“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)
The scene in which these words were spoken illustrates the extreme contradiction of the Christmas story: A glorious cloud of angels, singing to the poorest of the poor; a powerful man in history, born in a manger. No matter what our religion, there are some observations that hold true about this story.
FLINCK, Govert Teunisz, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds
1639, Oil on wood, 160 x 196 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris, Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/support/viewer/z.html
Peace, like Christmas, is counterintuitive. To be at peace with our fellow man requires us to put down our defenses. This makes us vulnerable. (As vulnerable as a baby in a manger?) If I give up something to make peace, do I risk becoming poor? (As poor as a shepherd living in a field?) Might I be asked to give up things I feel I’ve earned the right to have? (Even the fish already in my nets, fish that I’ve worked hard to catch?) Might I be asked to give up the labels I put on people? (Even labels that protect me by defining my tribe and serving to limit my responsibilities outside that tribe?)
When we put aside labels and rights and power, we become open to very different, and creative, possibilities: What if I could be honest with the other person, without them using my honesty against me? What if I could lay down my defenses, emotionally or figuratively, and could put energy into things I want or love? What if the other person would work collaboratively with me, to find ways to have my needs met, without fighting against or hurting me? What if I could find a way to help that other party meet their underlying need, without giving up my own security? What if we can find a way to meet everyone’s true needs?
The path of peace is inextricably tied up with reconciliation and tearing down of barriers that separate us. When we examine the life of Jesus, we see a man who never allowed labels or positions to get in the way of seeing people for who they truly were. He taught radical ideas. He taught us to love others as we love ourselves; he taught us to forgive as we have been forgiven; he demonstrated that we can transform our enemy by seeing them as God sees them and thereby enabling them to see themselves.
This Christmas season, consider: What must we give up, to walk the path of peace? What must we actively do? Even when we have been wronged, why must we forgive our debtors? And, what does it mean to forgive another “as we have been forgiven”?
Does the idea of reconciliation mean that we just move on, that we ignore a wrong? No! To advocate peace is not to advocate weakness. Thomas Merton wrote, "Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience."
Peace is not passive, either. Peace is waged, just as war is waged, but peace is a force more powerful than the greatest weapon. Weapons impose change from the outside in; but peace brings change from the inside out. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this force, which he called "soul force". Like Gandhi and Jesus, King waged peace in a way which transformed those who were engaged with it.
The result of King's war can be seen today. Not only has segregation fallen, but the hearts and minds of formerly racist men and women were transformed by their engagement. Peace wins through conversion of the opponent.
The purpose of peacebuilding -- and mediation is a part of peacebuilding -- is not to fake a peace. Mediation does not force anyone to agree to terms they don’t want, nor does it put people into circumstances they’d prefer not to endure. The first task of peacebuilding is to enable communication. This paves the way for people to listen to each other. They can then find ways to meet needs and resolve conflict. When needs are met – when root causes of conflict are addressed – reconciliation can happen.
Peace is a matter of achieving that which we have within us. C.S. Lewis, speaking in the voice of Aslan, referred to the law of love as the "deep magic". Peace and reconciliation are not easy; sometimes the trust and openness that is required to achieve great results is as contrary to common sense as is a vision of angels appearing to a ragged band of shepherds on a winter night. But unless we take the risk, we achieve nothing; and until we achieve peace, we have nothing. What does it gain a man to gain the whole world, but to lose his own soul?
So, this season, my wish for you is, Peace! Try it!*