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Humility on the home front while criticizing violence abroad

At the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, 2015, President Obama said:
But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge -- or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism...

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ...

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt -- not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth -- our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

Obama outlines the tension – a near paradox – inherent in this idea of humility. On the one hand, we must admit that we "don't always know what we're doing," and on the other hand, we "have to speak up against those who would misuse [God's] name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror." This humility means being certain that we can't have certainty. It is an attitude that we must profess uncertainty about our own righteousness. It is a conviction that we must not allow anyone else to commit violence in the name of their own misguided assumption of self-righteousness.

More specifically, in identifying the errors committed by others, we must remember the transgressions of our own groups and traditions. The "high horse" that is not to be ridden is the idea that barbaric violence is "unique to some other place". Obama clearly had a negative judgment of the Islamic State terrorist group, which he called ISIL. The United States military had been fighting it for six months, and less than a week after Obama gave his prayer breakfast speech, he presented Congress with a resolution to formally authorize the use of force.

Michael Felsen wrote for Haaretz that Obama was
modeling behavior that ought to be emulated. By acknowledging regrettable chapters in his own religion’s both distant and recent past, he implicitly calls on leaders and followers of other faiths to do the same: face and confront those who appropriate religious doctrines and beliefs to serve a brutal quest for power and control. Today – in the face of ISIS and Boko Haram and Al-Qaida – Muslim leaders, and the many millions of Muslim faithful, must do this. But they’re not alone in that obligation.

Stephen Marche wrote in 2009: "The reality we can't bear to look at, however, isn't hidden groups of powerful men controlling everything but the more terrifying truth that there are no hidden groups of powerful men controlling everything. It's our deepest form of escapism to imagine a world in which we are powerless, because it excuses our selfishness. The real nightmare is that no one is to blame for the state of the world but ourselves."

In this statement, Marche provides one explanation for why people avoid humility. Some people's rage at expressions of humility – for example, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, who called Obama's remarks at the prayer breakfast "the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime" – may come from a place of fear of having to acknowledge our own crimes. Some disorder and ugliness is caused by other people, but some we also caused ourselves. As we acknowledge the former, we cannot lose sight of the latter, or we, too, will likely come to embody the very self-righteousness that we are challenging in others.

Andrew Bacevich wrote that humility supports realism, since humility is nothing more than seeing ourselves as we really are.
Realism in this sense implies an obligation to see the world as it actually is, not as we might like it to be. The enemy of realism is hubris, which in Niebuhr's day, and in our own, finds expression in an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order.

Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remark the world in what we imagine to be America's image.


Transcript of Obama's National Prayer Breakfast speech, Feb. 5, 2015.

"Obama ISIS fight request sent to Congress," Jim Acosta and Jeremy Diamond, CNN, Feb. 12, 2015.

"Get real: Obama's prayer breakfast speech never really trampled on Christian or American values," Michael Felsen, Haaretz, Feb. 10, 2015.

"Why People Who Love Conspiracy Theories Are Part of the Problem," Stephen Marche, Esquire April 21, 2009.

Andrew J. Bacevich. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008. p. 7.


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