My favorite Christmas song is an obscure one – “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words. The narrator tells of hearing the bells ringing on Christmas Day, repeating the refrain of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All” (yes, yes, the original says “men,” so I update the language). The narrator gets upset, seeing how the world makes a mockery of such wishes “for hate is strong.”
Many of us identify with that narrator to this day. Hate continues to be strong. Even as Confederate flags disappear from official places, racism has reasserted itself on-line and sneaked out of private places into the public realm. A two-tiered system of criminal justice allows black men to die and be incarcerated at stunning rates. Despite increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, BGLTQ people – especially those who are transgender – encounter open hostility. At least 21 transgender people, many of them people of color, have been killed violently so far this year, according the Human Rights Campaign. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 892 hate groups across the country, an uptick last year for the first time since 2011, near double the number of groups as they counted in 1999. In the wake of the election, haters seem emboldened. Swastikas have reappeared as graffiti, and hijab-wearing women confronted with threats. Yes, the words “Peace on Earth” are being mocked.
Longfellow, in the song, hears the bell peel again, louder and deeper, asserting that God is not dead, so “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” While that speaks to me, I recognize that those who dismiss or struggle with the idea of such a God may not be encouraged. However, one need not embrace theism to trust a moral arc of the universe that bends towards justice. When Longfellow wrote the song in 1863, slavery had not yet been vanquished from this continent. Women were subservient to men legally and in practice in their daily lives. People who did not conform to expected roles of gender and sexual orientation were invisible. A Civil War raged, taking hundreds of thousands of lives, about 2 percent of the population. As bleak as it looks today in the battle of love versus hate, 1863 was far worse. Steven Pinker, whose book The Angels of Our Better Nature explores the incidence of violence through history, asserts that despite blips like the Syrian war and IS terrorism, we are far more safe than we have been in the past, and that that trend holds true across the world – less homicide, less war, less genocide. If we look at the large scale, we are more peaceful.
The world keeps turning. You may or may not feel a presence that reassures you, but I hope in this season of striving towards peace and goodwill, you find encouragement and inspiration.
In faith and freedom,