Christmas 2023: Why is Peace so elusive?
With apologies to Charles Dickens and a Christmas Carol
Christmas is an idea, a very large idea, it is captured in stories that shape our imagination and in consequence – the way we live. Sadly, the original idea is proving too big for the reductionist world most of us inhabit. Yes, we live reduced lives. Why, because we primarily measure worth by what can be bought and sold, and by its usefulness to ourselves. Hence, for most, Christmas is a commercial experience, rather than a festival of life and its connectedness.
The American president, Calvin Coolidge, said: Christmas is not a time or season but a state of mind. Clearly most of the world has had something else on its mind in 2023, nothing to do with living the spirit of Christmas. 2023 can hardly go down in history as humanity at it best.
The original ‘idea’ embedded in Christmas is that the divine inhabits human space and living. Christ was born. Sacred is all around. We encounter angels unaware. We look in the face of another and are in awe of their spirit which enriches our own. We walk in the forest, climb a mountain, swim in the ocean, dig in the garden and know there is a connectedness we must embrace. We all have the capacity to encounter the human face of God if only we have the eyes to see and desire to know. Can we see differently?
Ebenezer Scrooge infamously saw differently after he had encountered the ghosts of his deceased, equally miserable, business partner, Jacob Marley. Dickens, distressed with the direction society was taking, played with the story of Dives and Lazarus. Let us do the same, albeit in the context of 2023.
The ghost of Christmas past.
One hundred years ago the “Little Town of Bethlehem” experienced no walls and no separation. Boys and girls played happily in the streets, and shepherds cared for their flocks on the hills surrounding the town. The boys and girls were Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. They were Arabs and Semites. Their differences enriched one another. They honoured each other’s sacred places and traditions. Then from afar came an ‘idea’ of separation, of exclusivity, of particularity, that preferenced one over the other. This preferencing soon meant the ‘others’ were squeezed out. The others were Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. The newcomers, mainly from Europe, Russia and the US brought with them biases, prejudices, and wounds from their immediate and distant past, and inflicted them on the indigenous people of the land.
Unsurprisingly, the indigenous people, the Palestinians, were forced into an ‘idea’ they had not needed before - resistance. This idea caused them further grief, walls fenced them in, and foreign military controlled every aspect of their lives. As they increasingly felt unable to breathe, resistance grew into violence and the idea became Hamas.
The newcomers, the illegal settlers, seek to wipe ‘Hamas’ from the face of the earth. They simply do not get it. The more Palestinians are crushed, the more the idea of violent resistance becomes inevitable. October 7 was contemptible, But the contemptible killing of thousands of Gazans is not crushing the idea known as ‘Hamas’, the ‘Hamas’ idea is now even more popular amongst Palestinians, the Israeli defence forces are cutting off its visible branches, while ensuring the roots grow stronger, wider, and more embittered. Netanyahu says peace can only come when Hamas is crushed. The truth is: peace can only come when the reason for Hamas, - occupation – is no more.
It is never too late to revisit the past and make it the present. When the walls disappear, respect and dignity is given and received, peace will once more be experienced for Muslim, for Jew and for Christian.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
The three Kings, or three Sages of Christmas are well known in every city, town, village and hamlet across Russia and Ukraine. This is the territory of Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christmas celebrates the coming of the Wise Men, the feast of Epiphany, January 6. It is also St Nicholas country where gifts are generously shared; red hats, sleighs, singing, and snow abound.
There were three very special gifts in the saddle bags of the original travellers to Bethlehem.
In reverse order, the first gift was myrrh. The gift indicated the Bethlehem baby would suffer greatly on behalf of others. In today’s Russia and Ukraine, the suffering is not of this kind, it is largely self-inflicted. It need not be. Both sides have suffered unbearably. A way should have been found to safeguard Ukrainian identity and sovereignty, while recognising and valuing its Russian links.
We are all children of our past. The conflict was started by Russia. However, Russians are justified in remembering assaults on their territory from Europe – Napoleon and Hitler to name the most obvious. The West (NATO) has not done enough to recognise Russia’s sense of threat. Because NATO sees itself as a defensive collaboration, it does not mean the other side sees it the same way,
The second gift was frankincense, indicating the divine nature of the Christ child. In his presence all divides are bridged: male and female, West and East, Russian and Ukrainian. But divides remain stubbornly embraced. Sadly, we live in a dangerous world of nationalism. National identities are competitive. Nationalism as distinct from patriotism will be the cause of most violence and conflict in the 21st century.
The third gift was gold. The Bethlehem recipient turned the idea of kingship or sovereignty on its head, from power and control to servanthood and hospitality. Zelensky, and Putin must give up ideas of military triumph and devote attention to a peaceful, free, and prosperous solution for battle-weary peoples.
The Ghost of Christmases to come.
Britain’s favourite hymn is William Blake’s Jerusalem. Aghast by the dirt and poverty of Britain’s industrialisation, Blake pondered whether the feet of Jesus had ever traversed those green and pleasant lands. Industrialization made the few rich on the labours of the many: it forged national identities. Its benefits required cooperation beyond tribal rivalries. This cooperation was based on the rule of law.
Now, we might say that industrialisation has been too successful. Cooperation, necessary to safeguard peace, justice, and a sustainable planet urgently requires international cooperation, (not national ambition) enforceable by international law. So far there is little sign that rampant nationalism on the part of major and middle powers is going to permit such cooperation.
The birth of Jesus signals a new world order. Unless nations grasp there is only one world, one earth, and that we must all serve it rather than seek to control it, the future is bleak. And yet…and yet
How silently, how silently
The wondrous Gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him still
The dear Christ enters in