“Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all People”


THIS, we’re told, was the message from that gang of angels who’d booked the best seats in the house for the spectacular Christmas Show at Bethlehem. It reminds me of one of today’s often heard phrases – ‘a religion of peace’.

I have a nagging feeling that this is a claim that can’t possibly be, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. All the world’s major religions have foundational texts which they regard as being ‘authoritative’, even as having been divinely written, dictated or otherwise ‘inspired’. On the face of it, however, none of these divine authors, or ‘dictators’, seem to me to have done a consistently peace-worthy job. 

In general, their efforts combine occasional illumination and insight with as much inconsistency and contradiction. For the receptive and unprejudiced reader, inspiration and consternation are likely to alternate. The reason for this, I’m persuaded, is that these various texts are in fact products of the amazingly diverse, and sometimes alarmingly perverse, human imagination.

In particular, we have, in the Old Testament, images of love, harmony and peace in which “wolves and sheep will live together .. and little children will take care of them.” We’re told that “nations will never again go to war .. everyone will live in peace”. Now that’s most encouraging. Unfortunately, it sits side by side with sharply contrasting images of hate, violence and warfare, in which the divine command, (disobeying which would be a very big mistake), is to take no prisoners, but to “kill everyone, men and women, young and old.” There is even the shockingly unacceptable claim that, “happy are those who take babies and smash them against a rock”. 

In the New Testament, the Jesus who tells us to love not only our ‘neighbours’ but our enemies as well, is also reported as saying, “I did not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword”.

It seems to me that it would be just as valid to talk about ‘religions of conflict’ as about ‘religions of peace’. A better approach is surely to acknowledge that religions are what people read into them, and take from them. What is certainly true, is that there are ‘people of peace’, who will filter out, and reject, what is cruel, intolerant and bloodthirsty, and value and promote what is compassionate, respectful and loving. Sadly, of course, there will inevitably also be ‘people of hate’, who will major on aggressiveness, vengefulness and bloodshed, and who will obey imagined ‘instructions’ from gods made in their own twisted image.

Whatever our religion is, or isn’t, let’s focus less on talking about ‘religions of peace’, and focus more on being ‘people of peace’. If we are religious, we should follow only the very best and most constructive that our religion has to offer. And we shouldn’t single out and attack specific religions – what’s described above is common to all. Let’s value, and voice support for, all ‘people of peace’, whoever or whatever they may be. They are the ones who offer the best hope for any possibility of a more tolerant, harmonious, stable and peaceful world.

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