A Time for War, A Time for Peace Prizes

Whether your reference point is Ecclesiastes or The Byrds, most of us have a passing familiarity with the words, "To everything there is a set time and season, a time for every experience under heaven." Ecclesiastes' biblical poem includes the phrase, "a time for war and a time for peace."

The Nobel Committee's puzzling decision to award President Obama with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize inspired me to return to Ecclesiastes. I've done so not necessarily in an attempt to determine how or why the Committee came to its choice, but because news of the award sent me back to try and understand the text in a different way. While unfortunately this is but one ready example that comes to my mind, a prize for peace seems odd as the White House continues to struggle to determine whether General Stanley McChrystal's recommendation to put 40,000 more U.S. troops in harm's way in Afghanistan in order to successfully achieve our goals to eradicate global terrorism is the best course of action. In this and so many other current scenarios, Ecclesiastes' well-known verses -- perhaps so well-known they lose their meaning until we take another critical look at them -- highlight both a troubling reality and a crucial goal. The former is that far too many times require war in order to achieve peace. The latter is that somehow, if not in our time then at a point in the not-to-distant future, the world must be a place in which the time for war ends and true, rather than temporary, peace is the only "time-zone" in which humanity lives.

It is in this regard that the fact that Ecclesiastes' poem exists in a much larger context of the book that bears his name, one that today we might call a memoir, must be seen not as a foregone statement of fact, but as a challenge. Ecclesiastes was a fairly pessimistic guy, and the Book of Ecclesiastes details his observations about life and the world. The first words of his "memoir" are hevel havalim -- Hebrew often translated as "utter futility," but even more literally the notion that everything in life is but an empty, meaningless whip of the wind. For the most part Ecclesiastes insists that no matter who walks the earth, no matter when, no matter where, that everything stays the same -- that nothing new ever happens, that the state of the universe is and will forever remain on a steady, stale loop.

In a ray of light (perhaps Steady E picked up the quill on a good day), Ecclesiastes urges, "Whatever you find is in your hands to do, you must do with all your might." Our President may have received a prize for the promise of what he has yet to achieve in the way of peace with his power. Yet this prize does not solely belong to him. It belongs to us all as a challenge to earn the award ex post facto. It is an urgent gauntlet thrown down before each and every one of us to do our part to create a world that knows only peace, and one that has no time or necessity for war; a time to prove Ecclesiastes right when it comes to our abilities, and to prove him wrong about our power to make something essentially and redemptively new come to pass in the life of the universe.