COMMENTARY: Peace at Christmas?

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ There is a certain irony in listening to Handel’s Messiah at Christmas time. The music proclaims the coming of the Prince of Peace. But where is the peace? Humans speak of peace, but there is no peace.

Take David Trimble, the Northern Ireland Protestant leader who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Peace? He’s done everything possible to frustrate the Good Friday peace agreement for which he was honored.

He has no more right to the prize now than would Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, who has broken every agreement the United States has won from him. Both men would rather maintain their own power and the dominance of their own peoples than accept the necessary compromises for peace.

So remarkable opportunities for peace slip away, as do the days of this century. Trimble blames the Catholic Irish Republican Army for damaging the peace. Netanyahu blames the Palestinian Authority. Neither seems to realize that the dominant power must take the first steps towards compromise.

Both, in fact, appeal to the worst in their own people.

The apparent failure of peace in Ireland and Israel seems this Christmas paradigmatic of the human condition. Just as the Euro monetary system is about to bind much of the European continent together in a peaceful union, Great Britain still refuses to become part of the common currency _ though it would give it an enormous economic advantage _ and Germany’s new government begins to make disturbing nationalist sounds.

Peace, peace! Women and men talk of peace, but there is no peace.

Ah, the churches say, the problem is that no one listens to us. If they did, there would be peace at the time of the coming of the Prince of Peace and at every other time, too.

In fact, it is the religious political parties in Israel and the most religious Muslims who tear the peace apart. Similarly in Ireland, the most devout Protestants and the most dedicated Catholics are the ones who threaten peace the most.

Nor are the denominations themselves paragons of peacefulness and understanding. My own offends Jews by canonizing a woman whom Jews consider, not without some reason, to be an apostate and by pushing the canonization process of a pope whom Jews believe was silent during the horror of the Holocaust. It also offends Protestants by reinstalling indulgences as a central element in Catholic teaching.

All these moves are unquestionably done in good faith, but without much sensitivity to how they offend many outside the church _ and embarrass many inside.

So one must turn to the one who was born in Bethlehem for the secret of peace. But who takes him seriously? Who has seriously listened to his message?

For centuries Catholics have killed Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians in the name of the Prince of Peace. They killed pagans who would not accept baptism. Since the Reformation, they have also killed Protestants.

Kill a pagan or a Muslim or a Jew or a Greek or a Baptist for Jesus? Why, sure and then at Christmas tell the world that if only it would listen to us, there would be peace.

Jesus, I submit, is not pleased.

We hear that Catholicism is going to apologize for its past during the celebration of the alleged millennium. Oh, great! But how can our apologies be taken seriously when we continue to offend members of other denominations, needlessly and gratuitously? How can we expect to be forgiven for the injustices in our past, when we continue to charge respected theologians with heresy and refuse to say what the charges are, who has made them, or even who is defending him?

That sort of procedure makes Henry Hyde’s lynch mob look fair by comparison. I leave it to members of other denominations to examine their group’s history.

So men and women talk of peace and there is no peace. Church persons proclaim the need for peace, but there is no peace. We sing”Halleluia!”with Handel, but there seems so little to celebrate.

The scene in Bethlehem was not a guarantee; it was at best a sign, a promise, a hint of what is possible. It was a burst of light for this darkest of times. So far we humans haven’t done very well in responding to it.


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