to fight and whose very culture is based on nonviolence.  I think that they are worth looking at and learning from.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 1 month ago
PS - I should have said (above) that I only know of one person who was killed for refusing to fight in Hitler's army.  Franz Jaegarstaater.  Also I apologize for my many spelling mistakes (sigh).


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