The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail

In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called “Christmas Bells.” An abbreviated version of the poem was set to music and became the familiar Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Long one of my favorite Christmas carols because of the lyrics, the poem feels particularly poignant and relevant this year. (Listen to one of many versions of the carol.)

When Longfellow wrote the poem, the Civil War was raging, and the Christmas message of “peace on earth, goodwill to all” must have seemed like something of a bad joke. In addition to the horrific carnage and enmity even among families on both sides of the conflict of the Civil War, Longfellow experienced personal tragedy as well: his wife died in a fire and his son Charles was severely wounded while fighting with the Union army. (You can read more about the history of the poem here.) While I haven’t had personal tragedies this year as Longfellow had, I feel like the world has gone mad and I can’t help wondering how we can with integrity sing about the angels’ message of peace and goodwill when all around us is violence and killing, hatred, xenophobia, racism, and discrimination.

Here’s the poem, interspersed with some commentary:

“Christmas Bells”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

These first three stanzas present the greeting-card picture of Christmas, with carols, bells, and everyone coming together to sing the song the angels sang to the shepherds the night Jesus was born: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Words and phrases in the poem like “old,” “familiar,” “words repeat,” “unbroken song,” and “world revolved from night to day” all suggest the welcome annual ritual of celebrating the birth of Christ and they remind us of what we are celebrating. You can almost hear church bells all around the world peeling out their carols in “unbroken song,” filling the air with unending beautiful music.

But then come the two stanzas that were cut from the Christmas carol version of the poem:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered from the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned/Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

These stanzas are a clear reference to the Civil War, with families all over the country “forlorn” from the damage done by the war, and cannons drowning out the sound of the bells and their message. The poem continues:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on Earth, “ I said:
“For Hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, goodwill to men!”

I feel that despair this year. Hate seems particularly strong, and mocks the message of peace. Since I wrote “On Not Giving In to Fear” less than two weeks ago, after the Paris attacks and in the wake of hateful rhetoric being directed against Syrian refugees, there has been more violence in Colorado, San Bernadino, and other places, and even more hateful rhetoric. The president of a prominent Christian college called for all his students to arm themselves to fight off “those Muslims”; another prominent Christian said that “no Muslims should be allowed into this country until there’s a process in place to fully vet them”; the leading Republican presidential candidate announced his intent to bar Muslims from entering the U.S.; and another presidential candidate called for “carpet-bombing them [ISIS] into oblivion,” which couldn’t help but cause mass casualties of innocent civilians.

For me, perhaps the most frustrating and saddest thing is that a significant percentage of potential voters – ordinary nice people, some of whom probably go to church with me – are cheering on and supporting this kind of rhetoric. They all claim to be Christian (after all, the leading presidential candidate who spouts the most reprehensible ideas said that the Bible is his favorite book), but they don’t speak for me and they don’t seem to be paying much attention to the Jesus who told us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, welcome the stranger; who reprimanded Peter for defending him by cutting off a soldier’s ear; and who told us not to be “afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”

Here we are, about to celebrate the birth of that Jesus. We’ll happily sing Christmas carols that speak of “peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconciled,” revel in the “silent night” when the baby Jesus “sleeps in heavenly peace,” all the while being oblivious to how our words and actions belie the Prince of Peace whose birth we celebrate. I find myself in tears as I imagine how this hateful rhetoric must sound to Muslims and others. No wonder they hate us; no wonder some people refuse to have anything to do with Christianity. While I understand some (but certainly not all) of the anger and fear that is at the root of much of what is happening and being said here in the U.S., so much of it feels so very wrong, dangerous, and bordering on the same kind of extremism that is motivating unspeakable acts of barbarism and terrorism by other religious extremists. There is something profoundly unChristian going on, it doesn’t help our witness in the world, and I grieve deeply.*

This is why I really need the last stanza of Longfellow’s poem during this particular Advent and Christmas season, which does not leave us in despair but resoundingly reminds us of the long view of history and of our faith that somehow, the wrong will fail, the right will prevail, and there will be peace on earth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on Earth, goodwill to men!

 

*As I wrote this, I realized that my own attitude toward those who are espousing ideas, beliefs, and practices that are antithetical to what I believe is right and good is not always as loving and kind as it should be. I don’t think that means I should not speak out and confront that which is so wrong, hateful and unChristian, but it does mean I always need to do so in a way that reflects this core value of my faith and my church: “We value all human life, and promote understanding, forgiveness, reconciliation, and nonviolent resolution of conflict.”

 

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3 thoughts on “The Wrong Shall Fail, the Right Prevail

  1. Thank you, Harriet. I appreciate especially the closing comment — it is unnervingly easy to transition into hating as we fight against hatred. Which is a sign that we are forgetting how to love. Love and peace are not easy fuzzy emotions, but difficult actions based on deep faith in and trust in the Prince of Peace.

  2. Our pastor has been reminding us, in his sermons, that the message of Christmas was “FEAR NOT.” Indeed, a potent and needed reminder in these days of such horrific troubles. Fear not.

  3. Pingback: Post-Election Angst – Pieces of Peace

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