Gene Stoltzfus

Peace, war, Nobel prizes and justice

By Gene Stoltzfus
December 16, 2009

What is the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize? Alfred Nobel, Stockholm native and the inventor of dynamite and other explosives, was chagrined that his inventions were used in cruel ways. In the late 1800s towards end of his life, he dedicated his considerable fortune to those who had made the greatest contribution to humankind. Each year prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.

Two sitting American Presidents, Woodrow Wilson (1919) and ninety years later, Barack Obama, (2009) have been presented the Nobel peace prize. Both men believed that they had an overarching role to move history in a more peaceful direction. Wilson was disappointed and died in office. His League of Nations was crippled from lack of support at home and then burned in the ashes of World War II. We hope for a better outcome for Obama. Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002, 22 years after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan for a second term. Henry Kissinger accepted the peace prize for negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) in the early 1970s while B52s simultaneously bombed his enemy. His counterpart, Le Duc Tho of North Viet Nam, refused to accept the prize. The war continued for two more years after the Paris Peace agreements. Between 1973-1975, another half a million Vietnamese were killed and wounded, 340,000 of them civilians.

President Obama’s eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Prize on 10 December 2009, Human Rights Day, laid out the necessity of war and ruminated on his nation’s understanding of just war - “war waged as a last resort, or in self-defence; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” To his credit he defined what theorists believe is a just war. He did not identify how his administration purports to fine tune war-making to meet the criteria of a just war in Iraq, according to him a dumb war and Afghanistan, a necessary conflict.

How will those who target drone attacks, and other expressions of air war make certain that no civilians are killed? How will a new chapter in just war be written in the basic training manuals of soldiers preparing for deployment, for interrogation of the enemy, for treatment of captives, and for clean up of military waste? Can Afred Nobel’s dynamite and its prolific offspring ever be controlled? Will the apparent unlimited use of US wealth for military purposes bankrupt its citizens as once happened in Rome?

For a century, the Nobel Prize for peace has hovered in that space between active peacemaking, represented by monumental efforts towards peace and justice like land mine eradication, civil rights, or relief efforts, and the work of nations to create a framework that will constrict war and its effects on civil society. The prize was not primarily intended to celebrate pacifist solutions to war although people who questioned all war and violence, like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams, received the award. The acknowledgement of their achievements gives hope.

In his speech, President Obama deftly distanced himself and his office from pacifist traditions as a President with responsibilities consistent with empire must do. To his credit, he did so without the normal checklist of charges of idealism, lack of realism and or even naivete, a checklist deeply embedded in the pillars of liberal democratic thinking upon which his politics relies for ideological ballast.

President Obama did not tell us if there are any serious negotiations with adversaries, coalitions of Pakhtoon villages or Taliban groups. In a part of the world where negotiations have been practised for 3000 years, it is hard to believe that nothing is happening to find an end to armed conflict. How is the conduct of the Afghan-Pakistan war creating the context for real peace, democracy or development? The people I talked to in Pakistan are not sure. How will his administration encourage, or even mandate, the military chaplain corps to become a genuine conscience and moral compass for “just combat” in the field? What about the thousands of soldiers who joined the nation’s forces and, in the process of soldiering, developed a conscientious objection to war? Will they be allowed to get out without having their dignity and personal integrity dishonoured?

For many peace people, church members and third world nations, Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and his acceptance of the Nobel prize, despite their eloquence, were a disappointment. This was the moment when I realised that my long term hope for ending the practice of war, in say a century, will require harder, more focused work than ever. I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward. The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God, with even wider reach in the stretch for justice, can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.

The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war. Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future. Above all, the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war. This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the TV, awaken our imaginations, listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.

Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself. The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers. This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war. The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politics, like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.

The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war, we had better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love. When we are called idealists, we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better. That is where we will put our energy. Even elder Alfred Nobel might cheer us on.


(c) Gene Stoltzfus is the founder of Christian Peacemaker Teams ( He writes regularly at

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