The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
Published December 22, 2022
By Lib Campbell
American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on Christmas Day of 1863, wrote what has become a well-loved carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His words reflect on a world of injustice and pain that is the paradox of peace on earth and goodwill that we hope will manifest among us in the birth of the Christ Child.
Longfellow was widowed at age 57 when his wife, Fannie, died as her dress caught fire and burned. His grief was deep, and his own injuries in trying to save Fannie rendered him unable to go to her funeral. The Longfellows had six children, the oldest, a son named Charles. In March of 1863, Charles left the Cambridge, Massachusetts home to enlist in the military. The cruel war was raging.
At the Mine Run Campaign in Virginia, Charles was hit by a bullet that grazed his spine. It was a near fatal injury that almost paralyzed Charles. Against the backdrop of loss, suffering and pain, a time when Americans were fighting other Americans, Mr. Longfellow was inspired to write this poem. His words were set to music in 1872 by English organist John Baptiste Calkin. They ring of hope, goodwill, and peace on earth.
The bells of the churches of Cambridge peeling good news reminded Longfellow that despair is not the end of the story. There is an unbroken song of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” (I use Longfellow’s editorial “men,” because it fits the meter of the poem. “Men” here means humankind.)
The last two verses of the hymn poem seem most poignant.
“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 peeled 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.”
That continues to be the hope of this season. Hope is audacious against the backdrop of all that is hateful in the world today. And the vision of peace and good will is clouded in the words and actions of those who wreak havoc on civility and order. Perhaps we need the bells to peel wildly across the land.
From Hannukah, to Christmas, to Kwanzaa, the hope is for Light to permeate the Darkness that covers us.
Several weeks ago, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter spoke to reporters about her mother’s feelings as soon she passes the Speakership gavel. Ms. Pelosi said her mother was simply “done.” Honestly, I think a lot of us are “done” with the rancor and rile, the cruelty and hate of the politics we live in today. I am “done” with the likes of those who do not know how to navigate the world without the rudeness, lies, and ugliness they live and foment. I think it must feel dirty to live with hate in one’s heart. A lot going on around us is just plain wrong.
Mr. Longfellow reminds us that “wrong” is not the end of the story. Wrong can never be the end of the story. Bullies and strongmen cannot win. People are weary of the pettiness and grievance. People tire of oppression. Empires fall. It’s hard to keep cruelty going.
It’s so much easier to keep the good going when we participate in a life that is larger than our own. There is a lot going on around us that is beautiful and right. Kindness shows up in unexpected places. Faces shine in the hope of a better world. Beyond the ugly, there is goodness ready, willing, and able to dwell among us.
In this Holy Season look for all that is good in the promises of Light and Life. Live and share joy. Lay down whatever resentment, anger, and bitterness that covers you like fetters and find the voice to rejoice. In that you will find new life. Happy Christmas, all!
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader, columnist and host of the blogsite www.avirtualchurch.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org