Cross-posted from the Huffington Post
On Christmas Eve, 1967, Lyndon Johnson landed in Washington after one of the longest days in presidential history. His plane departed Australia for Thailand, then Vietnam, and on to the Vatican to discuss the war with Pope Paul VI. Finally, the weary President returned to the White House to draft a Christmas message.
With exhaustion evident in his words, he told of his journey.
Now, on the airstrip at Camranh Bay, your sons and I exchanged "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year." I told them that I wished I could bring them something more -- some of the pride you feel in them, some tangible symbol of your love and concern for them.
I decorated 20 of them for gallantry in action. Their faces seemed more grave than the others -- preoccupied, I thought, with the savage experience of battle they had endured.
In the hospital, I spoke with those who bore the wounds of war. You cannot be in such a place, among such men, without feeling grief well up in your throat; without feeling grateful that there is such courage among your countrymen.
That was Christmastime in Vietnam -- a time of war, of suffering, of endurance, of bravery and devotion to country.
Now that the Holy Day itself has come, I wish each of you a full
measure of happiness. I hope that all of you may remember this
Christmas, the brave young men who celebrate the Holy Season far from their homes, serving their country -- serving their loved ones -- serving each of us.
I hope, too, that your hearts may be filled with peace within, as your country seeks peace in the world.
It was a somber Christmas message from a deeply conflicted man. Perhaps Johnson saw his own folly: escalating violence in the search of peace. In doing so, he found "neither peace within nor peace without."
This search for peace was the basis of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sermon that Christmas Eve in 1967. He said, "Let us this morning think anew on the meaning of that Christmas Hope: 'Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men.'"
At his home church in Atlanta, Georgia, King spent his last Christmas urging the President, the country, and the world to see that peace cannot be borne from violence. That night, he spoke of how the distant must be our dependents (and we, theirs), how the hateful must be our loved, and how our ends must be our means.
King spoke of the suffering he'd witnessed at home and abroad. A great mass of humanity was going hungry -- without peace within -- in a world that had mountains of surplus food. Neglecting them, he thought, would be to neglect our peace.
Because we would not find peace, King said, until we came to the realization that we are all brothers and sisters and that "as nations and individuals, we are interdependent." Today, in the age of terrorism and globalization, we can see more clearly how our interdependence underlies our peace.
And even more today, in our world of polarization and hatred, we must come to a new understanding of love, just as King suggested some 39 years ago. This love "is more than friendship," it is "understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all men."
This is what Jesus meant when He said, "Love your enemies." And I'm happy that He didn't say, "Like your enemies," because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can't like anybody who would bomb my home. I can't like anybody who would exploit me. I can't like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. I can't like them. I can't like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out.
Here King spoke of violent racists, but it applies today in our struggle against extremists, of any sort. We cannot allow others' hatred to destroy what is best in us. As King put it, "We must never let up in our determination to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation, but we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege to love."
And to all those seeking peace -- and as if in reply to Johnson's anguish -- King said,
[W]e will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can't reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.
... Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? [He is] talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.
A conclusion that escapes those in power, still today.
Increasing violence had failed President Johnson that Christmas Eve, yet he chose escalation, upping 1968's draft call by 720,000 less than a month later. Now, another Christmas Eve, another war, and seemingly another escalation.
It's likely King knew his idea was still a distant dream. Because that night, he closed his sermon with another famous dream -- the one he shared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- adding to it,
I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men.