By Alex Harris
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is composer Johnny Marks’s adaptation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Christmas Bells, which partially excerpted Luke 2:14. An abolitionist, Wadsworth wrote the poem in despair and hope on Christmas Day, 1863, in the depths of the American Civil War. The last two stanzas of the original poem (reordered in the carol) assert that hatred is strong and destroys peace, but is nonetheless doomed to defeat and that good will prevail:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Listeners and readers err if we interpret that last stanza as a permission to complacency. Rather, the last stanza is better understood as a promise that “wrong will fail” only if people of goodwill continuously combat hatred and actively construct and fortify foundations for peace.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail differentiates between a “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” and “a positive peace which is the presence of justice,” condemning those who prefer the former. Hatred is perniciously patient and determined to wear down people of goodwill. Through sheer relentlessness, hatred tempts the exhausted, the fearful, and the comfortable to accept an unjust, negative peace devoid of goodwill.
Scripture and history teach that increments of justice have only ever been achieved through the sacrifices, vigilance, and persistent demands of people of goodwill. Scripture and history also show that backlashes frequently follow advances of justice and that progress toward positive peace persists only when people of goodwill reject injustice and refuse offers to sacrifice others’ well-being to ensure their own comforts. We are now in the midst of an intense backlash by hatred’s practitioners, resulting in widening divisions between people. In such periods of intense social tension, hatred’s practitioners are most seductive in beguiling people of goodwill into accepting a “negative peace.” Such temptations must be resisted.
Positive peace requires that hatred’s practitioners be guaranteed universal legal rights, protections, and freedoms. But positive peace also requires that hateful actions, statements, or symbols be actively condemned and denied moral legitimacy. Positive peace requires repudiation of euphemisms that ignore, disguise, or deny hatred’s impacts and that we never credit instances of superficial politeness as displays of civility, compassion, or goodwill. Positive peace requires that people of goodwill be unceasingly intolerant of and impatient with injustice and hatred. This is the promise and the command of the carol.
Ridgefield Democrats wish you and yours the Happiest of Holidays. We hope the season will provide respite from cares and strengthen you to hasten your efforts to build universal goodwill and positive peace on earth in the New Year.
The Ridgefield Democratic Town Committee provides this column.