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.
For years we heard a lot about “the peace process” in the Middle East and elsewhere. It used to seem so distant – people blowing each other up in lands far away. Even with their connections to the biblical story, these lands seemed mostly irrelevant to our lives, hopelessly entrenched as they were in the die-hard habits of hate and violence.
In recent years we have gained a different perspective. The roots of that hatred and violence are very relevant to us now. They reached our soil in a devastating way nearly a decade ago. They have altered our world view, our politics, our sense of security and even our travel in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years back. We are currently fighting two wars directly related to those centuries of ethnic and religious hostilities.
But “the peace process” isn’t just about geopolitical conflicts or the reality of terrorism on our shores and in our minds. 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 about it 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 community? Well, yes and no. People aren’t shooting at each other. 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?
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. This is an adapted from a column he wrote at an earlier Christmastime. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.