Sunday, December 25, 2011

Peace on Earth, Good Will To Men

I've had a lot of mixed feelings about Christmas over the years.  As a kid, I felt alternately excited and guilty.  Excited: obvious.  Guilty because my parents went overboard when buying me gifts, and I never seemed to have enough money to buy them anything they really wanted, and I was bad at buying gifts anyway.

When I was a teen, the excitement gave way to guilt and fear.  Fear that I wouldn't be excited enough or grateful enough or happy enough that I'd forget to buy gifts, which I usually did.  I secretly hid a lot of depression and social anxiety as a teen, and Christmas really brought that out.  At holiday family gatherings I was often at the brunt of most of the teasing.  There were peaceful and loving moments during this time as well, but I tend to forget those since pain is much louder than joy.

In my early twenties, as a single mom, I had a couple of really great Christmases.  I was on my own, in my own place, making my own choices.  I found a lot of spirituality and peace during this time.  I was still Mormon, and my boy really small.  Everything was very magical at this time in my life, and somehow I tapped into the "True Meaning of Christmas".  I remember listening to a lot of music, like Mannheim Steamroller and a Mormon production called The Forgotten Carols (both of which I would still recommend to this day).  A Fresh Aire Christmas had a lot of choir music that is really beautiful, like Veni Veni, Emmanuel.

When I lost religion, I became very cynical around Christmas.  Its blatant commercialism became clear to me, which rang chimes with my feelings of guilt and fear as a child.  I had mixed feelings about the idea that only a baby god child could bring peace to the earth... a peace which never seemed to come, in spite of the promises of angels on high.

My son had to suffer this attitude from me through most of his childhood.  I also saw Christmas as a burden: just one more thing to do in my busy life and more money that had to be spent when money was tight.  I still hate putting up Christmas decorations, and have left this task to him.

This year, I've had a recurring theme to my Christmas season, one I've chosen to embrace.  Peace.  One simple word with so many meanings.  Over the month, a refrain has gone through my mind: "Peace on earth good will to men" sung to the melody written by Handel.  Of all the messages one can get from the Bible, this is one we should embrace.

Yet this is not the central theme of American Christian culture.  Even though Christianity has permeated nearly everything we do, even those of us who are agnostic and atheist, we somehow cannot shake our desire for violence.  Strength is to be admired.  Gentleness is to be laughed at.  Stars and hearts and puppies are for "little girls" and people who play or fight poorly are like little girls. (Didn't Jesus say we should be like little children?)  Hippies are flippy-wristed weaklings who are just waiting to be victimized.  Pacifists and vegans are to be mocked.  Anyone who wishes to conserve the dwindling resources of this planet are idiots who just want to take away everyone's toys.  Those who raise protesting voices against third-world slavery are ignorant, and this is how it must be.

There's this fear that if we give peace an inch, it might take over, and we might end up loving people we'd really rather not love.

I know these feelings because I struggle with them myself.  I feel cognitive dissonance, because culture has programmed me to think these things.  To feel these things.

But why?  What's so wrong with peace?  Is it a lofty ideal?  Yes.  Is it unrealistic?  Maybe.  But why does it need to be vilified?  Why should adherents to peace be mocked?  What is so dangerous about a message of peace that it must be marginalized?

There isn't a major religion on earth that doesn't at least pay lip service to the concept of peace.  Any religion that can't claim to be peaceful is rejected by a majority of potential converts (even if those converts are being converted at the point of a sword).  Yet the prevailing meme, in the form of ideas and feelings, is toughness, strength, bullying, and war.  Concepts of compromise and diplomacy are "weak" and "fluffy" and "unrealistic".  But maybe these ideas are unrealistic because any who are espouse them are ridiculed.

In our readiness to "speak softly and carry a big stick", we forget the speak softly part.  Should we as individuals and a society be ready to defend ourselves?  Absolutely.  But instead of being a last resort, it tends to be the first.  If our culture embraced peace as much as we claim we do, if we really sought peace, we would have more of it.  We would challenge our leaders for every war they wished to fight.  We would make them offer the same level of proof we require of prosecutors in a court of law.  They would be required to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the war is absolutely necessary to defend our country.

Maybe instead of sending men off to die, we might have to go without a few resources.  Some prices might go up.  What price of oil or cheap goods is high enough that it pays for the lives of soldiers who may come back alive and unmaimed, but who will be scarred forever?  If we go to war, it should be for one reason: That another country has initiated force against us, or our military allies, first.

This season, I have looked within, and seen the side of me that rejects peace.  I have faced it, and found that in spite of its power, it is still silly.  Peace is more rational than violence.  Peace is smarter than war.  It is not touchy-feely to believe in peace: it is logical.

May we all have gentle hearts in this coming year.  God has been unable to bring us peace, so let's bring it to ourselves.

I have compiled a list of Christmas songs about peace, which I will link in the next post.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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