Peace on earth, good will toward men” is a phrase of the season, words that complement the Christmas decor.
We dust them off every year at this time, just as we do the old ornaments and figurines. Our attachment to both is similarly sentimental.
“Peace on earth” has a nice ring, and maybe it did seem possible on that starry night when the angels sang. But in our disbelief that it is really attainable we have trivialized it.
It’s a less troubling and somehow more approachable concept if we think of peace on earth as a kind of warm, cuddly feeling we all get at a certain time of year when we hear the familiar stories, sing the familiar songs, see the familiar symbols and are moved to temporary generosity and good cheer.
An expressed desire for “world peace” is seen most of the rest of the year as the meaningless bromide of an empty-headed beauty queen contestant.
Divorce it from sentiment and peace on earth becomes something else: It becomes hard work. It can even become something tangible and real.
Peace isn’t just about wars and rumors of wars, or the stark reality of terrorism we have confronted in recent years. It’s what we are to be about every day of our lives, if we take at all seriously the coming of the Prince of Peace.
Most of us feel helpless to do anything about the state of the wider world. “Peace on earth” is therefore an elusive concept, at least on a personal level. What can we do except to make a wistful wish for it amid the Christmas festivities? By ourselves we can’t end wars or the threat of wars. But we can acknowledge what the Mississippi poet, William Alexander Percy, told a despairing friend in his hometown of Greenville on the eve of World War II: that the world is nothing more than the sum of all of its Greenvilles, so our role – the role of everyone everywhere – is to live as people of good will in our own communities.
We are called, then, to make our communities laboratories for peace. This, too, may sound sentimental on the surface. It is anything but. Unlike sentimentality, it can find concrete expression in the gritty, down-to-earth realities of day-to-day existence.
Don’t we already have peace in our communities? Well, yes and no. People aren’t shooting at each other on a regular basis. But peace is more than the absence of violence.
Peace involves attitudes as well, attitudes that affect the presence or absence of justice, mutual respect and forbearance, mercy and compassion, concern for the common good. “Good will” is not something that comes automatically; it means literally to will the good of others. It takes a decision, a constant reaffirmation of that decision, and lots of effort.
Being peacemakers in our own communities involves a willingness to know each other better across social, economic, racial, religious and political lines, to listen carefully, to learn to understand and to empathize. It involves speaking the truth as we see it, but being open to hearing the truth from others as well – even and especially in a time of such widespread polarization.
It means working in any number of ways to build a better community.
It means focusing on what unites rather than on what divides. It means refusing to strike back or fuel old animosities. It means holding our anger in check, and it means forgiving.
It isn’t easy. It doesn’t have a beginning and an end; it’s a lifelong process. But ultimate, real, unsentimental “peace on earth” depends on these things.
And if it doesn’t begin with us, in our own communities, then with whom and where?
ADDENDUM FROM LLOYD GRAY: This is a reprint of a Christmastime column published several years ago. May you have a blessed and joyous Christmas!
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.