Americans are not hopeful about peace on Earth. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 73 percent of American voters think the world will be less peaceful in 2018.
Racial, economic and religious tensions cause social unrest at home. Armed conflicts rage abroad – in Yemen, Ukraine and elsewhere. The threat of nuclear war with North Korea remains unresolved.
Add to this volatile mix the recently unveiled National Security Strategy of the United States. The White House policy states that the U.S. “faces an extraordinarily dangerous world.” It outlines an aggressive policy for advancing American interests and “preserving our way of life” by increasing military budgets and “defending American sovereignty without apology.”
The priority of this “America First” policy is “to protect the homeland, the American people, and the American way of life.” The goal is to exert American influence in order to promote American prosperity. This will be achieved by a doctrine of “peace through strength” that is grounded in what the White House calls “principled realism.” The policy aims to “leave our children and grandchildren with a Nation that is stronger, better, freer, prouder, and greater than ever before.”
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Jerusalem, the city of peace, has long been a site of contention.
Muscular and unapologetic American foreign policy has already ruffled feathers. Consider the American decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Global condemnation of that plan boiled over last week. The U.S. vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the plan. The U.N. General Assembly condemned it. The U.S. pledged to “take names” and retaliate for disrespect at the U.N.
The symbolism of all this at Christmas is remarkable. The very name of Jerusalem, according to one common interpretation, contains the word for peace: shalom. But the city of peace has long been a site of contention.
And so it has been since Jesus was born down the road from Jerusalem. The angels near Bethlehem sang of peace on earth, goodwill to men. But even that hymn has been subject to rival interpretations. The passage in Luke might be read as a promise of peace for all human beings. Or it might promise salvation for an elect few whom God favors.
And so it goes. Should we put our nation first, or is peace and goodwill supposed to be universally applied? That question exposes the distinction between realism and internationalism, between a strategy of national self-interest and a more universal and pacifist point of view.
This fundamental disagreement runs deep. We disagree about the best means to foster peace. We even disagree about what counts as peace.
The dispute about peace is an old story. Jesus was born into the Pax Romana – the Roman peace. The Romans celebrated the Emperor Augustus as a king of peace, an imperial god who pacified the empire. Jesus’ people experienced this as an oppressive occupation. They had a radically different idea of the peaceable kingdom and the identity of the prince of peace.
Each generation takes a turn at arguing about the dream of peace on Earth.
This difference of world views has been reiterated in various ways throughout history. Dominant powers celebrate victory as peace, while the vanquished view pacification as persecution. Realists and pacifists view life in radically divergent ways. The realist seeks to end conflict by way of conquest, conversion and control. The pacifist seeks peace in humility, mercy and love.
The Pax Romana was successful. The Roman employed a policy of “peace through strength.” Romans pacification worked well for the ruling Romans and those who collaborated with them. The rumbling of discontent was easy to ignore for an imperial power that crucified dissenters.
But in Bethlehem a different idea was born. This ideal was grounded in justice and love. Jesus and his followers seemed to suggest that love should extend beyond tribe and nation—even including the puzzling command to love your enemies.
That idea is a radical one, at odds with the wisdom of the realists who are ready to fight the enemies who range across a dangerous world. Realists believe that peace requires preparation for war and increased strength. Pacifists dream of an alternative in which the meek inherit the earth and peacemakers are called children of God.
And so it goes along the winding path that links Jerusalem to Rome and to Bethlehem. Each generation takes a turn at arguing about the dream of peace on Earth.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala