A year ago, I posted this blog at Christmas time. Normally I’d pen something new, but just the other day “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flitted past my awareness and it brought me right straight back to this very message. It is, alas, as true as it ever was. And so I am compelled to post it again this year. Maybe I’m even compelled to post it year after year until something truly changes. I’m hopeful that won’t be long, because there’s something in the air these days that feels like, smells like, tastes like change. Maybe the Mayans had it right. As B’ak’tun 13 ends, a new era begins, offering us the opportunity to make sure that peace and enlightenment mark the next 394.26 years of B’ak’tun 14. I pray that it’s so. But until then …
Then from each black, accursed mouth the cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned of peace on earth, good will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;
For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned those words on Christmas Day in 1864. They’re part of a poem, Christmas Bells, probably more familiar to you as the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Well, most of the poem, anyway, because these two verses were removed. They’re not particularly light hearted and Christmassy. What they were, however, was tremendously meaningful for Longfellow and reflective of the times in which he lived. I think we’d be wise to revisit their message today.
In 1864, America was about as contentious as it gets, bedeviled by the Civil War. It was truly North vs. South, Confederate vs. Union, and, worst of all, brother vs. brother. Longfellow was a poet of peace and had long supported abolitionism. He hoped for a resolution before war could overtake the land, but he didn’t get his wish. Unfortunately, he got a lot more than he expected. In 1861 alone, the war opened and his wife was fatally burned. In 1863, his eldest son Charles was severely wounded on the battlefield of that very war he lamented. The times in which he lived took a toll on this gentle, peaceful man, silencing even his poet’s soul and turning him toward the more literal work of translation.
“I can make no record of these days,” he wrote. “Better leave them wrapped in silence.”
But in the fall of 1864, with Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and a welcome scent of peace on the wind, Longfellow renewed his hope for reconciliation between North and South. He broke his silence and wrote the poem, Christmas Bells.
There’s a message in this story for us today. Longfellow’s dark times were not unlike our new millenium, with acid-tongued rhetoric dripping from the mouths of politicians, opinion leaders, and (yes, free speech advocates), even the media. This country may well be dipped in despair, where no one seems able to collaborate to achieve a win-win result and the blame game is rampant. Forget about accountability. It’s always someone else’s fault, be it a left-winger or a right-winger, a Democrat or a Republican. Spirited rhetoric will always exist — and should. It’s the vitriolic rhetoric that has no place in a civilized society.
Like Longfellow, it’s enough to strike us dumb, to leave this age “wrapped in silence.” So I ask you this: Are we looking at another Civil War, however different the battles may be? Is it to be Democrat vs. Republican, Conservative vs. Liberal, Right vs. Left, Legislative vs. Executive, Environment vs. Business, 1% vs. 99%, Christian vs. Muslim vs. Jew vs. Atheist vs. Buddhist? Where does it end?
Longfellow wrote, once the war subsided: “I have only one desire; and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between North and South.” His voice was lifted in support of unity, of win-win results, of rebuilding a country.
I believe many voices today are simply struck dumb, like Longfellow was for a time. We’re wrapped in that silence. But I sense, following a tumultuous year, that there’s a change in the air, that perhaps the silence is about to be broken.
And here’s the thing that gives me hope: Longfellow’s poem didn’t end on that bleak note, however poignant and stark it may be. He ended with this:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men!’
A few months after Longfellow penned those hopeful words, Abraham Lincoln was sworn in for his second term. The president said, at that historic juncture:
“On this occasion four years ago, all thoughts were directed to a coming Civil War. All feared it. All tried to prevent it. Both parties opposed war. But one of them would make war rather than let the nation live. And the other would accept war, rather than let it die. And the war came. …
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right — as God gives us to see the right — let us strive on to finish the work we are in. Let us heal the nation’s wounds. Let us do all possible to get and keep a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Yes, let’s. There’s much to be done. It’s time to break our silence and, like Longfellow’s bells, drown out the divisive rhetoric with civility and collaboration.