Obama’s ‘Just War’ Decision



In this building. On 95th Street in Chicago. Here is where President Obama first learned how to answer the question, “In authorizing the death of Osama bin Laden, did I morally do the right thing?”

In this building. Yesterday. As the late afternoon sunlight streamed through the two stained glass windows bathing the sanctuary of Trinity United Church of Christ in orange tinged colors of swirling joy, the ocean sized choir swayed up front, and visitors from the other side of town were cordially welcomed; this church’s most famous former member, President Barack Obama was getting ready to tell the world that the mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden was now complete.

Leaked first, as reported in the New York Times, by a former aide to Ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and then exploding across the internet and into the grinning, mustache spectacle of Geraldo Rivera, on Fox, giggling with glee; the President, as we all know, made the announcement that the hunt for bin Laden was over.

But it was in the twenty years of attendance at Trinity, a place the President hasn’t been in awhile, that he first came to know the “Just War Debate.”

As the President’s team notified all the proper people, as the crucially important message was crafted, the President’s early schooling in a debate by two theologians, who happened to be brothers, back in 1932, spoke to a question much deeper than the glee in Geraldo’s grin. That question being, with the power of death I hold in my pen, am I doing the right thing here?

The surface answer to that question is of course a no-brainer. We were attacked. We must fight back. We must serve justice. End of story.

And of course there is always the obvious danger in over thinking anything. But what if what I’m doing is morally wrong? Should violence prompt violence? Will this help remove us from the endless cycle spinning since the beginning of time?

In answering those kinds of questions, the President turned to the “Just War” debate played out by the brothers H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr in the pages of Christian Century Magazine. In 1932. An historical moment in the history of Trinity’s denomination, The United Church of Christ.

The idea of “Just War”—when is it right to fight? —had been a staple of theological discussion since ancient times. There are 6 basic tenants of a “Just War.” Millions of books, but 6 key ideas. A “Just War” must be:

1. A last resort. Nothing else has worked.

2. Waged by a legitimate authority. Individuals don’t count.

3. Fought to address a previous wrong. (That was an easy one)

4. Fought with a reasonable chance of success. Hopeless causes don’t cut it.

5. Have peace as an ultimate goal.

6. Be proportional to the injury suffered

H. Richard was the more philosophical of the debating brothers. He, in essence, argued against the “Just War,” as a legitimate expression of Christian morality. An oversimplification of a complex moral position, but that’s the gist of it.

Reinhold saw it differently. “It is the business of true religion,” Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “to destroy man’s moral conceit.” Which perhaps can be paraphrased as:

Sometimes you can’t be ‘holier than thou.’ Sometimes you just gotta get the bad guys.

President Obama saw it like Brother Reinhold. Sometimes, war is the right answer.

So, late yesterday afternoon, on 95th Street, just outside Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, parking was, as always, tough. People streamed into the church, the radio and web streaming broadcasts revved up, and the impeccable precision of a well run organization went to work singing the songs of holy praise. The work of this church went on.

While 1,000 miles east in Washington D.C., the son of this church, Barack Obama, got ready to give whatever comfort he could to grieving families, to praise the heroes of the American military, to send the message to the world that this step in this war was over and to minimize the danger inherent in letting bin Laden go down in history as a holy martyr. To do it in a way that wasn’t boastful. Sending the message that wars and celebrations are strange bedfellows.

The President delivered the message with confidence, clarity and a call for unity.

The confidence and clarity of a leader schooled in the brothers Niebuhr.

A leader who did the heavy lifting thinking he first began in that building on 95th Street in Chicago. The president is no longer a member of the church. Officially. But it was here that he grew up.

And made a decision of world shaking gravity, accepting responsibility and personal self doubt, and coming to rest knowing . . . . .

That he’d done the right thing.

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