The Christmas dream of peace is more complicated than we think. Consider that well-worn phrase, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” That familiar phrase comes from a passage in Luke (2:14) that is based upon a Greek original that is puzzlingly ambiguous.
The King James version says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The New Revised Standard Version says, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
The first translation offers peace to everyone. The second only offers peace to those who are favored by God. The question created by this passage is whether our vision of peace is inclusive and cosmopolitan or whether peace is only possible among those who worship the same God.
Further questions arise when we consider what we should do to create peace. Some argue we should fight wars to produce peace. The “just war” idea stretches back through Thomas Aquinas to Augustine. Aquinas explains, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.”
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Pacifists reject that idea. They focus instead on Jesus’ claim that it is the peacemakers who are blessed. Just warriors will claim that guns can be peacemakers. But pacifists claim it is absurd to build peace by fighting war. Pacifists argue that war is harmful and destabilizing. They claim that the way to build peace is by promoting justice through strategic nonviolence.
This ancient dispute continues today. President Trump announced that we are withdrawing troops from Syria. Although he is not a pacifist, he is not a fan of extended military engagements. The hawks in congress view this as a mistake. They think that the U.S. military should be used to keep peace in the world. The pacifists point out that there must be some other way, since ongoing wars in the Middle East have still not produced peace.
A similar dynamic plays out in the debate about U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. Pacifists are appalled that we are supporting a regime that commits atrocities and a Saudi war that has devastated Yemen. Related criticism can be offered of American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere. Are we really promoting peace by invading and occupying foreign lands?
Americans continue to put our faith in military power. The United States spends more on our military than the next seven biggest spenders combined. We spend three times more than China, which is currently second in the global arms race.
Under President Trump, our defense spending has increased. But even the President admits that this is “crazy.”
From a standpoint that focuses on making war in order to build peace, this spending is justified and necessary. The just warriors argue that the U.S. should continue to grow its military in order to create peace by exerting military power. The pacifists will agree with Trump that this is crazy.
This dispute extends toward discussions of the border wall. The President has suggested using the military to build the wall. This idea makes sense from a just war standpoint. Strong borders create peace by keeping enemies out. But advocates of nonviolence imagine a different world, where walls and guns are replaced by hospitality and understanding.
The traditional Christmas nativity story seems to point in that pacifist direction. The story offers a critique of borders and centralized military power. It is Roman imperial power that forces Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem to be registered. Despite Roman military might, the magi manage to sneak into Bethlehem from the East. And when Herod begins killing children, the holy family escapes to Egypt.
This story offers a critique of the cramped and paranoid worldview of imperial power. Herod’s forces cannot destroy the newborn King. And Jesus never raises an army. Christians eventually did raise armies in the name of Christ. We continue to fight in the name of peace. But one wonders whether this is really what the shepherds in Bethlehem heard the angels singing about.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala