FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 01/21/2010
January 13, 2010 Volume 3 Issue 1
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Daniel Johnson
With Christmas passed and a New Year ahead, we’ve put the parties and gift exchanges behind us and turned our energies again to more sober concerns. We’ve packed away holiday decorations and put our homes back in order. In the process, though, we may also be tempted to put away those seasonal expressions like, “Peace on earth.”
Peace on earth? It’s a lovely holiday sentiment, to be sure. But I think there is much use for it beyond the holiday. When we return from our seasonal reveries and look squarely again at the realities of our world, a planet at peace is hardly the first image that comes to mind. What we find instead are wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes. We see strife in our streets and violence in our homes. We feel the pernicious threat of terrorist attacks, and the not unreasonable fear that some well-intentioned responses to it could actually make the threat worse.
The result is that for many people, calls for “peace on earth” or “world peace” seem fanciful at best, serving more often as punch-lines to jokes about bewildered pageant contestants than as genuine expressions of hope. Today, fewer than one in three Americans (32 percent) hold out any hope that a sustainable peace will ever be achieved in the most contentious regions of the globe. Even fewer—about one in four (24 percent)—maintain that religion is a primary force for peace in our world, while a substantial majority (60 percent) contend that religion actually does more to engender conflict than to bring about peace.
Is such skepticism regarding the real prospects for peace on earth warranted? Maybe. But it should have little bearing on the call to be peacemakers—especially for those followers of the Christian faith—any more than the realization that we may never wipe out all human disease should lead us to abandon efforts to combat it through medical science.
One thing that a long century’s worth of peace research has made abundantly clear is that a lasting peace never arises spontaneously. It is not something that we can just sit back and wait for. It takes diligent effort from all parties involved to address their differences, misunderstandings, and grievances in ways that preclude a return to violent engagement. And those who are most committed to working for peace in such situations are rarely satisfied that the work is done.
Not long ago, an historic yet controversial African American was, to the surprise of many, awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. His many detractors, and a few of his supporters, immediately raised questions about his worthiness.
“After all,” they said, “what has he really accomplished to date? What has he actually done to advance the cause of peace in our world?”
Such questions were hardly lost on the prize-winner. Indeed, he addressed them directly in his acceptance speech: “I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.” So said the 1964 Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this month.
In response, Dr. King took up a theme that Peace Laureates before and since (the most recent one included) have echoed. The prize—like the work itself—is given not in recognition of what has already been achieved, he suggested, but in expectation of what remains to be done. In view of this, he would accept the prize as a “trustee, inspired and with a renewed dedication to humanity.”
And one thing trustees—and I think he meant all of us—must never do is lose hope in the cause that has been entrusted to them. As he continued in his speech: “I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ’isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him . . . I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Peace on earth? Maybe we should not be so quick to pack up that little bit of Christmas.
Dr. Daniel Johnson is associate professor of sociology and social work at Gordon College, and chair of the department, which recently launched an initiative for the study and practice of peace. He and his wife Susan and their three children live in Beverly, MA.