Peace on Earth or Something Like It

It’s one of the most recognizable phrases of the Yuletide season:” Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Ranks up there with “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” “bah-humbug,” and “Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.” The line, taken from the biblical gospel of Luke, is the closing lyric at the end of every verse of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who authored the carol, was aware of his repetitive prose, commemorating his style in the first verse. “Wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth good will to men.” He echoed the nativity story when angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. The heavenly beings divulge the who/when/where details to the migrant workers; then a whole choir appears and sings “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

It’s such a familiar verse, even people who’ve never stepped foot in a church could quote it. From greeting cards to A Charlie Brown Christmas, this Bible story is ingrained in our collective psyche - an inseparable part of pop culture as much as it is a sacred religious tradition. Yet, it is woefully lacking.

Two decades ago, most of my friends (and all of my roommates) were musicians. We all challenged each other to be smarter and more artistic. We honed each other’s talents. One of these dudes had never read an entire book in his life unless required for school. When he decided to be more of a reader, the first book he chose was Plato’s Apology. He asked me if I wanted to take a class with him to study Koine Greek. How could I resist? Doesn’t everyone want to learn a dead language?

I still can’t speak the ancient Mediterranean tongue. It’s complex - lacking in punctuation and current rules of grammar. However, I do remember the alphabet, basic pronunciation, and some vocabulary. More importantly, I learned the basics of how modern scholars approach biblical translation since Koine is the language used in the most of the earliest copies of the New Testament. I learned how many of the older translations into English did not provide the most accurate translation possible. The King James Bible is rife with minor mistranslations including this verse in Saint Luke’s telling of the birth of Christ.

Here is the scripture of Luke 2:14 according to the KJV: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

And the same thing in Koine Greek: “δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας”

Yeah, I know. You probably can’t read Greek and for the most part, neither can I. However there are a couple words I recognize from my studies during the summer of 2001. Simple ones like ἐν (en) which means in. Or καὶ (kai) the Greek word for and. Easy stuff. Seminary students would likely know words like θεῷ (Theo), which means God, and ἀνθρώποις might be familiar to anthropology students because it’s the entomological origin of their degree curriculum.

To make things easy, I’ll transliterate it: doxa en hypsistois Theo kai epi gēs eirēnē en anthropois eudokias. In a literal word for word translation into English: glory in highest to God and on earth peace among men … eudokias.

That last word, eudokias, is where it gets weird. This is where the KJV goes astray. What does the word mean? It’s also the last word in Philippians 2:13 and there, the KJV gets the translation correct: “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Eudokias only appears twice in the New Testament. The KJV the translation right in one verse but wrong in the other. How? Why? And what should it say?

Eudokias means good will or good pleasure or with pleasure or good favor or with favor. There’s a lot of different ways to interpret it; like I said, Koine Greek is a complex language.

This is how the KJV got it mixed up. They used good pleasure in Paul’s epistle and good will in the gospel. More specifically God’s good pleasure and men’s good will. On the surface it seems correct, but it’s not. There’s a mistake into how the good will was applied. The word eudokiasis a possessed word. Not possessed like a ghost, but possessed as in belonging to someone or something. This is apparent in the KJV take in Philippians. The good pleasure of eudokias belongs to God. Once you understand the weird and often confusing syntax of Koine, we find the same is true in the book of Luke. The good pleasure, good will, or good favor in the Christmas story belongs to God, not people.

A broken English translation of the verse in Luke should read “glory in highest to God and on earth peace among men of his good will.” Or men of his pleasure (awkward) or as most modern translations use, his favor. More specifically, the NIV reads “peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

It’s not peace on earth AND good will to men. It is peace on earth for those of God’s good will.

I can understand how the King James translators got it wrong and I can see what they got wrong, but I do not know why. All I can explain is the modern implications of this 400 year old mistake.

Despite growing up in a church that relied on the NIV, it’s the KJV version I can quote from rote memory because that’s the version from the Christmas song and Charles Schultz’s cartoon special. It’s the one repeated in the public square.

It would be easy to conclude peace on earth is the sole purpose of the nativity. To do so is missing the point. If Jesus came to bring peace on earth to people with whom God’s favor rests, God’s people should be peacekeepers, or rather, peace bringers.

We cannot sit back and pretend peace on earth is an abstract concept, the responsibility of the divine, and ignore the role we’re supposed to take. The birth of Jesus should give Christians a peace that surpasses all understanding - a sense of peace so strong and overwhelming, we can’t help but spread it to the world around us. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace on earth. He came to give us peace on an earth in turmoil. He lived to show us how to share that peace. And he commanded us to do the hard work of binging peace on earth.

Unfortunately in modern Christianity, especially in America, and ESPECIALLY in white evangelical culture, this message is lost. When I look at the American Evangelical Church, peace is the last adjective that comes to mind. Quarrelsome, fearful, vindictive, chaotic, divisive, greedy, violent, too busy fighting an imaginary war on Christmas to realize everything they do is antithetical to the gospel of Christ.

Not much has changed in America since Longfellow penned his poem.

I want to reclaim the spirit of Christmas. I want my fellow Christians to truly be a people of God’s good will. If there is to be peace on earth, may we be the peacekeepers who bring it to a world starving for peace and be people of eudokias.


Coping Isn’t Coping

Situational depression. Or at least that’s what my therapist called it. One situation in my life sucked and another was really crappy. A + B = D for depressed. Ideally, once circumstances changed, I’d be happier.

Things did change and eventually I did feel better. I also attended therapy and took medication. I had a couple different support groups and was involved in my church. I was happy, or at least as close to happy as possible.

Biologically speaking, depression is always there. For some people, it’s a lingering presence and daily burden. For others it ebbs and flows like the tide. Today is OK but tomorrow never knows. Those with SAD (or seasonal affective disorder) fall into this latter category, their mental health dependent on the weather. My situational depression makes me a candidate for the occasionally depressed. Since it’s a chemical imbalance, there isn’t a cure, only treatment through prescriptions and counseling can reduce the symptoms. Your brain is what it is. It can be rewired but not replaced.

So this is who I am. Some days my depression is an echo in the basement of my psyche. Other days it’s the annoying neighbor throwing an all night kegger when I have to work at 5am the next morning. Some days, it’s mellow enough to be forgotten and other days it’s so loud and crippling it can’t be ignored. Some days, it is a circus clown waving in the distance, other days it’s a masked killer from a slasher flick chasing me up a flight of stairs because why wouldn’t I be foolish enough to ascend the stairs where there’s no means for me to escape - that’s what people do in horror movies.
image courtesy of Dark Sky Films

I didn’t learn about my depression and anxiety until I was in my mid-30s. My oblivious perspective didn’t mean I was not depressed prior to my diagnosis. I didn’t suddenly develop symptoms the moment my therapist gave me a label.

My journey through depression and anxiety mirrors my story of autism. I didn’t know I was on the spectrum until I was 40, but I’ve been autistic my whole life. In the same way, I didn’t know I was depressed until I was an adult. Looking back I can see I’ve struggled with depression since adolescence.

These are challenges no one should face alone. Life doesn’t come with a user guide; the closest thing we have to cheat codes are therapists. So I got one. She prescribed some drugs. So I took them. And it helped.

Mental health doesn’t have easy fixes. Therapeutic and pharmaceutical solutions are not cures, they’re temporary salves. Wonderful and helpful yet not enough to heal the deepest wounds. To cope with the stresses of life, changes in weather, and negative self talk, people plagued with depression and anxiety need to develop useful coping mechanisms.

Neurotypical people cope naturally. They do it without thinking. Bad things happen, they adjust and keep moving. They’re upset about something, they process the emotion and continue to function. It’s the natural order. However, not all brains are able to self-regulate on autopilot. That’s why good therapists teach coping mechanisms.

Some people count or take deep breaths, meditate or punch a pillow, read or play video games. I have a big challenge though: coping strategies don’t last. For example, I tap my fingers when I’m anxious and it helps me feel calm. Yet the anxiety returns the moment I stop tapping unless I’ve resolved the cause of my worried stress. However, finger tapping isn’t the only coping mechanism I’ve tried.

Doing something nice for someone else is a great anti-depressant. I’ve volunteered for various community programs, served homeless people, opened doors for strangers, participated in charity events, and donated to non-profit organizations. All of it feels great in the moment. I never feel depressed when engaging in acts of kindness. Unfortunately, I’m not able to do these happy acts all day every day. I have a regular job, kids to feed, and a farm to run. I can have the serotonin high of helping someone, only to come home confronted with the reality of laundry that never ends and fences perpetually in need of repair.

I’ve been told nature walks and spending time with animals are good for mental health. I agree. That’s why I tend to linger outside longer than necessary after doing evening barn chores. Giving ear scratches to our donkey, playing with the goats, or staring at the stars. It’s a peaceful end to an often hectic day. As refreshing as this time is, I can’t stay outside forever. The next day is coming with a new set of stressors.

I feel great at my DJ gigs; music is therapeutic. But my gigs have end times when the speakers are turned off and I must tear down my equipment. There are times throughout my day where music cannot be played in the background, whether due to business calls or a lack of accessibility. Songs, regardless of genre, calm me, but the benefit vanishes as soon as the music stops.

There are more coping methods. I could go on ad nauseam. Hopefully, you get the point. Coping is great until it isn’t. Coping doesn’t last. Coping isn’t coping. I still have to function.

Neurotypical people are able to cope without coping mechanisms. Either due to depression, anxiety, or autism, I do not posses that skill. How do I do it? I don’t know. What I do know is I wake up every day and do what must be done because there are people (and animals) who depend on me.

I’m OK, and even when I’m not, it’s OK. If you see me tapping my fingers, at least you know why.