Peace on Earth to Angry People of Good Will

 
At Christmas we think of peace and talk about good will, but in the 2018 season we are focused on anger in our country. At a time of general prosperity, political processes in America and Europe are swirling in confusion. Why is there so much anger? Why are anti-democratic candidates who spout hatred of human rights threatening our stability?

Furthermore, is good will the remedy for our time? Can there really be peace on earth when people who claim to have good will spend so much time being angry? Perhaps Luke’s angelic proclamation needs updating.

Anger is destructive when it erupts with the adrenalin-enhanced force of the fight or flight response. If there is a real danger to life, its energy makes escape possible. But when it breaks out in public scenes of road rage, its irrationality fuels violence. In personal conversations, anger keeps people from hearing each other as insensitivity wounds relationships. Sudden and exaggerated responses to less important events indicate ongoing, simmering anger has been looking for an excuse to break restraints holding it back.

In times of war, anger can unify people against hostile enemies. The United States experienced such a love/hate combination in two world wars and the first Iraq war. Even though we are in our longest war in Afghanistan, public sentiment has not been engaged. Citizens of the United States have sensed no urgency to unite against external and internal forces stirring up anger to poison and destabilize our democratic system.

The Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate, a salvific remnant of bipartisan cooperation on issues of national security, released two reports the week before Christmas. Independent research documented the methods used by Russia to interfere in the election of 2016. Years of preparation made their success possible and it has continued since the election by casting doubt on efforts to uncover and correct the damage. These methods were tested in Europe first and now Russian disruption plagues the entire Atlantic Alliance. It is clear that a deadly adversary found ways to harness internal anger to destabilize open, non-authoritarian societies.

What should we do?    First, we must recognize anger as a spiritual problem calling for self-awareness, repentance, and remediation. Second, we should recognize that our time is no more justified in its anger than any other. We have no excuse because other periods have more justification for anger than we do. And third, look to wisdom from scripture to guide our rehabilitation.

Christmas 2018 is a great time to heed guidance from the fourth chapter of Ephesians. Under pressure from a hostile Roman environment, the community was being harmed by dissension from lying and manipulation. The prescription was to remember the expectation of unity in Christ, as if the community were a single body, which should be seen in behaviors described in verses 25-32.

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so, as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. … Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

Two reports announced by the Senate Intelligence Committee indicate that Congress must act to regulate internet social media. Technology that was represented as a neutral platform for free speech has become a deadly tool for manipulating the worst within all of us. But even the most intrusive regulations will not eliminate our spiritual problem, for we reward persistent manipulators through openness to self-serving false information, emotionally based slander, and generally repulsive behavior under cover of anonymity.

Is it more difficult to follow the advice in Ephesians today than when it was given to a community founded by Paul? Here’s why I don’t think so.

Tradition attributes the Ephesian letter to Paul, but that is no longer accepted. What seems to have happened was that a disciple of Paul applied his understanding of Paul’s message to a situation about 25 years after Paul’s death. The ministry of Paul in the 50s and early 60s was not filled with the growing hostility between Romans and Jews of the late 60s that ended with war and destruction of Jerusalem in 70. Between 75 and 100, when Ephesians was probably written, anyone associated with Judaism was subject to Roman prejudice. Jewish resentment seethed until warfare in 114-117 and 132-135 finally suppressed Jewish hopes. The final war also severed the ties between early Christianity and its womb of Second Temple Judaism.

Tensions within an early Christian community that identified with a risen Christ and the Temple and scriptures of Jerusalem would have been enormous. Debates over circumcision, diet, and social events where meat was offered to Roman gods continued to be difficult. Sabbath observance and reluctance to worship Roman gods made all Jewish sympathizers stand out as easy targets. Conditions were made worse when outside pressures led to internal splitting and the emergence of anger as evidence enemies of the community were gaining ground.

This distinctively Pauline message in Ephesians, even though not written by Paul, is a prescription for our destabilized time. Look at all the actions called for: speak the truth, work honestly and share with the needy; say things that encourage and share grace; put away forms of conflict or revenge and forgive.

The spiritual problem, then, is lack of compassion in its many forms. Peace on earth – in the United States and Europe – depends on citizens turning to forgiveness and compassion rather than anger.

Finally, what about good will? Modern translations substitute “peace among those whom he favors” for the traditional use of good will. It makes sense that someone who feels favored would be a person of good will – unless selfishness and greed lead someone to avoid sharing favor with others. With either translation, it seems peace depends on people’s intentions. Is that enough? How can we tell what a person’s intentions are?

This is where Paul’s unknown disciple improved on Luke. Ephesians points to actions that demonstrate good intentions. This is certainly consistent with words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (turn the other cheek, you know them by their fruit, build on rock not sand), the parable of the Samaritan (the Priest and Levite may have wanted to help but found reasons not to interrupt their day), and the parable of the sheep and goats (the goats may have prayed for those in desperate situations but they took no action in case after case). The message of Jesus lines up with Ephesians – good intentions must be seen in acts of compassion.

Anger surrounds us this Christmas, yet the everlasting message rings out to overcome hatred and revenge with unrelenting acts of compassion. Each of us faces the challenge in individual ways in our family, at church, at work, or when on social media. People of good will can overcome anger in its most destructive forms through a single-minded focus on acts of compassion.

When we combine Luke’s angelic message with the “better angels” of Abraham Lincoln and Jon Meacham, we hear: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of relentless compassion.” Glory Hallelujah! Amen.

References:
Craig Timberg and Tony Romm, “New Report on Russian Disinformation, Prepared for the Senate, Shows the Operation’s Sweep and Scale,” Washington Post review of the reports from the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project and also New Knowledge provided to the United States Senate, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/12/16/new-report-russian-disinformation-prepared-senate-shows-operations-scale-sweep/?utm_term=.59a907788a6f

The Computational Propaganda Project, “Troops, Trolls, and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation,” https://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/troops-trolls-and-trouble-makers-a-global-inventory-of-organized-social-media-manipulation/

New Knowledge, “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” https://disinformationreport.blob.core.windows.net/disinformation-report/NewKnowledge-Disinformation-Report-Whitepaper.pdf
 
About the Author
Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, during which he taught history part-time at local colleges in addition to consulting for top-level managers in various state organizations. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is an energetic and imaginative presenter of educational programs and sermons and the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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