I am not a religious man. I don’t call myself an atheist because I don’t consider myself smart enough to know whether or not there is a God or how the universe was created or where we go after we die. With that said, I am not comfortable with any of the popular belief systems that describe God’s role in our lives. I consider much of it allegory and superstition. I think for all the good organized religion has caused, there has been great harm done in the name of just about everyone’s version of God. I say all this as a disclaimer for what is about to follow.
After dinner, Thursday night, Christmas night, the radio was tuned to a station playing Christmas music non-stop. I’ve heard so many of the songs so often that they go in one ear and out the other. I like some and I dislike others. This particular night I heard a song with a haunting piano introduction that so enthralled me that I had to find out what the song was and who was playing it. I discovered the song was a re-arrangement of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by a contemporary Christian band called Casting Crowns. Apparently, this was a standard Christmas song going way back that I had simply never heard before. Even if I had heard it, I would not have recognized it by Casting Crowns’ rendition. They gave it a complete and compelling face lift. I located a video of the song that included the lyrics and I found myself drawn in even deeper.
As I did more research I discovered that the song drew most of its lyrics from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Christmas Bells”. Longfellow wrote the poem in the waning days of the Civil War before the war’s outcome was predictable. He had just gotten news of his son being wounded in battle. In the poem he tries to reconcile the fact of so much violence and bloodshed with the knowledge that peace is attainable. The two closing stanzas particularly struck me:
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!”
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.”
While I have no concept of God with which I am comfortable, these words resonated with me. For the first time, I realized that I believe that mankind has a momentum towards “good” or “right”. Call it God, call it karma, call it whatever you like. I think that for all the evil that surrounds us, mankind strives to do the right thing. People are fundamentally good the world over. I thought, if I just replace the word God with “hope”, then I’ve pinpointed my primary emotion. Hope is not dead, it does not sleep, the wrong shall fail and right will prevail. As we look at small pockets of history, this might be hard to swallow but when taking the long view, right does prevail. If you limited your view of life to WWII Nazi Germany, then you might be tempted to lose hope, but the suffering did end. Many of the guilty were brought to justice. All decent men and women learned lessons they would never forget and they made sure future generations would not forget either.
If you limited your view to the antebellum South, it would be easy to lose hope. The long view proves that the evil of slavery was defeated and many many years later, the presence of racism in American society is substantially less destructive. A couple of nights ago when I was watching a review of major political events of 2008, I saw the celebrants in Grant Park on election day. I thought I was done crying over Barack Obama’s election but my eyes welled up again. You see with Barack, we got a “twofer”. On the one hand we had the incredible symbolism that the old spiritual “We Shall Overcome” had some substance to it. A man who could just as easily have been lynched in the 1930’s South would be leader of our country and the free world. But we got more than symbolism. Over the past two months, Obama has spoken and acted in ways that give us hope in this economically despairing time. The man who would have been lynched in some parts of this country when we had our last major economic crisis is now our source of comfort. Obama has not said it will be easy but he has said repeatedly that we will get through this. “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”
Sometimes when the chips are down, hope is our most valuable currency. Yes, positive change takes hard work but the work is buoyed by optimism, by never giving up hope that we, as a species, gravitate toward good outcomes. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” has become my favorite holiday song because it reminds me that no matter how much sadness and despair surrounds us, by never giving up hope we get to a better day. We can overcome.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — Casting Crowns Live (notice there are no bells in the song, but rather the sounds of a children’s choir, the children’s voices reminding us that there is a future worth hoping for):
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” — Casting Crowns studio version (with lyrics):