Peace on Earth

The Cold War had people on edge when I was growing up in the 1950s, especially in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I can still recall reading a local news story about a woman who crashed into a National Guard tank that was rumbling down the highway en route to a local armory. She assumed the Russians had invaded and flew into a panic, losing control of her vehicle. Meanwhile, children like me were drilled in how to duck under our desks at school in the hope that this would somehow enable us to survive a nuclear attack. My mother was convinced we were all going to be incinerated by A-bombs and talked openly about moving to New Zealand. Needless to say, all this had an unsettling effect on impressionable young minds.

There was no getting away from Cold War hysteria, even when we trooped down to the Boulevard Theater on Saturday afternoons for the matinee double feature. Whether it was horror movies or sci-fi, the Saturday fare usually involved creatures designed to give us nightmares, including a fair number that had been irradiated by nuclear weapons. Then there was The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I saw on TV some years after it was first released in 1951. The film presents a reversal of the usual sci-fi tropes, since the space alien looks like a Hollywood matinee idol, and the principal danger to humanity comes from humanity itself. The alien Klaatu, played by English actor Michael Rennie, has been dispatched to Earth to warn its inhabitants that their bombs and rockets pose a threat to extraterrestrial civilizations. He gives them a choice: either cease their aggression or face annihilation.

Although never made explicit in the film, Klaatu is something of a Christ-like figure who first emerges from his flying saucer to assure earthlings that he has “come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” This echoes the heavenly host who visit the shepherds in Bethlehem to announce the birth of the Christ child by crying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." Klaatu is kept under guard but eludes his captors and for a time assumes the identity of a “Mr. Carpenter” – an allusion perhaps to Jesus’ earthly occupation. Still later, he is killed and raised from the dead. The film ends before it can be determined whether Klaatu has been any more successful than the Prince of Peace in bringing peace to our planet. Jesus, of course, would never impose peace on anyone against his or her will. Klaatu, on the other hand, has already demonstrated he means business by bringing the entire planet to a standstill for half an hour. “If you threaten to extend your violence,” he warns the world’s leaders, “this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.”

The earth, of course, is fully capable of reducing itself to a burned-out cinder without assistance from extraterrestrials. So why doesn’t God step in the way Klaatu did and enforce order on these unruly creatures who are supposedly made in his image? The usual answer is that human beings are endowed with free will and must therefore decide for themselves. They certainly need to think they decide such things for themselves. But a better answer is that they need to find peace not just for themselves but within themselves. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself,” Emerson once said. How can this be? “My peace I give to you,” Jesus had told his followers. “Not as the world gives do I give to you.” This is not something the world can bestow upon you; it is your birthright. But this can create a problem if you expect peace to rain down like manna from heaven. Because even God can’t give you what you already have.

Luke 2:14
John 14:27

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