Peace on earth, goodwill to those of goodwill

This Christmas season, it is instructive to note the divergent translations of a key phrase in the New Testament story of Christmas – often said to express the essence of the real meaning of the season – basically between “peace on Earth, goodwill to those of goodwill” and “peace on Earth, goodwill towards all”. The latter translation, derived from the King James Bible, is actually a mistranslation of a passage which literally reads “peace on Earth to those who are of the tribe of the Lamb.” The form noted in the title (“goodwill to those of goodwill”) is already a less-exclusive version of what is written in ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament. Nevertheless, the two contrasting versions are a good basis for distinguishing between two quite different moral stances.

The first view could be characterized as being the more realistic one. A person can only extend “goodwill” to those who wish him or her well, or at least are not hostile. The benediction of Christmas, in the first version, is extended only to those who mutually approach each other with “good intentions.”

It could be argued that the second view, while idealistic, is impractical and unrealistic. If one looks at it closely, it appears to suggest that persons should have a positive attitude to everyone regardless of their good or bad intentions or actions. Though perhaps the most self-abnegating kind of Christian could achieve this sort of attitude, it is also commonly understood in Christianity that such a stance is the preserve of individual saints and martyrs, a special gift from God. It is certainly a highly difficult way to practically carry out relations in society, or relations between societies.

It has often been argued that contemporary liberalism is simply secularized Christianity. Indeed, the phrase “goodwill towards all men” has been (until very recent times) repeated very often during the Christmas season. However, the use of this phrase in a secular context, and as a general dictum for relations in society, and relations between societies, is rather questionable.

“Goodwill” is not something that can or should be extended to a figure like Paul Bernardo or ruthless terrorists. We are quite properly outraged by their crimes, and quite properly refuse to extend our feelings of goodwill and sympathy towards them. We are not enjoined to extend our goodwill and sympathy to persons who are filled with hatred towards us. And, in the realm of historical judgements and relations between societies, we are not required to extend goodwill and sympathy to genocidal tyrants or regimes.

It could be argued that Christianity in the current-day West is increasingly facing a situation reminiscent in some ways of the Christian predicament in pagan ancient Rome – where it was difficult for good Christians to be “loyal citizens.” There are so many arrangements in late modern societies that contrive to banish conscientious, believing Christians to the margins. For example, there are the current-day social commands of abortion-on-demand, contraception-on-demand, sex education in the schools, monitoring of parents by social workers, and the all-out assault (across virtually every level and dimension of society) against alleged “sexism” and “homophobia” – all of which Christians who take their religion seriously must find troubling to enthusiastically consent to. To express the slightest reservations about these late modern tendencies often leads to extensive social and professional ostracism. It could be argued that sincere Christians must lean towards greater militancy and care for “one’s own” – rather than “loving their enemies” – enemies who, unlike the ancient Romans, are so deeply cynical as to be unimpressed by the heroics of martyrdom. Actually, the late modern activists consider themselves to be the persecuted martyrs. Today, indeed, what are sometimes the most decayed persons are arrayed in the protective armour of their own sense of “moral righteousness.” And it is often traditional Christianity that is routinely considered absolutely “evil.” How must believing Christians feel about living in such a society?

Can it be assumed that people in general are almost exclusively creatures of goodness, possessing no hatred, ill-will, or disdain for their fellow human beings? What happens to a society that generally adopts a conciliatory attitude, when it is surrounded by apparently hostile forces? What happens to a society where one part of society wholeheartedly adopts an attitude of general goodwill, while at the same time another part of society is striving to undermine the former part?

The stance of “goodwill towards all” is practically demanded today from the so-called Canadian mainstream, from the silent (and silenced) majority. Can it be assumed, however, that all non-Christians are in fact friendly to Christianity? Can it be assumed that no persons, political groupings, or regimes in the world ardently wish for the utter oblivion of Canada, the West, and so-called Western mainstream values?

In fact, it could be argued that the idea of “goodwill to those of goodwill” is a great moral achievement. In the contemporary social context such a concept removes the required acceptance by the Canadian mainstream of the demands of anti-mainstream forces – where they are manifestly excessive or hostile – while also removing the necessity for believing that persons in these “new social movements” are always angelic figures, who can literally “do no wrong.”

At the same time, the idea of “goodwill to those of goodwill” is deeply nonsexist, nonracist, etc. It presupposes that, regardless of a person’s differing race, nationality, religion, gender, and so forth – he or she can be considered a person to whom goodwill and sympathy can be extended, based on their inherent moral characteristics – “the content of their character.” The carrying out of meaningful public conversations and debate in society seems to require that persons mutually approach each other with a substantial degree of goodwill and good intentions.

Unfortunately, it appears that our society has seen a regression to the most blatant sort of identity politics among various groupings critical of mainstream culture, along with the virtual dissolution of any kind of stable, enduring mainstream identities.

It could be argued that the new identity politics have undermined the painstakingly won victories of the Western moral heritage over the crudest kinds of power-driven self-interest. These groupings could be seen as the latter-day equivalents of freebooting medieval barons and their armed retinues, who need to be reined in by the ethos of equality before and under the law for everyone. As these groupings strive to construct ever more extensive and publicly unassailable systems of preference and privilege, many truly fundamental freedoms and rights are increasingly undermined or obscured.

Widely held, unrealistic assumptions about the general goodness of human nature (when, on an almost daily basis, it can be seen that true goodness is the exception rather than the norm) can only lead to the wholesale disintegration of social and civil living.

“Peace on earth – goodwill to those of goodwill,” indeed.

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