“Peace on earth, goodwill toward men” is a sentiment we hear a lot during this holiday season but, short of being dissected for gender bias, it’s an expression that doesn’t prompt too much consideration of the message it imparts. Rather, it’s simply an accepted part of holiday tradition when read in a greeting card, proclaimed in an advertisement or uttered in a pageant, play or program. And, at the close of the season, like other trinkets and decorations, it’s placed into storage for another year.
When, in 1967, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made it the focus of his last Christmas Eve sermon before those in attendance at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and those tuned into the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s airing of the speech, he saw it as much more than a holiday greeting.
His pronouncement of “peace on earth” was not meant for the moment or as a temporary resolution for what he saw as the world’s predicament. It was a goal that was not only attainable but durable.
“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race,” he said at the start of the sermon, a statement that resonates even today. Dr. King explained that he was trying to determine why “we have neither peace within nor peace without” and why “everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night.”
He was also encouraging listeners to “think anew on the meaning of that Christmas hope: ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men.’ And as we explore these conditions, I would like to suggest that modern man really go all out to study the meaning of nonviolence, its philosophy and its strategy.”
In 2012, the Washington Post declared that in this sermon Dr. King “took ‘peace on earth’ as a personal and social imperative.” He informed listeners as well as today’s readers that “the time has come for man to experiment with nonviolence in all areas of human conflict, and that means nonviolence on an international scale.”
But nonviolence was only the first factor in achieving “peace on earth.” To fortify it, it was necessary to encompass what the mlkglobal.org website, refers to as “the intrinsic interconnectedness of existence itself.”
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated,” Dr. King said. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” He suggested that “if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
In a New York Times op-ed piece written for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Christmas Eve address, Dave Dellinger wrote that the sermon “anticipated much of the ecological consciousness and environmental concerns of the next 50 years, and the links between ecology and social justice that are vital to our present and future.” He also noted Dr. King’s “understanding of existence as unified and the voice he gave to a cosmology of connection.”
Jill Lepore, in her book This America: The Case for the Nation, writes, “never did King speak with more thunder than during what would be his last Christmas Eve sermon…” That thunder is most notable in the warning he delivered: “If we don’t have goodwill toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power.”
If it’s going to accomplish anything, the term “peace on earth” must be treated as more than an annual slogan. As Dr. King stated, “I still have a dream that one day…brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer…” n