The refrain for the Christmas season is “peace on earth,” but this vision often seems confined to the realm of angels. On earth, the dreary round of violence by individuals and nations continues. The light of the angels’ song of peace in Luke 2:14 illuminates the messy realities of earth.

Not only Christians, but also adherents of all the world’s religions feel this discontinuity between religious ideals of peace and the reality of the world’s strife. The world religions all project an ideal of peace:

–Buddhists advocate cultivating a compassion (metta) that extends to all creatures. Anthony Flanagan writes: “Through establishing loving-kindness, individuals are able to extend good will to all other beings, wishing them well whoever they are. In its purest expression, it is indiscriminate, encompassing all beings, even those who do us wrong.”

–A central concept to Hindus and Jains is ahimsa, often translated as “non-violence.” Bradley J. Hawkins describes this as “the radical expression of compassionate love as manifested in the complete avoidance of causing harm to anything.”

–The very names Islam and Muslim are rooted in the word “salama” or peace. The Quran says: “But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace and trust in God.” (Quran 8:61)

–Jews offer the blessing of “shalom” or peace, a major theme of the Hebrew Bible.  Shalom is more than the absence of conflict, it is the presence of wholeness and completeness in life. Aviezer Ravitzky says: “Shalom primarily signifies a value, an ethical category–it denotes the overcoming of strife, quarrel, and social tension, the prevention of enmity and war. …The pursuit of peace is the obligation of the individual and the goal of various social regulations and structures.”

–Sihh’s look to the peaceful example of founder Guru Nanak, who wrote the following hymn:
No one is my enemy/No one is a foreigner. With all I am at peace/God within us renders us/Incapable of hate and prejudice.

–Christians follow the example of Jesus who said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Ironically, the world’s religions have also contributed to violence and war. Hans Kung wrote pointedly: “There can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.” Religion has served as an ideology for persecution, terrorism and conflict.

I was vividly reminded of this fact while teaching a class on the history of the Christian church. That history includes heresy-hunting, Crusades, and the intermingling of church and raw secular power. Christians have been cleverly cruel in harming other Christians, as well as Jews, Muslims and others. For example, heretics were burned with horrific twists such as using green wood to make the fire blaze slower, or adding a sulfur-coated headband. Each religion could add its own unique litany of abuse.

This discontinuity between the ideal of peace and conflictive reality can be either a source of cynicism or a challenge to the adherents of the world’s religions. No grand gesture can eliminate deep-seated and systemic violence. Peace can only be a reality through the efforts of each religion’s adherents to live out their ideals in the real world. For believers in the ideal of peace in the world’s religions, this calls for brutal honesty about where they fall short, where they have sold out to ideology, and where they paste a patina of peace over their own vested interests.

In 1991 I was struck by photos of oil wells burning in Kuwait. I wrote the following hymn, entitled “Waiting,” about the discontinuity of that acrid burning following a season of angel song.

See, the universe lies waiting
‘Till God’s promised realm appears.
Listen to creation groaning
For an end to grinding fears;
Crying for a world of freedom
From the tyranny of tears.

Look, the battle lines are forming,
Smell the blaze of war’s burning.
Weep as children of each country
Hate and rage now are learning.
Come restore us, come restore us,
Hope of hurting hearts’ yearning.

Heed the vision sparkling o’er us,
Hear good tidings told to all;
Word of God explodes our darkness
With a carol’s glistening call:
“God, to you be highest glory,
and on earth, shalom to all!”

James C. Browning is assistant professor of religion at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky.

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