Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men. That’s not just a hopeful prayer, it’s a formula. Peace cannot be long sustained without goodwill.
The third ingredient in the formula, according to Luke, is “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” That’s unfashionable to mention these days. The critic of religion – all of them in general, or specific examples – will rush to point out that all sorts of non-peaceful behavior has been conducted in the name of divine glory. Not to denigrate anyone’s religion, or lack thereof, but I find a great deal of wisdom in Luke’s construction. I guess I should also say I’m not trying to hijack the Gospel and roll it into some kind of thin non-denominational multi-purpose paste. I merely observe that history provides a great deal of evidence to demonstrate that acknowledging authorities higher than human will and passing desire is essential to lasting peace. American law was founded on such an understanding.
But let’s talk about goodwill toward men, because it’s in painfully short supply this Christmas. We never have enough, but the acute shortages are very noticeable.
Goodwill is an elusive resource. It is easily mistaken for unity, especially by those who believe themselves anointed to transform consensus into unity. People can strongly disagree with each other without sacrificing goodwill. Actually, goodwill is what makes robust disagreement possible. When you think only the worst about those who offer opposing arguments – when you claim the power to see into their hearts and declare what they really feel, or scan their minds for the true hidden meaning of their chosen words – the result is not a competition between ideas, but warfare that can only be settled through submission.
Goodwill is gracious and charitable. It is a form of love, and as we are elsewhere told, love is patient and kind. People who feel goodwill toward one another extend simple courtesies with cheer. On the other hand, those who deliberately seek to antagonize or intimidate others, declaring themselves hostile to society through dress and behavior, are clearly not interested in tending any deep reservoirs of goodwill. It is drained away when respect is demanded as an entitlement, rather than earned through action. It evaporates when insult is deliberately sought and aggressively prosecuted. You have to work pretty hard to seriously insult someone who loves you, right? They put the best possible spin on what you say. They give you second and third chances to make yourself clear. They know good men and women can have bad moments.
People who share even the lightest bond of goodwill don’t have to be forced to work together. They go the extra mile for one another. There are large and organized groups of people whose agenda depends on depleting our supplies of goodwill, and one of their most consistent tactics is to portray competition as hostile and destructive, inferior to unanimous cooperation. This is nonsense. For one thing, effective competition most often requires a good deal of cooperation, as the players on any sports team can attest. Also, there’s no such thing as “unanimous cooperation.” Getting past a certain percentage of unified effort invariably involves the use of whips and hot iron. Some square pegs will have to be hammered into round holes before every space in a grand universal design can be filled.
Goodwill is expressed through what we say and do, not what we think. It is a grave mistake to hold people accountable for what they think. The process always involves cracking their skulls open with the tools of ideology to determine what supposedly lurks inside… and there goes goodwill, trampled beneath the boots of thought-crime prosecutors. Judging and controlling thought is a brutal exercise of power, not the work of fellowship and harmony. If you think well of someone, then you must respect them. If you respect them, you must hold them responsible for what they do, which means you must give them a chance to choose their words and plan their actions. Responsibility, respect, and goodwill are inseparable. Everyone resents being treated like a child, including those adults who demand it.
Of course, there will never be a society of any size where goodwill is universally shared. In fact, not many families could make that claim. Societies are not families; the effort to erase the line between them is a tool of those who seek to install themselves as Father and Mother above inferior citizens. Rather, goodwill brings families together to form communities. We meet with strangers who wish us to think well of them, and soon enough they are strangers no more.
You can’t command people to think well of each other; you might as well order rain to fall upon a dry field. Laws and enforcement are necessary to contain malevolence… but what about the great body of people who are not malevolent? The burden of law should rest lightly upon them. They will naturally resent being treated like criminals. They’ll also resent each other, if taught to view their neighbors as criminals. Resentment consumes goodwill like acid.
Goodwill also cannot be thrust upon the unwilling as a gift they didn’t ask for. It’s always good to offer, but if the offer is not mutual, it isn’t going anywhere. If the offer is repeatedly extended to those who angrily strike the gift of goodwill aside, we soon pass from noble benevolence into blind folly. It could be said that insisting on treating the angry enemy of society as if he were a good citizen is disrespectful to him. No amount of effort will raise fellowship from the rocky soil of disrespect.
Goodwill is not easily nourished. It starves quickly when neglected. Parading its corpse around on political puppet strings and pretending it’s still alive makes for a ghastly spectacle. The good news is that it’s always just a day away from being reborn. Christmas Day is a very fine choice for such a birth.