By Dr Donna Wyckoff-Wheeler
Peace. It was a running theme of the prophetic messages in the Old Testament that a “Prince of Peace” would come someday to rule the world.
The angels over Bethlehem announced “Peace on Earth” to the shepherds on the hillside.
“Peace,” claimed Paul from his prison cell, was a gift granted by God and left with us by Jesus. And it was available to anyone willing to accept it.
But peace – world or personal – still eludes us, and it is still part of our prayers and carols each Christmas.
If you ever watched the Miss America pageants during the 1960s and 70s, you might remember that finalists were often asked: “If you could be granted one wish this year, what would it be?” The most frequent answer was “World Peace.”
It was so inevitable that it became a cliché, and eventually a running joke in the movie Miss Congeniality (2000).
But I don’t think we’re going to get to world peace by waiting, or by wishing.
Many of us have had experiences that knocked us completely off balance – physically, emotionally, existentially, spiritually — sometimes all at once.
But a more frequent kind of life-altering experience is that phantom smack up the side of the head, or the little, mental finger-snap “ping” – when something catches your attention just enough to challenge some deep-seated, taken-for-granted part of your comfortable view of how the world does – and should – work.
Over the years, I’ve had a few of those big, shattering experiences, and a number of those smaller, “Ping” kind – and probably a lot more that I simply dismissed as being too inconvenient to think about.
I want to tell you about a few that did catch my attention and which, in one way or another, relate today’s theme of peace. I’ll use them, along with the scripture passages, to wander through the topic, and hopefully spiral in on something we can take away with us.
Background Experience: I grew up in the US during the height the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US. Between its onset in 1946 and its nominal end in 1991, the Cold War inspired a variety of responses in the US and elsewhere.
By 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis put the US – and the world – on the brink of an unbelievably destructive war, my family, like many in America had a fallout shelter in the basement of our home.
Apocalyptic books, such as Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959) had already suggested how useless such a response was, but most Americans hadn’t read it yet, and we still believed we could beat the Soviets and survive a nuclear war.
Meanwhile client states for both sides fought “proxy wars” – real battles – just off center stage – at least for the Americans and Soviets. You had them on your borders, and the “Red Threat” was part of South African political rhetoric for many years.
But the iconic center of the Cold War political impasse was The Berlin Wall, which divided the city physically, and symbolically represented a divided world.
I grew up with songs like “West of the Wall, where hearts are free” (Wayne Shanklin, 1962), and tales of daring escapes and tragic failures as people tried to get to freedom.
And I remember that day in November 1989 when the Wall came down – 28 years after it had gone up. A radio announcer said the Wall was being torn down and people were “dancing on the Berlin Wall”. Dancing? On the Wall? I started to cry. It was over; it was finally over.
Fast forward: In 2003, Tom and I had the opportunity to go to Berlin. Our host asked if there was anything we wanted to see. “The Wall,” I said; “Where it was.”
He took us to the Brandenburg Gate. We parked a short distance away and he walked quickly toward the Gate, and then stopped, abruptly, and pointed down. “Here!” he said. “Here is where the Wall was.”
I looked down. Embedded in the asphalt pavement of the street was a double row of paving bricks, curving off in both directions.
A double row of paving bricks? The existential jolt almost knocked me off my feet.
A double row of paving bricks?! I felt a little cheated, as though there should have been something more substantial, something more solid and dignified left to represent all the psychological and emotional horror that had shadowed my life for so many years.
The Wall had been the embodiment of all those opposing and intransient US-Soviet interests that had shaped the American consciousness and our perspective of the world for two generations.
Our host said there were a few sections of the Wall in a couple some museums around town; but souvenir hunters had made short work of the rest.
I wondered whether a large section of the Wall should have been left in place as a reminder of the stupidity and futility of the intolerance that had divided the city and brought so much destruction onto it and into the world.
Cars drive casually over the bricks now; people walk nonchalantly across the former barrier. No physical evidence remains that the city was ever divided.
But years of indoctrination are harder to eradicate.
Fast forward another 10 years. I was in Checkers one day, and picked up a can of something. I immediately flipped to the back label, as usual, to check for any of the ingredients I’m allergic to and noticed the item was “A product of Russia.” “Oooh, we don’t buy that,” I thought as I hastily put the can back on the shelf.
And then. Ping. Wait a minute. Hadn’t I learned anything from that experience in Berlin? Why shouldn’t I wish all those growers and packers and shippers the same kinds of “prosperity” I wanted for myself just because they were Russians?
My new version of “peace” was too much like that envisioned by many of the Old Testament prophets, who were writing in times of conflict and hoping for a “Prince of Peace” who would support and protect Israel and defend its people against their enemies – which is a pretty narrow and self-interested version of “Peace on Earth.”
Even Isaiah’s message begins there. But it then moves on into something more mystical – God would one day take direct control of humanity and inaugurate a world-wide peace beyond anything an earthly king could achieve. Ultimately, Isaiah’s “Prince of Peace” would usher in and rule over an ideal “Kingdom”. There was hope at least of “peace” – someday.
It was a visionary message, but Gospel writers would later claim it pointed directly toward Jesus; he would be the Prince of Peace. Jesus, however, brought the message down out of the clouds and planted it firmly back into the ground of human existence, saying, if you want peace of earth, then grow it through your actions and interactions with others.
2018. I spent September and October this year in Columbus, Ohio. It was just before the US mid-term elections. Ohio is what one person described as a “purple” state – not a blue Democrat party state or a Republican red one, but so mixed it can swing national elections either way. This is quite evident in the political signs posted in front gardens for everyone to see. (Remember, no walls.) You can tell the political affiliations of the inhabitants simply by walking down the street: Republican, Democrat, Republican, Independent, Democrat, Libertarian, Republican . . . .
But Columbus – a tiny city by world standards with just over two million people in the sprawling metropolitan area – is also highly diverse.
It has a large LGBT community. It is religiously mixed, with a large number of Muslims, Hindus and others, in addition to the familiar variations of Judaism and Christianity.
This city is ethnically diverse and growing more so; recent statistics found that about 80% its newest residents were foreign-born.
Fifteen percent of the city’s population speaks a language other than English: Spanish, Chinese, Laotian, Tagalog, Russian, Hungarian, Urdu, Thai and Vietnamese, among others.
An unusually high number of residents speak an African language as their mother-tongue.
This year a new kind of placard was showing up. And it was one of those “Oh! Wow!” “Yes!” kinds of experiences.
These individuals took a public stance against President Trump’s xenophobic paranoia and its applications.
It is not without risk. The foreign-born new-comers to the city (legal or otherwise) are getting a lot of attention and sympathy.
The largest number of people living below the poverty line in the city, however, are white – their ancestors came to the US generations ago, and they now feel left behind and ignored. Many voted for Trump, and support his policies.
Luke’s account of the Angel’s visitation to the shepherds is worth considering at this point. (Luke 2:12-16).
I grew up with “Peace on Earth; Good will to men.” Or sometimes even ‘Peace on Earth; Good will to all.”
But some translations imply or insist that this message does not refer to “peace” as much as we’d like to think, and that the benefits are limited only to some.
Even the New Revised Standard Version – the translation we most often use for worship – reads:
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”]
The Living Bible is more vivid:
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others – the armies of heaven – praising God:
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they sang, “and peace on earth for all those pleasing him.”
Which is why we read the King James Version earlier: “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace / good will toward men.”
If our hopes and prayers are not for “peace” for all those who inhabit the earth, is it really “peace on earth” we are wishing and praying for?
Last year, as I drove home from church one evening close to Christmas – feeling a little blue (it was not my best Christmas), I saw a woman hurrying home through the gathering dark. She looked as though she’d put in a long day somewhere and just wanted to get home. All I could think of was another old phrase – now often also said just a cliché or joke. But I offered it as a prayer as I looked at her: “God bless us, every one.”
Something happened. Not a “jolt,” not even a “ping” – more like a “glow”. It was as though the air lightened around her and she came into sharper focus.
I said those words again and again over the next few days – asking blessing on store clerks, car guards, men dragging those recycling carts I have to dodge around on the roads, and yes even on a few taxi drivers.
Every time, they seemed changed somehow. Or maybe it was only my perception of them. Perhaps we were “all”, indeed, blessed.
So how do we get to “world peace”? One person, one blessing, one change of mind set and heart at a time, one action at a time – staring with ourselves.
We do it by rethinking and resisting destructive worldviews, and jingoistic rhetoric that serves special interests at the expense of others for political advantage.
- We must tear down the shrines we have built to divisiveness;
- instill fewer prejudices and fears in our children;
- confront evil, but not demonize those we do not agree with; and
- counter negativity and fear – with hope and reconciliation.
We need to act, and sometimes even take risks. There is something each of us can do.
We can set standards and hold people to account for their actions; invest in / and buy from corporations that behave ethically and work to change the world for good.
We can act justly, and support sustainable prosperity for all, even while we try to alleviate some of the poverty and needs around us. People are more likely to be interested in getting along with each other if they aren’t worried about where their next meal is coming from. Ordinary, everyday prosperity is good for World Peace.
And we can pray.
We pray for our continent every Sunday. What if we prayed for a specific country or ethnic group – and added a line about well-being? Something like:
“God bless, Zimbabwe. Guide her leaders; guard her people, grant them prosperity; and give them peace.”
Pick a country; learn more about it; then pray for its people for a month. Don’t dismiss those nations you consider “well-off” – they need God’s help, too. And if you find yourself hesitating to pray for a certain country, ask yourself “why?”
And while we are waiting and praying and working, let us remember Paul’s message in Philippians.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” and keep the larger picture firmly in mind.
We know the Prophetic promise has come to pass. God is with us – incarnate in all the world – and nothing can separate us from God’s love and presence.
The “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” – that internal assurance of God’s support and blessing which will “guard our hearts and our minds” – which will strengthen and sustain us as we work for “world peace” – is available for the asking; we need only accept it.
And may World Peace become reality for us all at last.
Donna Wyckoff-Wheeler, PhD
Johannesburg, 23 December 2018
Information about Columbus, Ohio, was gathered from various websites, but in particular: http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/columbus-population/
My thanks to my daughter-in-Law, Tara Narcross Wyckoff, for identifying the language on the “welcome here” signs and providing extra examples.
Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7. December 6, 2018, by Bruce Epperly. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2018/12/the-adventurous-lectionary-third-sunday-of-advent-december-16-2018/
There is a wonderful hymn written by Jill Jackson / Sy Miller, which I hope we can all sing someday. It begins: “Let there be peace on earth; And let it begin with me.” I highly recommend the YouTube version performed for Pope Francis in 2015 at Ground Zero in New York City.
 Songwriters: Jill Jackson / Sy Miller. Let There Be Peace on Earth lyrics © Mccg LLC