peace on earth


And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. — Luke 2.14 (KJV)

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. –– Romans 12.18 (ESV)

One acts as a benediction; the other a qualified mandate. Both use the same root word–εἰρήνη, eirene–and that word has retained its meaning even in [infrequent] modern use: irenic. Peace.

The angels use a triplet, a common ancient literary device linking ideas:

1 – Glory to God in the highest

2 – on earth, peace;

3 – good will toward humanity.

The first idea is the core idea; both subsequent propositions can exist singularly underneath it. ‘Glory to God most high [Lukan, gentile language to be sure, as well as an added bonus of implied polytheism], thus peace on earth’ and ‘Glory to God most high, good will to humanity’ are both fine ideas–harmony between nations and peoples is a good thing and, for religious people like me, ascribes worth to God. [Also implied in this triplicate is free will. Calvinus delenda est.]

The subsequent ideas are within the triplicate, though, meaning that they have a relationship to one another. ‘Peace on earth’ and ‘good will toward humanity’ are combined. It is here where the words really matter. Peace, eirene, is typically used as a contrast to war; in ancient sources, the word and its derivations are regularly used in terms of a peace treaty, or the peace that comes after war, conflict, tension–all things that would speak very much to the social location of Antiquity….Luke’s time…our time…

And then, the real kicker: ‘good will to humanity’. Not only is the benediction to end strife, but to act civilly, with good faith, toward one another. Even the angels and Luke recognize that the mere avoidance of violence, conflict or strife is neither presence of peace nor an extension of good will to another person, much less God-honoring.

Then there’s this sage advice from Paul, wisdom that has been a challenge to me for the past month or so. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 

Most obviously implied here is that there are situations where it simply is not possible to live in harmony with other people, and that there is an appropriate state of affairs when it is necessary to engage. This is consonant with the Ecclesiastes preacher–to everything, a season–and thus, clearly understood by an audience of early Roman Jewish converts. Some libertarians might view this as axiomatic toward the principle of non-aggression. Certainly the language is unambiguous in its assertion of agency.

If possible, so far as it depends on you… 

[Twice over!]

The mandate, though, is equally unambiguous in its aim: …live peaceably with all. Pick your battles, but don’t hesitate when it comes time to fight. When it’s not time to fight, don’t fight. In fact, do the opposite. Show kindness. Good will, even.

Both aggression and pacifism are too often default positions: they become easy fall-backs for people who ultimately prefer to not engage in the messy tedium of conscience. For the battle-tested, it is all too easy to kick right in to war-mode, ready to obliterate. For the peace-monger, it is equally expeditious to merely stand by or walk away, anything to avoid the tension. Neither honors Paul’s admonition, both honor one’s self, which is to say the action is not honorable at all.

It is not hypocritical for the pacifist to fight or the aggressor to stand aside; it is, rather, human. Ideology is the province of the perpetually self-sidelined, anyway. That said, there is a season for both. Seasons come, seasons go.

The wise person recognizes this, reads the signs, and moves toward Bethlehem, where shepherds and magi alike are equal before a most remarkable child. Eirene on earth, good will to humanity. As far as it is within your capacity, live eirene with all.

Happy Christmas week, everyone.

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