Sunday, December 6, 2020

Making Peace | Second Sunday of Advent

Once, when I was in the third grade, a game-like division arose in the class. There were two 'teams,' and I was the leader of one of them. Or perhaps 'ring leader' is the more correct term, since I'm pretty sure I instigated the whole thing. In any event, this went on for several days, with words exchanged and clear lines drawn in playground games, until one day the leader of the other 'faction' requested parley (that's exactly what it was though we didn't know the word for it then). Basically, we agreed to make peace, declared the division at an end with us as 'co-leaders,' and shook hands on it. At that, it was over, and all went back to normal. What I will never forget is the feeling that washed over me in the moment we sealed the deal. A passage from the Bible captures the essence of it.

"Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven." — Psalm 85:10-11 NIV

In life, that sort of peace can be terribly elusive. I've been 'on the outs' with some people for nearly 20 years before finding reconciliation, and there are others with whom no just peace can ever be found. One thing I know for certain is that peace never just happens, and it's never war that makes for peace. Victory only means that the fighting has been brought to an end. It takes hard work after the conflict to rebuild, restore, and reconcile. Where efforts towards those goals are left incomplete, fractures of mistrust and the seeds of further violence remain. 

Consider the Civil War. It ended slavery officially, but through the exploitation of sharecroppers of color, Jim Crow laws, and other systemic and personal means of discrimination the descendants of enslaved people have continued to be limited in life and made to suffer. The 'Reconstruction' was more about getting trade and the economy going than anything else, and it wasn't until nearly 100 years later that much of the official segregation of the races was outlawed. And still, so much remains to be done, as we are reminded every time a black man or woman is shot in the back or strangled by a police officer who is never held fully responsible for the crime. 

In 1948 the nations of the world signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 30 articles defining the basic rights of all people we catch a glimpse of the world as it could be. Among its opening lines we read:

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction. (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

There are those who say that this human rights declaration has 'failed.' If I'm understanding that perspective correctly, it comes down to the simple fact that some countries take this very seriously, and others only pay it lip service, if even that. Saudi Arabia is one of the first such nations to come to mind, given the brutality of their criminal justice system and the oppression of women. The same could be said of other Middle Eastern nations, where slavery exists through the employment of immigrants with very few legal rights, and none of the means to pursue what rights they have. But then, sadly, the United States of America is far from where it should be in relation to human rights. That's how I know that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights hasn't failed.

The declaration itself, in the quote above, states that it is 'a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.' This document alone doesn't have a magical power to change us. It does, however, serve as a point of reference and a written conscience for the world. I know that the United States is in violation of significant parts of the declaration, and certainly hasn't shown in recent years that it even embraces the spirit in which the words were written, because of what it says. The same goes for every other country on this planet.

The keys to implementation are written into this same paragraph, in saying that 'every individual and every organ of society' is to:
  1. Keep 'this Declaration constantly in mind.' This is more than remembering from time to time, but really reviewing and thinking about these human rights when we read or watch the news, and when we reflect on local, national, and world events.  
  2. '[S]trive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms' is far from passive acknowledgement. While governments might do this, individuals and groups within society are still called upon to be advocates of human rights. Through doing this we can start to change hearts and, where that's not possible, use the force of popular opinion and electoral politics to achieve progress.  
  3. It's through 'progressive measures, national and international' that we will 'to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.' Whether the reluctant, recalcitrant, and unrepentant people in power want it or not. 
There is no one coming to save us. This is our struggle for peace through justice, and one that we in our times can work to build for a future time. So long as the dream lives in the human heart, and the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights exist to be know, we have hope for making peace that is real and enduring.