Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,

At one point in your speech to the United Nations General Assembly from this past September, you quoted your predecessor Franklin Roosevelt, saying: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, one party, or one nation…. It cannot be a peace of large nations—or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.” “The choice is ours,” you said over and over to representatives of the gathered nations of the world. “We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for. Or we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings….”

I hear this, and I can’t help but feel inspired. It’s the poem from your inauguration, where poet Elizabeth Alexander says,

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light….

What if? We ask this as well, as Unitarian Universalists. What if more people affirmed the interdependent web of all existence, which applies as much to international affairs as to the natural world? What if more people affirmed the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? Love, casting a widening pool of light. These are values of my own religious tradition that I am hearing in you, and I am inspired.

That’s why I’m celebrating the message you’ve been bringing to the world in the past eleven months. You remind me of one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors: Adlai  Stevenson, Ambassador to the United Nations during the JFK administration and also candidate for President of the United States in 1952 and 1956. (As a brief aside, it’s said that when the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961, Stevenson wrote to the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, its first president, “Congratulations on your election as president. I know from hearsay how satisfying that can be.”) Despite not winning the Presidency, he was a great visionary who said that “It is no longer possible—if it ever was—for local communities to be more secure than the surrounding world. Our ultimate security therefore lies in making the world more and more into a community.” That’s what Adlai Stevenson said, and it’s your message too, over and over again. The mightiest word of love. Not unilateralism and militarism as a first resort, but multilateralism and diplomacy. Interdependence in world community.

Thank you for spreading values we Unitarian Universalists affirm. It’s why I think that Unitarian Universalists everywhere (whatever their party affiliations might be, whether Democratic or Republican or Independent) will have something to cheer when, on December 10th, you are in Oslo, Norway, receiving the prize—a prize which you have said you will accept as a call to all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. Warm congratulations to you!

I laughed when I heard about what happened right after you received the news. Your daughter Malia walked in and said, “Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize, and it’s Bo’s birthday!” And then your other daughter Sasha added, “Plus, we have a three-day weekend coming up.” Kids, helping keep things in perspective. Although it sounds like you are doing fine with this on your own. “To be honest,” you said to reporters, “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by the prize.” This is what you said.

Of course, the Nobel Committee disagrees. In announcing that you are the recipient, it said, “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future.” “The question we have to ask,” said Nobel committee chair Thorbjorn Jagland, “is who has done the most in the previous year to enhance peace in the world. And who has done more than Barack Obama?”

It’s a controversial question—whether you have accomplished enough. Already, you have plunged into the rough waters of multiple tough issues: prohibiting the use of torture by the United States; ordering the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed; working on finding effective ways of rooting out al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan; stopping terrorism at its roots by promoting human rights, economic opportunity, and security in countries that are hurting; partnering with Russia to substantially reduce nuclear warheads and launchers; advancing the cause of two states—Israel and Palestine—living side by side in peace and security so that justice for all in the Middle East can become a reality; moving America from a bystander to a leader in international climate change negotiations; helping coordinate an international response of over $2 trillion in stimulus to bring the global economy back from the brink; and re-engaging the United Nations, joining the Human Rights Council, bringing America back to the world table. To the United Nations, in September, you said, “I have been in office for just nine months—though some days it seems a lot longer.” I wonder why. Definitely, you are not putting off any of the hard choices required to create a better world. You are plunging right in.

But I do understand why you still think you don’t deserve the award. It is only the beginning. You have only just begun. The world is still in the midst of rough waters. The shoreline is still far off. And yet, perhaps the award was given not so much to honor past accomplishment as future promise. Perhaps, as Stanford University scholar Clarence B. Jones suggests, the award is about strengthening your resolve as you go forward, encouraging you to see your vision through all the way to the very end. He saw this with Martin Luther King Jr., when he received the Peace Prize. MLK Jr. had been struggling with what to say about the Vietnam War—this man who had already fought extraordinary fights for justice and peace—and the Peace Prize convicted his conscience, pressed him to break his silence and speak out. “Just knowing that hunk of metal was in his bureau drawer,” says Clarence B. Jones, “forced someone as strong as Martin Luther King Jr. to publicly comment in a way he might otherwise not.” I think the world wants you to continue making the hard choices that need to be made. I think it wants you to stay strong, and to finish this ironman race you’ve started. As the New York Times put it, “Americans elected Mr. Obama because they wanted him to restore American values and leadership—and because they believed he could. The Nobel Prize … shows how many people around the world want the same thing.”

But this is not the first time that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has acted contrary to  popular expectations. I was fascinated to learn that an early Peace Prize controversy had to do with whether non-governmental peace activists only should receive the prize, rather than heads of state and politicians. Before 1905, only private peace activists had received the award. And then came 1906. The recipient was none other than American President Theodore Roosevelt, for his efforts in helping to negotiate an end to the war between Russia and Japan. People around the world screamed. What’s this? What’s this? they cried. Yet the Nobel Committee was ahead of the curve. It saw, after the turn of the century, how governments were increasingly promoting peaceful solutions for international disputes, and it wanted to encourage this even more. Private peace activists no longer owned the work exclusively. To ensure relevance for its prize, the committee risked changing with the times, together with the resulting wrath.

Today’s committee, I believe, took a similar risk. Said committee chair Thorbjorn Jagland, “Some people say—and I understand it—‘Isn’t it premature? Too early?’ Well, I’d say … that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond—all of us.” American multilateralism and diplomacy can’t wait. America modeling the kind of leadership that needs to happen in every country around the world can’t wait. Hope can’t wait. The mightiest word of love has to happen now.

Clearly, honest confusion has surrounded this year’s award. But there’s been some real ugliness as well. I mean, it seems to me that when someone gets an amazing award like a Nobel Peace Prize, a reasonable response is delight. Good for you, President Obama! Good for you, America! Delight, even if people might not be sure exactly why you got the award. The not-knowing then becomes transformed into a positive curiosity to find out why—to discover just exactly what it is you have been saying and doing on the international scene that would merit such an award. Yet from some quarters you’ve seen the absolute opposite of curiosity and delight. New York Times columnist David Brooks, calling it a joke, saying, “Nobody cares what five Norwegian guys think”—demonstrating, regrettably, an arrogant disdain for the rest of the world that is part and parcel of ugly Americanism and cowboy diplomacy. Those five Norwegians (not all guys, by the way) see how you’ve single-handedly set a new tone throughout the world, and David Brooks thinks that this is a joke?

Reminds me of something I read in U. S. News and World Report a while back. An interview with Cullen Murphy, about his book entitled Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America. For a time, comparisons with Rome had been positive ones: the Pax Romana living anew in the Pax Americana, providing worldwide cultural benefits and worldwide security. But now the dominant view worries about America’s decline and compares symptoms of this to what people saw in Rome’s decline. And so the interviewer at one point says to Cullen Murphy, “You say there was an almost fatal parochialism among the Romans. Are we in danger of duplicating it?” Here’s Murphy’s reply: “I was looking the other day at one of the new Pew Center polls about ‘what Americans know.’ Americans in general aren’t that interested in, or aware of, the outside world, and increasingly even our elites don’t seem to put much stock in that kind of knowledge either. We don’t have [enough] Arabic speakers; the number of foreign correspondents continues to shrink. Compared with the Greeks, the Romans were not passionately interested in the outside world. And they were often taken by surprise. The great disaster suffered by Varus in Germany in A.D. 9, when three entire Roman legions were annihilated, stemmed partly from ignorance about the tribes they were up against.”

It’s been called “Omphalos syndrome”: the misguided belief that one’s nation and way of life is at the center (or navel) of the world. Rome had it, and suffered for it. America has it too, and we are suffering. We need to start caring about what five Norwegians think. We really do.

Ugly Americanism has come up in connection with your receiving the Peace Prize, and so has an all-consuming ugly cynicism. Writer H. L. Mencken once said, “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.” This is definitely what some people have been doing around your award. Looking around for that coffin. Some of it is just blatantly racist—the presumption that the Peace Prize committee gave you the award just because you are the first African American president. And then there’s the cynicism summed up in something that Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said: you won because of “star power.” The world has a crush on you. Things are just in the honeymoon phase. It’s all illusion, smoke and mirrors.

Now, my congregation is listening in on this letter, so I say this to them as much as to you: that our Unitarian Universalist values transcend political parties. We are doing the best we can to stand on the side of love, that mightiest word, and part of our job is bringing prophetic critique to the public sphere when necessary, whether that sphere is Democratic or Republican, because our Unitarian Universalist values demand it. To be faithful to our religious call, there must be independence from political parties; we must be able to speak from out of a higher point of view of shared values. Today I bring warm congratulations to you, but when your policies and actions go contrary to our values, expect a different kind of letter. And if ever doing this becomes not OK in a Unitarian Universalist congregation—when my religion becomes a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party, and there’s absolutely no room for Republicans, or others, then I am out of here.

So when I call what Michael Steele is saying as cynical, I’m not trying to win one for the Democrats. I’m doing the best I can to speak up for that love which is

beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light….

But the “star power” comment takes the love you are trying to spread and tries to make it an unworthy thing. He’s trying to rebuild his political party, while you are trying to lead America into a new chapter of international cooperation. He says it’s just all words, but, first of all, words are a kind of action too—words change things. As a preacher, I have to believe this. Second, you know very we’ll that words alone are not enough. That’s why, over and over again, you say that “the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words,” that “the magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our actions.”

On the other hand, maybe some star power is exactly what we need right now. But here, I’m talking about power to forge international consensus and move the world’s conscience.  It was something we saw lacking in the previous presidential administration—how President Bush squandered the world’s goodwill after 9/11. He started a war of choice with Iraq. On such critical global issues as arms control, torture, and climate change, he stepped back from the world table, disengaged, thumbed his nose at everyone. Unilateralism, cowboy diplomacy, Omphalos syndrome. But then came the genocide in Darfur, hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced in waves of violence that showed no signs of abating. President Bush spoke movingly to this in 2007, at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. “It is evil we are now seeing in Sudan—and we’re not going to back down.” He was exactly right. Yet his call went nowhere. Multilateralism and diplomacy was what solving the problem in Darfur required and continues to require—yet this had not been the established practice of the Bush administration. It was like singing a completely different tune. And then there was the accumulated skepticism and distrust of the world that drowned him out, made it impossible for his absolutely worthy message to be heard.

But it’s a different time now. How you’ve turning things around, in just eleven months, is why you’ve been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The Committee wants you to see things through, this long journey you started. Your vision of four pillars, which are “fundamental to the future that we want for our children:” stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, pursuing peace, meeting the challenge of climate change, and the creation of a global economy that advances opportunity for all. “Now is the time,” you are saying, “for all of us to take our share of the responsibility for a global response to global challenges. […]The time has come to realize that the old habits, the old arguments, are irrelevant to the challenges faced by our people. They lead nations to act in opposition to the very goals that they claim to pursue…. They build up walls between us and the future that our people seek, and the time has come for those walls to come down.” The time has come. The choice is ours.

beyond marital, filial, national,
love casting a widening pool of light….

President Obama, I thank you for your inspired service, and I’ll be there with you in spirit when, on December 10th, you’re in Oslo receiving the prize. Thanks for asking What if? What if the mightiest word is love?


Rev. Anthony David, Senior Minister

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta