Christmas: Its Unfinished Business
BY SAMUEL McCHORD CROTHERS
To one who aspires to “sit and shake in Rabelais’ easy-chair,” the Christmas greeting “Peace on Earth” is a godsend. Was ever such a provocative to satire ? Did ever human nature appear in a disguise more ridiculously transparent than when assuming the part of Peacemaker in the midwinter pantomimes, and impudently laying claim to the very choicest beatitude ? The bold masquerader has not even the grace to hide his big stick, but waves it as a wand. We are asked to believe that the vigorous flourishes of this same big stick prepare for the age of peace “by prophets long foretold.”
“Have you ever been to a Peace Convention ?” asks the amateur cynic. “It is good fun if you are fortunate enough to be able to watch the proceedings from the seat of the scornful. First come the advocates of Peace, pure and simple, enthusiasts for non-resistance. As you listen to the reports of the delegates you feel that the time has already come when ‘ the lion shall eat straw like the ox.’ Your sympathies go out to the poor beast in his sudden change of diet, — for we of the Carnivora have no great appetite for straw. After a time the lions are led out to speak for themselves. Representatives of the different nations give greetings. It appears from their remarks that the cause is one that has always been nearest to their valiant hearts. No need to take measures to convert them, they have always been on the right side. What were teeth and claws invented for, if not to enforce peace on earth ? ”
“ Each nation points with pride to its achievements. Has not Great Britain made peace in South Africa, and the United States of America established it in the Philippines; and is not Russia at this moment endeavoring to establish it in Manchuria? Even the little powers are at work for the same end. Is not disinterested Belgium making peace on the banks of the Congo, with rubber and ivory as a by-product ? Has not Holland for these many years been industriously weeding out the malcontents in Java? The Christian message of good will has now reached the most remote recesses of the earth. Even the monks in Thibet have heard the good news. They must pay a good round sum for it, to be sure; but what else could they expect when the message must be carried to them away up on the roof of the world, quite beyond the limits of the free delivery ? It’s their own fault that they never got into full connection with Christendom before These unsocial creatures have for generations been enjoying a selfish peacefulness of their own. They have been like a householder who has a telephone, but will not allow his number to go on the book. He likes to bother other people, but will not allow them to bother him. It has long been known that the Mahatmas in Llassa were in the habit of projecting thought vibrations to the ends of the earth, and muddling the brains of the initiated; but the general public could not reciprocate. The British expedition has changed all that. Now when Christendom rings them up they’ve got to answer.”
That word “Christendom” has a singular effect upon the cynic. It draws out all his acrid humor; for it seems to him the quintessence of hypocrisy.
“Christian nations! Christian civilization! A fine partnership this, between the brutal and the spiritual! In the preChristian era war was a very simple thing. Read the record of an Israelitish expedition in the Book of Chronicles. ‘ And they went to the entrance of Gedor, even unto the east side of the valley, to seek pasture for their flocks. And they found fat pasture and good, and the land was wide and quiet and peaceable; for they of Ham had dwelt there of old. And these written by name came in the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah, and smote their tents and the habitations that were found there, and destroyed them utterly unto this day, and dwelt in their rooms; because there was pasture there for their flocks.’
“What an unsophisticated account of an ordinary transaction! Even the sons of Ham could understand the motive. There is no profession of benevolent intent, not even an eloquent reference to manifest destiny; the fat pastures were a sufficient reason. In these days the unwilling beneficiaries of civilization have a harder time of it. No sooner are they dispossessed of their lands than they are called together to rejoice over the good work that has been done for them. This is A. D. and not B. c. The new era began with an angel chorus; let us all join in the refrain. First of all, decorum requires that the bare facts be decently arrayed in spiritual garments. With the skill that is the result of long practice the ugliest fact is fitted. It is a triumph of dressmaking. The materials may be a trifle threadbare, but with a little fullness here and a breadth taken out there, each garment is made as good as new. Not a blood-stain shows.”
This is a free country, and the cynic must be allowed his fling, even at Christmas time. But if he has license to speak his mind in regard to the simple-hearted people who go Christmasing, we must be privileged to say what we think of him. The truth is that we think him to be a rather shallow-pated fellow who has been educated above his deserts. For all his knowing ways he has had but little knowledge of the world. He has seen the things which are obvious, the things that are shown to every outsider. He prides himself on his familiarity with accomplished facts, not realizing that these belong to the world that is passing away. The interesting things to see are those which belong to the world that is in process of becoming. These are not visible from the seat of the scornful.
The sweeping accusation of hypocrisy against men or nations whenever an incongruity is perceived between a professed purpose and an actual achievement is an indication of too great simplicity of mind. It is the simplicity that is characteristic of one without experience in the work of creation.
The cynic, perceiving the shortcomings of those who “profess and call themselves Christians,” greets their professions with a bitter laugh. He cannot tolerate their pretensions, and he urges them to return to a frank profession of the paganism which their deeds proclaim. Now it is eminently desirable that all who profess and call themselves Christians should be Christians, — but that takes time. The profession is the first step; that puts a whip into the hand of conscience. Not only do a man’s friends, but particularly his enemies, insist that he shall live up to his name. It is a wholesome discipline. In a new country two or three houses set down in a howling wilderness are denominated a city. It is a mere name at first, but if all goes well other metropolitan features are added in due time. I remember a most interesting visit which I once made to a university in a new commonwealth. The university consisted of a board of regents, an unfenced bit of prairie for a “campus,” a president (who was also professor of the Arts and Sciences), a janitor, and two unfinished buildings. A number of the village children took courses which, if persisted in for a number of years, might lead to what is usually termed the Higher Education. One student from out of town dwelt in solitary state in the dormitory. The president met me with great cordiality, and after showing me “the plant” introduced me to the student. It was evident that they were on terms of great intimacy, and that discipline in the university was an easy matter, owing to the fact that the student body was homogeneous.
Now it would be easy for one under such circumstances to laugh at what seemed mere pretentiousness. “It was nothing more than a small school; why not call it that and be done with it?” The reason for not doing so was that it aimed at being a university. Its name was a declaration of purpose. “Despise not the day of small things.” The small things may be very real things; and then they have a trick of growing big before you know it.
In the world of creative activity the thought precedes the deed, the profession comes before the achievement. The child makes believe that he is a man, and his play is prophetic. Let us grant that multitudes who profess and call themselves Christians are only playing at Christianity; they have not yet begun to take the beatitudes seriously. It is a good thing to play at, and the play is all the time deepening into earnest work.
When it becomes earnest, it is still far from perfect; but imperfection of workmanship is no evidence of insincerity. He would be a poor critic who at the spring exhibition should accuse the artist of attempt to deceive because of his failure to achieve his professed purpose.
“ Do you call that a picture of the Madonna? False-hearted hypocrite! Are you wicked enough to attempt to poison our minds and prejudice us against one who has been an object of worship ? You are foisting upon us an image of absolute imbecility.”
And yet the poor artist is no hypocrite, — he is only a poor artist, that is all. He has striven to express what he has actually felt; and he has had bad luck. He has been thrilled by an image of perfect womanhood; and he sought to reproduce it for the joy of others. He wrought with sad sincerity; and this is what came of it!
In the work of creating a condition of peace and good will among men the Christian nations have not gone very far. But why twit on facts ? Let us be reasonable. Why should we take it as a grievance that our birth has not been delayed till the millennium, but that we have been placed among those who are responsible for bringing it in ? There is a satisfaction in being allowed a part in the preliminary work. And what if many wellmeant endeavors have come to nought? Let us not spend Christmas time crying over the spilt milk of human kindness. It is natural that the first attempts at peace-making should be awkward. It takes time to get the knack of it. It is foolish to reserve all our praise for perfection. That gives an unpleasant impression, such as that which we receive from a person who, when there is a call for small change, produces a bank bill of a large denomination, which he knows no one can break for him.
To enter heartily into the spirit of Christmas one must not take its message as a declaration of an accomplished fact, but as a prophecy. Now it is nothing against a prophecy that it has not yet been fulfilled. The farther off it is, the more credit to the eyes that see and to the stout hearts that patiently wait and work for it. The practical question is not “Has it come?” but “Is it on the way?” Christmas is the time for the consideration of a bit of the unfinished business of the world. It is a pity that anything so important should ever have to give place to other matters, but once a year by unanimous consent it is taken off the table. For a little time the peacemaker has the undivided attention of the world.
First we must listen to the report of the progress already made. It is such a modest report that we must prepare our minds in order to appreciate it. The simple-minded cynic must be instructed in regard to the extreme difficulty and complexity of the work that has been undertaken. It is nothing less than the transformation of a carnivorous, not to say cannibalistic, species into an orderly society in which each member shall joyously and effectively work for the welfare of all. The first thing, of course, is to catch your cannibals. This of itself is no easy task, and has taken many centuries. It has involved a vast amount of woodchopping and road making, and draining of swamps and exploring of caves and dens. It is a task that is still far from accomplished. Savagery is a condition which cannot be abolished till there is a conquest of the earth itself. When the cannibals have been caught and tamed there comes the problem of keeping them alive. They must eat something; a point which many of the missionaries of civilization have not sufficiently considered. Ethical progress is delayed by all sorts of economic complications. When the natural man is confronted with the necessity of getting a living, robbery is the first method which suggests itself to him. When this is prohibited he turns upon his moral adviser with, “What more feasible way do you propose ? ” The moral adviser has then to turn from the plain path of pure ethics, and cudgel his poor wits trying to “invent a little something ingenious ” to keep his pupil from starving. The clever railer at human kind who has always had a bank account to fall back upon has no idea how much time and thought have been taken up in such contrivances.
Then it should be remembered that the missionaries of civilization have not themselves been above reproach. The “multitudes of the heavenly hosts” might be heard for a moment singing of good will among men, but they did not remain to do the work. The men of good will who were to work out the plan were very human indeed. Milton, in the Hymn “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” warns us of the long interval between the Christmas prophecy and its historical fulfillment.
Enwrap our fancy long,
And speckled vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould ;
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering :
And Heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
But all the imagery of the gala day of peace fades away before the immediate reality.
This must not yet be so.”
This veto of “wisest Fate” is not absolute. It only calls a halt upon our imagination until the rest of our nature catches up with it. Mankind is not to have peace till it has suffered for it and worked for it. The workmen must do their work over and over again till they have learned the right way.
That the “Christian nations” are not hypocrites, but novices who have been making some progress toward the Christian ideal, becomes evident when we look back over their history. They are not the descendants of the simple shepherds of the plains of Bethlehem. Far from it! When they first began to “profess and call themselves Christians,” they were not thinking of the beatitudes. They had not got that far.
Turn to the Heimskringla and read how King Olaf converted the pagan bonders.
“So King Olaf went into the Godhouse and a certain few of his men with him, and a certain few of the bonders. But when the king came whereas the gods were, there sat Thor the most honored of all the gods, adorned with gold and silver. Then King Olaf hove up the goldwrought rod that he had in his hand and smote Thor that he fell down from the stall; and therewith ran forth all the king’s men and tumbled down all the gods from their stalls. But whiles the king was in the God-house was Iron-Skeggi slain without, even at the very door, and that deed did the king’s men. So when the king was come back to his folk he bade the bonders take one of two things, either all be christened, or else abide the brunt of battle with him. But after the death of Skeggi there was no leader among the folk of the bonders to raise up a banner against King Olaf. So the choice was taken of them to go to the king and obey his bidding. Then King Olaf christened all folk that were there and took hostages of the bonders that they would hold to their christening. Thereafter King Olaf caused men of his wend over all parts of Thrandheim; and now spoke no man against the faith of Christ. And so were all folk christened in the country-side.”
That is the way the nations of the north were first christianized. What is the difference between Thor and the Christ ? the simple-hearted people would ask. “The difference,” said King Olaf, “ is very fundamental and it requires little theological training to see it. It is this: the Christ is stronger. If you don’t believe it, I’ll” — but they did believe it.
It is evident that there were some points in Christianity that King Olaf did not appreciate. To cultivate these fruits of the spirit required men of a different temper. Their work is not all done yet. It is progressing.
There is one complication in the work of peacemaking which has not been sufficiently considered. It is the recurrence of Youth. I have listened to the arguments against war at a great Peace Congress. The reasoning was strong, the statement of facts conclusive. War was shown to be cruel and foolish, and incredibly expensive. The audience, consisting of right-minded and very intelligent people, was convinced of the justice of the cause of Peace. Why, then, does not the cause triumph ?
In such cases I am in the habit of looking about with the intent to fix the responsibility where it belongs, on those who were not at the meeting. Mature life was well represented, but there was a suspicious absence of young men in the twenties. Ah! I said,there is the difficulty. We can’t be sure of lasting peace until we make it more interesting to these young absentees. They’ll all be peace men by and by, but meanwhile there is no knowing what trouble they may get us into.
John Fiske traced the influence which the prolongation of infancy has had on the progress of civilization. I am inclined to think that equally great results would flow from any discovery by which the period of middle age could be prolonged beyond its present term. War would be abolished without any more ado. A uniformly middle-aged community would be immune from any attack of militant fever.
It happens, however, that every once in a while the hot passions of youth carry all before them. The account of what happened at the beginning of the civil wars in Israel is typical. King Rehoboam called a meeting of the elder statesmen of his kingdom. They outlined a policy that was eminently conciliatory. But we are told, “He forsook the council of the old men which they had given him, and consulted with the young men who had grown up with him and stood by him.”
That’s the difficulty! The hardest thing about a good policy is to get it accepted by the people who have the power. What avails the wisdom of the old men when all the young men are “spoiling for a fight?” Something more is needed than statesman-like plans for strengthening the framework of civilization. You may have a fireproof structure, but you are not safe so long as it is crammed with highly inflammable material.
There is a periodicity in the passion for war. It marks the coming into power of a new generation. A quarter of a century from now “ the good gray poet” Rudyard Kipling may be singing sweet lyrics of peace. All things come in time. The Kipling we know simply utters the sentiments of “the young men brought up with him.” What he has been to his contemporaries Tennyson was to the generation before. Kipling never wrote a more scornful arraignment of peace or a more passionate glorification of war than Tennyson’s Maud.
We are listening to the invective of a youth whose aspirations have been crushed and ideals shattered by a civilization that seems to him to be soulless. He has seen something which to him is infinitely more cruel than the battle between contending hosts.
Pickpockets, each hand lusting for all that is not its own;
And lust of gain, in the spirit of Cain, is it better or worse
Than the heart of the citizen hissing in war on his own hearthstone ?
We are made to see the inglorious peace in which men seek only their own ease.
When the poor are hovelled and hustled together, each sex, like swine,
When only the ledger lives, and when only not all men lie.
From the evils of a soulless commercialism, and from the inanities of fashion, what is the way of escape ? From the evils of peace he turns to the heroism of war.
The chivalrous battle song.
Like some of the simple great ones gone
Forever and ever by,
One still strong man in a blatant land.
At last, breaking in upon the deadly stupidity and selfishness of the common life, is the noise of battle: —
When I thought that a war would arise in defence of the right,
That an iron tyranny now should bend or cease,
The glory of manhood stand on his ancient right,
Nor Britain’s one sole God be the millionaire.
Of a land that has lost for a little her lust of gold,
And love of a peace that was full of wrongs and shames,
Horrible, hateful, monstrous, not to be told;
And hail once more to the banner of battle unroll’d!
That was an appeal to Young England, the England that was too young to remember the Napoleonic wars and was thirsting for an experience of its own.
It is very easy to dismiss such outbursts of the militant spirit as the mere recrudescence of savagery. It is better to treat it seriously, for it is something which each generation must reckon with. Tennyson sums up the matter from the standpoint of ardent youth.
We have proved we have hearts in a cause, we are noble still,
And myself have awaked, as it seems, to the better mind;
It is better to fight for the good than to rail at the ill ;
I have felt for my native land, I am one with my kind,
I embrace the purpose of God, and the doom assigned.
It is easy enough to dismiss all this as mere vaporing. But it is a protest which must be heeded, for it expresses a real experience. There are things worse than war. A sordid slothfulness is worse. A cowardly acquiescence in injustice is worse. It is a real revelation when to the heart of youth comes a sudden sense of the meaning of life. It is not a treasure to be preserved with miserly carefulness. It is to be nobly hazarded. It is better to fight for the good than to rail, however eloquently, against the ill. To feel for one’s native land, to unite in generous comradeship with one’s kind, to endure hardness for a noble cause; these things are of the essence of manhood.
In times of national peril such awakening has come. Many a man has then for the first time discovered that he has a soul. He has cried out “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Now just here we peace men may see our most inspiring bit of unfinished business. War has been idealized, it is left to us to idealize peace. It cannot be done till we bring out all its heroic possibilities. If it. means dull stagnation, selfish ease, the prosperity that can be measured in dollars and cents, there is sure to come a revulsion against it. The gospel of the full dinner pail and the plethoric pocketbook does not satisfy. If the choice is between commercialism and militarism we need not wonder if many an idealist chooses the latter as the less perilous course. It seems less threatening toward Ihe things for which he cares.
The call is for a new chivalry. Our duty is not only to keep the peace, but to make a peace that is worth keeping. This is no easy task. It means the humanizing of all our activities. Everywhere a human ideal must be placed above every other kind of success. Religion must be lifted above ecclesiasticism; and business honor above the vulgar standards of commercialism. The machinery of civilization must be made subservient to man. More careers must be opened for men of the soldierly spirit whose ambition is for service. The new generation must be shown what opportunities the world’s business and politics offer to greathearted gentlemen who are willing to risk something for a cause. The kind of peace which the world needs cannot be had for the asking. It comes high, —but it is worth the price.