|Lindisfarne, Ithaca NY Christmas Eve 2013|
Since the semester at university ended, I have been writing a chapter for a forthcoming book on political philosophy. I was asked to write a chapter on "peace."
There's no better time to ruminate on peace than Christmas! As the heavenly host said to the shepherds, "And on earth peace ..."
If the shepherds, watching their flock by night, had the notion that the heavenly host meant, "On earth peace now" or "On earth peace, sometime soon," they would have been disappointed. A couple of millennia later and Christmas carols still have the heavenly host announcing "Peace on earth! Goodwill to all!" Still we wait to see it.
Yet, peace is a tricky idea and we probably know more of it than we think. In some tellings, peace is the absence of war. In other words, peace is a "negative" idea as it is defined by the absence of the other thing. A state of war is fighting between nations. A state of peace is when the fighting stops.
But it's clear that even when the "war" stops and "peace" starts, it's quite possible not to experience peace at all.
This difficulty in defining peace negatively has been challenged by those who speak of "positive peace." Positive peace is not only the cessation of fighting, but is also a state of well-being, a state of human thriving, a state where basic needs are met and life has meaning—where goodness, truth and beauty are enjoyed in abundance.
I think it's both kinds of peace that the heavenly host told the shepherds about.
Has warring ended? Not last time I read the news. But the world is not at war. At the end of 2013, according to the United Nations the number of countries involved in armed conflict that has at least 1,000 deaths a year is 11. The number of countries with less than 1,000 deaths a year is 29. It's still too many, but in historical terms this is a lot less than we have seen in other periods. Of the 187 countries listed in the United nations Human Development Report, 40 are involved in some form of armed conflict. That means that by far the majority of people, in most parts of the world, are not engaged in war.
Has the human race as a whole moved to a place of thriving and abundance? Some people have, some have not. Take poverty. According to the World Bank the incidence of extreme poverty (defined as less than $1.25 a day) has fallen from 52 percent in 1981 to 22 percent in 2008. Sadly, 95 percent of those living extreme poverty live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. That's still far too many people, but globally progress is being made. More people are having their basic needs met, and are getting to live lives of greater well-being than before.
So, what to make of the heavenly host announcing two millennia ago "on earth peace"? The truth is that though we have a long way to go, the peoples of the earth have made progress. Not enough progress, but some. For that I am thankful this Christmastime.
At the center of the Christmas story is the birth of a baby, and with it the joy and hope every new birth brings. Peace is announced with childbirth, not with politicians, or armies of defense. Just a simple baby. The sign of the new born child is a sign of peace.
As I have been pondering peace, I have a new resolve for the year to come: simply to be peace in my little world.
A blessed Christmas to all,