We hear the words “Peace on Earth” a lot during the Christmas season. “World Peace” tops my Christmas list every year, but so far Santa Claus hasn’t been able to fit it down my chimney. Wouldn’t it be special if in the coming year, 2014, our President actually decided to do as John Lennon suggested and “Give Peace a Chance?”
I’m not talking about a peace that includes leaving soldiers, consultants, and heavy artillery in countries for decades as we are proposing for Afghanistan. I’m not talking about a peace that includes threats of “strategic targeting” if another country’s leadership doesn’t adhere to our demands such as last year’s debacle in Syria. I’m not talking about a peace that necessitates an ever increasing military budget that takes critical dollars away from education, social programs, and rebuilding our infrastructure. I’m not talking about peace that requires an intelligence-gathering policy that treats each and every citizen as a “national security threat.” I’m talking a different kind of peace — a peace that requires courage, an understanding of history, and a willingness to buck decades of momentum and conventional wisdom.
Barack Obama has just three years to cement his legacy as President. With no more elections in his future, President Obama can in fact affect change without the approval of Congress or the elite who control our politics. He can change our country and the world’s future by recognizing and acknowledging the one simple lesson from history that we humans just can’t seem to get. Lasting peace is never obtained by victory on the battlefield, with military threats, political oppression, or imposing one’s will on another country. Peace comes only through justice – justice in our hearts and in our every action.
In their recent book, The First Christmas, authors Marcus Borg and John Crossan take us back to that first Christmas and a world dominated by another empire, Rome. They explain how Rome attempted to impose its peace on the world – a peace through victory, a peace through war, a peace through intimidation. Sound familiar? They go on to contrast that policy to an alternative vision for peace on earth – a vision represented by the historical Jesus and the writers of the New Testament — a peace through justice. They conclude we were meant to be changed by Christmas, and that Christmas is about a new world – the end of an era of war, injustice, violence and oppression and that we are to participate in bringing about the world promised by Christmas.
They are hardly the first scholars to draw an analogy between Rome and the modern United States. But it is worth noting that these days many political conservatives actually celebrate our status as the world’s “police force” or “peacekeeper,” and it is not unusual to hear politicians use terms such as our “rightful place” to describe our role in the world. We may not be about territorial acquisition like the Romans, but you’d have to have your head in the sand not to recognize how we use superior military muscle, political and economic power to shape the world as we deem fit and proper. In this sense, we are the new Rome.
President Obama isn’t the first president to have been seduced by the military-industrial complex. Nor was he President at the beginning of the last decade when we allowed ourselves to be led by fear – fear of terrorism, fear of people and ideas that come nowhere close to our shores, and fear of the unknown. We allowed our leaders to calm those fears by trampling on our privacy, waging war in the name of national security, and bankrupting our country by building a military force that is very good at mass destruction and invasion, but quickly loses steam when it tries to govern a people that do not appreciate or want our presence. We are making the same mistake every empire makes – trying through intimidation and fear to impose our values on other nations and justifying our conduct by calling it peace. We have become what we fear and despise in other countries and peoples throughout history. President Obama didn’t start any of this, but that doesn’t mean he should expand its scope or that he shouldn’t now call a halt. After all, he was elected twice to “change” this country’s direction. This is the most important promise he has made, and it is time he fulfilled it.
New years are for new beginnings, and we are sorely in need of exactly that. President Obama, you can bring us change by fulfilling your responsibilities. You can establish your legacy by bringing our troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq not ten years from now, but now. Right now you can begin a process to dismantle our war machine and the intelligence network that spies on our allies and our own citizens. “How can we do that?” you ask. Without our presence and diligence, won’t the bad guys swoop in and take over? Authentic change isn’t easy, and won’t come without cost. (Think of your New Year’s diet plan!) But remember history’s lesson: oppression always loses in the end. The human spirit’s quest for justice never dies, and our country should begin to lead by policies of compassion and care toward our own citizens and those of other nations, not by use of military power, threats, or intimidation.
You may be scoffing by now, believing me to be incredibly na√Øve. But consider this: each year at Christmastime, both believers and non-believers of every political stripe encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus. Even as adults, we want to believe in the Spirit of Christmas and “Peace on Earth.” Most of us want to believe in something better and greater than the reality of war, hatred, bigotry, and greed. That’s why we read about the saints, admire people whose faith seems unshakeable, and gravitate toward words, music, and ritual that enforce our ideals. No matter how many attacks of logic, evidence to the contrary, and tragedies, most of us still have faith in the good in each and every human being.
Christmas day represents the day when an “alternative peace” was given to the world. An alternative to “Pax Romana” was born. It is time that kind of peace had its chance. We have had far too much of “peace through victory.”