It’s Christmas. With several versions of John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” playing on the airwaves and in retail establishments across America, it’s a bittersweet reminder that while we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, we have not as a nation, or as practicing Christians, yet learned his message and how to apply it.
Indeed, this has not been a peaceful year. Looking at the global state of things, conflicts, some decades in age, there are at least twelve ongoing conflicts that have resulted in deaths in 2012 (according to a Wikipedia page called “List of ongoing military conflicts”), including the war in Afghanistan that killed at least 03,000 in 2012, the Syrian civil war with 37,787 deaths, and one in Burma that started in 1948 and resulted in 10,000 fatalities (bet you missed that one on the nightly news round up). And, lest we forget, there are still American troops in Iraq, too, where over 8,000 people have died in the last two years.
If war was not enough, we’re still killing each other, too, in our own cities. The United States has a homicide rate of about 4.2 per 100,000 residents, which, while lower than the worldwide average, still resulted in the deaths of about 13,000 people last year. And this does not account for other violent crimes: rape, assault, abuse, and so on.
Taken all together, it’s a depressing prospect. And when seen in light of the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut this month, it is perhaps more sobering and dispiriting, too.
I cannot help but ask: what can we do against such evil?
It can be easy to see the power of evil in the world in the face of such events. Indeed, it can be hard to see anything but evil in the deaths of so many innocent people. Youth is a time of hope and promise, and schools are intended to be a place of sanctuary and learning.
Yet, we look to hope. Some of the most beloved writers of the English language made it a theme of their writing, and as we heard the news of the deaths at Sandy Hook elementary, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit in movie theaters. If there is nothing else that Tolkien intended with his most innovative creations–hobbits–it was to convey the possibility of hope and life and innocence against the power of evil.
Indeed, it is not just hobbits and their love of the creature comforts of home, food, and books that Tolkien wrote of, but also the nature of evil and its corruption of the good. Glenn Fairman, in his piece “Hobbits, Orcs, and the Human Condition” for the American Thinker posits that this is why Tolkien strike home for readers (and perhaps movie goers): “The universes of Tolkien and [C.S.] Lewis touch a spot in our hearts, not because of a one-dimensional black and white depiction of Good and Evil, but because they ring true in excavating the subtlety of what drives evil. Evil is not deemed co-equal with Good, [...] but as a corrupted end which once sought the Good.”
Through our “fairy tales,” then, runs the theme of free will and the necessity of free will to the growth of good, even in the potential for pain and death. Says Fairman
But free will or a future redemption is thin gruel to a town with classrooms full of murdered children. Is it enough to say that God did not will this thing and that despite the glib horror of the words, ripples of good are projecting out in time so that as a consequence at least some of this evil might one day be redeemed? Unlike our stories of Middle Earth, there was no convocation of Eagles to spirit those innocents away from a cruel and insane hand. Nevertheless, we are hearing now of unlikely heroes and sacrifices in the face of certain death by some who did not come home.It is in our finite reckoning of time that patience exhausts itself and oftentimes our endurance is drawn down as we despair of evil’s resolute gravity. Faced with suffering and evil occurring at an ever-accelerating cadence, it may be easier to believe that we are alone in our sorrows instead of exerting faith that a Deft Hand holds the reins. Sometimes it seems as if the free will of a broken humanity is insufficient when weighed in the balance against our cruelties. But without free will there is no love; and without love there is no impetus for a God of Love to create.
It is too early to tell, perhaps even in this lifetime, how these events will have weighted the waves of contingency and their significance for those perhaps not yet born. It is not a cliché to hold that courage and faith are needed now more than ever. They were indispensable in an age of Hobbits, elves and dwarves; how much more so in a tangible world of fragile men.
Often, we may feel as Frodo, who in the darkness of the Mines of Moria lamented, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “And so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Our hearts go out to those in Newport whose lives have been altered forever and whose loved ones will never come home, at least not in this life, and we hope that even in the dark moments that they will find solace and hope in courage and faith. To the rest of us, I hope that we can provide to them, and each other, the small comfort we can offer. And perhaps, here again, we can listen to Gandalf, the sage wizard of Tolkien’s creation:
There are those who believe that ”it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
Again, this is Christmas, and it is the Prince of Peace that was heralded on this day. Angels sang of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” at his coming and as He neared the end of His life He returned to the refrain: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
His peace is the power to stand against evil and be unmoved in a time when evil will rage, to stand at the eye of a storm and feel peace while defending and seeking to live the message for which His life was nothing short of a living testimony.
None of us want to live in such times, but in such times we all retain the power to choose. It is in the small deeds of ordinary kindness that keep the darkness at bay. As the children’s song goes, “so I say to myself, remember this: kindness begins with me.” Imperfectly applied, perhaps, but it is a lesson we can all seek to apply just a little better in the coming year. If we do, perhaps then each of us will find a way to bring peace, and good will to men, to the Earth.
As we all mourn the lost, at Sandy Hook and in many other places, I hope that we can realize that we are not powerless against great evil, but that it is in our every day acts that evil can be held back.
- After Sandy Hook, what can we learn about good and evil from The Hobbit? (attackofthebooks.com)
- What Does Bilbo Teach Us about Heroism? (acculturated.com)
- Tolkien Experts Talk About His Christian Themes (hcslearningcommons.org)