NEW YEAR’S EVE IN GENEVA
(A story I read close to fifty years ago forms the basis of this sermon. I have modified, revised and updated the story numerous times to adjust it to the international situation on the occasions I have preached it.)
It had been snowing all morning in the northeast, in the states along the Canadian border, all over New England and even as far south as Virginia. Now, in the evening of this New Year’s Eve the fields, the woods, and the frozen lakes were as white as those on Christmas cards. In the cities and towns the snow had held up traffic, and motors and horns remained silent in the stillness that descended. The wind blew the snowflakes, larger than usual, twirling them first one way and then another as they danced in circles and it seemed that the sky itself was coming down in small pieces.
There was much less traffic than was customary for this time of the year and fewer last minute shoppers than usual in the large shopping malls. Many of the large stores had closed at noon on the previous day, that had been a Tuesday. Most of the offices and factories had also closed the day before, so that if the great experiment failed, families could spend the last day together. Not a few people had celebrated the New Year a day or so early, so that they could at least be with their friends and members of the family one last time, and bid the old year good-bye.
The absence of panic was surprising. Some of the families who lived in the metropolitan areas had tried to leave for rural areas, but, as was expected, the police and the army had set up road blocks, and the people were told to return to their homes and find refuge in designated public shelters or private ones. The majority of the people had shown a quiet resignation, like those who confront what they know to be inevitable. It was as though they felt that this crisis, even though fatal, might not be more difficult to endure than other minor crises they had faced in the past. There seemed to be an attitude of quiet resignation mixed with a small dose of restlessness as they determined to see it all to the end.
This attitude was also reflected in the media. The press and the TV had been analyzing the dramatic proposal and speculating on whether it might produce a peaceful solution. Federal, state and municipal authorities had issued joint bulletins describing what might be expected, the possibilities of survival, and the situation if the initial explosion was not fatal. Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams had come together to give words of comfort and counsel. Some of the editorials in the great dailies, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, held up human values and quoted the words of Patrick Henry, “Is life so precious or peace so wonderful that they should be purchased with chains and slavery. O God, do not permit it. I know not the path others will take but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
On previous occasions, New Year’ Eve had been celebrated with happy preparations for parties and gatherings of all kinds. Liquor stores scored their best sales of the year. Restaurants and night clubs prepared special menus and festivities. The more religious of the people attended services, lit candles and sang Frances Havergal’s hymn,
“Standing at the portal
Of the opening year,
Words of comfort meet us,
Hushing every fear…”
But today things were different. Few people were on the streets. The highways were empty. Most flights had been cancelled and numerous airports were closed. Those who had wanted to catch a flight home had done so days before. The atmosphere in the few bars, nightclubs and restaurants that were open was somber. In the scattered churches that prepared to celebrate midnight services, the hymn that might be sung would be the one James Russell Lowell wrote on the eve of the Mexican/American War:
“Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side.
Tonight’s New Year’s vigil would be spent in front of the television screen awaiting news from Geneva, Switzerland. The various networks had banded together to present what could be one last program. After the six o’clock news, Brian Williams, Dianne Sawyer and others talked about world changing events, special guests sang appropriate songs, orchestras played inspirational music, Maya Angelou read selections from the world’s best literature, and a representative of each of the major religions offered prayers.
In Geneva it was also snowing. Geneva, the third city in the Swiss confederation, an anomaly among the governments of the world, whose peaceful neutrality had permitted it to escape the ravages of two world wars, but whose strict interpretation of neutrality had made its membership in the United Nations impossible…here, the seat of the International Red Cross since 1864 and headquarters of the League of Nations from 1920 to 1946, the snow fell effortlessly in the alpine night, the multiple flakes flying around the street lights like white moths.
The snow came to rest on the ground filling the tire marks of the automobiles that converged on the palace of what had once been the League of Nations. Here, over the years the nations of the world had gathered to try to solve their international conflicts, each conference opening in hope and ending in frustration and despair. Here, those men whose names were synonymous with power and influence had gathered, Eisenhower, Dulles, Kruschev, Macmillan, all now in the pages of history, like many before them, Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemmenceau. Tonight, in the limousines and soon to sit at the table in the great conference room of the palace, were new names, representing new interests, new alliances, and new centers of power.
The League of Nations had practically expired when, in 1936, in spite of sanctions imposed for its aggression, Italy invaded Ethiopia. The United Nations had lost much of its influence when, in 2015, the Congress of the United States voted not pay its accumulated past dues and cancel its membership. The two organizations had been destined to fail from the beginning because all of the member nations insisted on retaining their individual national sovereignty.
During the last five years of the second decade of the twenty first century the crisis in the world grew to alarming proportions. The warming of the earth had caused the ice cap in Greenland to melt raising the level of the oceans and flooding many sea side communities. This was especially acute in low lying countries like Bangladesh, where multitudes of people had been displaced. Monstrous hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific had wreaked havoc on many cities. Extended droughts in many countries had made fresh drinking water more expensive than gasoline. Egypt threatened to invade Ethiopia because it had dammed up the head waters of the Nile, and Iraq threatened to bomb the dam that Turkey had built blocking the head waters of the Euphrates river. And civil war had broken out in various countries in Africa because of the growing chasm between the rich and the poor.
For some time North Korea had been agitating for a united Korea accusing the United States of keeping the two countries apart. A few months ago it rejected the cease fire that had held for over sixty years and began issuing threatening statements against its neighbor to the south and against the United States, but no one paid much attention since it had done this before. Then it moved troops to the demilitarized zone and threatened the South with annihilation if it did not join the North. South Korea sent a special envoy to Pyongyang to negotiate some kind of peaceful agreement, but he was not even allowed to speak with the Supreme Leader. The South called up its reserves to resist an invasion from the North, and when a group of South Korean Special Forces failed in its attempt to destroy the North’s nuclear command center, the North launched a missile with a nuclear warhead that hit the city of Seoul inflicting widespread destruction and loss of life. The world was stunned.
Many of the leaders held their breath and wondered how the United States would respond to this deliberate and premeditated attack on its ally.
In the United States, some urged the President to order a nuclear attack on North Korea, others warned that this might anger China and she might retaliate, and so proposed some kind of a negotiated settlement. While the President and Congress were debating what to do, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, invited Japan and the Philippines to peacefully join in a Pacific alliance to stop what he called “American imperialism,” or face widespread nuclear destruction similar to that inflicted upon the Seoul. These countries chose to join the alliance instead of facing widespread destruction, and sent diplomats to Pyongyang to sign the pact.
China sent an envoy to North Korea to try to calm an irate Leader, but this diplomat too was sent home humiliated. Then North Korea urged the countries of South East Asia to join the alliance or face the same fate as Seoul, and warned the United States that if it interfered, North Korea would bomb the cities of Portland and Seattle, and to prove its capabilities dropped a nuclear bomb on an uninhabited island in the Aleutians. The Muslim countries of the Middle East, responded that they would defend their Muslim cousins in Malaysia and Indonesia, and Pakistan offered its nuclear assistance. Many people thought that the end had come.
It was at that moment, six months ago, that a slender woman, a prominent pediatrician, who had been elected president of the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica only weeks before, speaking unofficially as the representative of the neutral countries of the Third Word, made a bold and audacious announcement. On Costa Rican radio and television she addressed North Korea and the whole world that the time had come to make a final decision to solve the problems of the world -- either through the extinction of the human race by a nuclear holocaust or possible survival through one last attempt at dialogue in a conference. She challenged the leaders of the world, especially the President of the United States and the Supreme Leader of North Korea to resist the temptation to ignite the fuse that would lead to a final conflagration. She called on the Secretary General of the United Nations to make arrangements for a gathering of leaders of the world in Geneva that very week.
The nations of the world were electrified by this challenge. Various presidents and prime ministers responded immediately supporting the proposal. Soon all the countries were responding voicing their approval. What was most amazing was the worldwide response on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. The Costa Rican government set up computers in an attempt to receive the messages of support from all over and respond with words from the President, but the whole system was flooded and finally broke down. People all over the world gathered in streets, parks and squares to voice their support of the proposal and sing the national anthem of Costa Rica and wave the Costa Rican flag. Finally, even the Supreme Leader of North Korea, feeling the pressure of world opinion and an amazing outpouring of support for the proposal by people in his own country, accepted the proposal. In the United States someone suggested on Facebook that to indicate their support for the Costa Rican proposal, people should blow the horns of their cars. The noise in every major city from New York to San Diego and Seattle to Miami was deafening. The President came on prime time to announce that the United States would also accept the proposal.
But cynics everywhere said that all previous peace conferences had failed and peace treaties had been broken. They warned that this would only postpone nuclear war for a few weeks.
Snow continued to come out of the night as the limousines bearing the leaders of the world drove slowly towards the palace. The beams of the headlights revealed the armies of snowflakes that marched across the windshields, only to disappear in the dark. Thoughts that seemed to come out of the darkness marched across the minds of the delegates seated in the vehicles and then vanished.
It had been six months since the President of Costa Rica had outlined her proposal in the Conference that had met in Geneva. Her plan, “A Millennium of Constructive Peace,” called for a period of one hundred and eighty days during which time the Swiss technicians would create a computer center to gather data from all over the world to process the information necessary for a comprehensive and impartial solution to the most pressing problems of the world. Each nation would be invited to send its most prominent scholars to Geneva to feed their information into the banks of computers and every person on the planet who had access to some kind of communication device would be invited to send his or her opinion on how to obtain and secure world peace to the special web site set up for this purpose.
So for one hundred and eighty days, Geneva and the critical task carried out there had been the center of the attention of the world. Special reporters issued hour by hour updates on the progress. Scholars studied all the political systems of the world; analyzed the history of all religious movements and all the pages of philosophy, history, poetry and fiction; studied the findings of psychology and sociology; considered the implications of the solutions to mathematical problems; the effects of all the economic systems on human behavior; the causes and consequences of all the wars; the contribution of all the master pieces of painting, sculpture and architecture; the interaction of all the known natural forces and how they balanced each other; and the effects of industrialization on the environment.
The messages of millions of people that sent in their opinions about world peace threatened to crash the computers, but the Bill Gates Foundation provided the funds necessary to upgrade the system and salvage the messages. Messages came from humble farmers in Guatemala, students in Kenya, CEOs in New York, from every nook and cranny in the world.
Day and night for one hundred and eighty days every shred of human knowledge from the dawn of recorded history to the present and the millions upon millions of messages from people worldwide were fed into the bank of computers. Now on New Year’s Eve of 2015, for one fleeting moment, the leaders of 156 countries of the world had gathered in Geneva, in the palace where years before the first spark of universal peace had sputtered and died, to try to light the torch of peace.
Outside the windows of the conference room, the snow seemed to light up the darkness of the night like a ravaging fire blown by the wind. The delegates stood around tables arranged in a giant square, each delegate in front of a small plaque with the name of his or her country. Then over the loudspeaker they were asked to be seated, and after the raspy sound of the chairs being moved died down, the President of Costa Rica, who out of admiration for her courage had been elected moderator of the session, dressed in a long gown with red, white and blue stripes, the colors of the flag of her country, stood and said in Spanish, which was simultaneously translated into the five principal languages of the world: “Ladies and gentlemen, as we begin this meeting my emotions overcome me. We all know that this is the most critical gathering in the history of the world. The fact that it has even been held is evidence of the deep desire of all human beings to live in peace. And yet, it also gives witness to the profound differences that divide us, that drive us to destroy each other rather than to try to find a way to live in harmony.”
She stood silently for a few moments as if in prayer, with her head bowed and her hands clasped in front of her. Then she breathed deeply and continued: “I speak without notes. When one speaks from the heart there is no need for notes. I am fully aware of the many things that divide us: memories of past humiliations and injustices that feed present animosity, the unequal distribution of the resources of the world, and the intractable commitment to conflicting points of view.”
Once again she stopped, and then looking around the room she continued: “I know not whether this may be the last time we gather. At this moment thousands of miles from here, my family, my aged parents, my husband, and my three children, have gathered to … I wanted to say, ‘to celebrate the arrival of the new year,’ but no, I must rather say they have gathered in front of the TV to listen to the news from Geneva. We are gathered here, after having garnered data from the contributions of human history and the opinions of millions upon millions of our fellow human beings, with the hope of getting advice on how to solve the problems of the world. We hope that this bank of computers, will distill for us a plan, free from hate, prejudice and personal or national gain, that we can implement in our search for world- wide peace. I do not know what that plan will be, which I understand, will be presented to us in brief moments. I am encouraged, however, by the fact that we have had the patience to wait one hundred and eighty days and the good will to gather here to listen to the results. I hope that, regardless of what the instructions we receive may be, we may have the integrity to accept this plan before returning to our countries to confront the end of our life, life as we know it on this planet. For a time in the past we harbored the hope of avoiding a nuclear war because of the sheer horror of it. Our only hope now is to listen to what these computers, the culmination of our scientific and technological advance have to say to us. Perhaps they may have touched the wisdom of God.”
Then she looked over at the main door of the conference room and said, “I see that the messengers are ready to distribute the plan. I request a moment of silence, before we take human destiny into our hands and possibly close the curtain on human history.”
The snow outside swirled around the windows, but no one noticed it. The moderator raised her hand as a signal for the messengers to enter. And as if a window had been opened and the wind had blown in a cascade of snow, a stream of men and women, each in the dress military uniform of his or her country, filed into the conference room, drew near to their respective delegate, and deposited in front of the 156 men and women, a large sealed envelope. It had been decided that the President of Costa Rica should have the privilege of opening the envelope first.
She stood there, took the envelope from the table, paused, and then sliced it open and took out a white sheet of paper that had been mechanically folded and inserted. The delicate sheet seemed to be so insignificant, given the eighteen month wait and the weight of the findings, nevertheless, it contained a summary of all the wisdom of the ages and the opinion of the inhabitants of the world.
The President unfolded the sheet and began to read, and while all the other delegates, now at liberty to do so were doing the same, she slumped into her chair, buried her face in her hands , and sobbed, for on the sheet of paper, the following words distilled from all the lessons and conflicts of the past, were printed in bold type:
“LOVE ONE ANOTHER”
The clock in the conference room struck twelve. Outside, it had stopped snowing, and yet every now and then a snowflake or two fluttered in front of the windows and then vanished, fleeting reminders of a storm that had passed.