Saturday, December 26, 2009

good will

This morning I read an intriguing article by Karen Armstrong, an author whose work never fails to interest. In a short piece called The season has meaning for all, celebrators and skeptics alike, she wrote: "the Christmas story is a salutary reminder that faith has also encouraged radical visions for a more compassionate world." She says the Gospel's two nativity stories, given in Matthew and Luke, used imagined accounts of the messiah's birth to convey the unsettling message that this new religion welcomed outsiders, particularly the poor and marginalized people of the places where the new churches were forming.

As it happens, I was thinking about one part of the nativity stories while in church Christmas eve. I wondered about the phrase "good will" which, as it also happens, was not in the readings this year. As I'm sure you know, Luke's gospel tell us how angels announced the coming of Jesus to shepherds in their fields at night and heavenly hosts joined them to proclaim peace and good will.

While there are many English renderings of the verse in Luke where the good will of the King James Bible appears,* two that make good sense if not good poetry are 'highest honor to God, peace in the world, and kindness among men' and 'Glory in the high heavens to God, and on Earth peace with favored people.'** Perhaps the best literal translation is the one given by J.K. Gayle in a blog called Aristotle's Feminist Subject: 'Brilliant renown to god in the highest places and on the ground peace in blessed honor to mortals.'***

These literal readings line up well with Armstrong's homily. She tells us Luke's night-watching shepherds did not belong to a class of people who found favor in the culture of their time, and, probably for this reason, his God chose them to be the first to hear the good news. Shepherds, she says, were outsiders, a type "sometimes regarded as sinners by the pious Jewish establishment because they did not observe the purity laws." These members of a social fringe group were the prototype followers of the Christian faith. They were preëminently favored by God to hear of peace and blessings to come.

The authors of the King James Bible, and those who followed their lead, did well in choosing good will as their rendering of the Greek not because of its literal accuracy but because of its subtlety. The online Oxford English Dictionary gives nuances of the phrase in screenful after screenful of definition and usage example. Consider these two examples from Wordsworth and Shelley:
The Horses have worked with right good-will. (The Waggoner 1805)

And I will give thee as a good-will token / The beautiful wand of wealth and happiness. (Hymn to Mercury Translated from the Greek of Homer 1820)

One major strain of these meanings is the association of good will with empathy, a generosity of spirit, and concern for the well-being of others. I found this passage in a book of 1670 on the great fire that had consumed most of London in 1666:
When the will is strongly enclined and byassed [biased] to works of charity, so that a man would fain be a giving to the poor; and a supplying the wants and necessities of the needy; but can't for want of an estate; in this case God accepts of the will for the deed. David had a purpose and a will to build God a house, and God took it so kindly at his hands, that he dispatches an Embassadour to him, to tell him, how highly he resented [meaning the opposite of what this word means to us now] his purpose and good will, to build him a house. The Widows will was in her two mites which she cast into Gods Treasury; and therefore Christ sets a more honourable value upon them, than he dos upon all the vast summs that others cast in. Many Princes and Queens, Lords and Ladies are forgotten, when this poor Widow, who had a will to be nobly charitable, has her name written in letters of Gold, and her charity put upon record for all eternity. The King of Persia did lovingly accept of the poor mans handful of water, because his good will was in it, and put it into a Golden Vessel, and gave the poor man the Vessel of Gold. And do you think, that the King of Kings will be out-done by the King of Persia? Surely no.
-- London's lamentations: or, A serious discourse concerning that late fiery dispensation that turned our (once renowned) city into a ruinous heap. Also the several lessons that are incumbent upon those whose houses have escaped the consuming flames, by Thomas Brooks (Printed for J. Hancock and N. Ponder, 1670)

A second major strain in the OED's definitions of good will suggests the promise held out to the shepherds of tranquility and social justice that will come, all in good time, to people such as them. In the following passage an African-American preacher of the late 19th-century tells his hearers that the world is no pleasant place now, but there will come times when people will live together without conflict and, one is pretty sure, all will be able to hold their heads high.
Once more on the tall cliffs of Mount Paradise rest the melting rays of a setting sun. The bald tops of Gedor, Gibeah, and Mais Elias, as a thousand times before, flame in the distance with burnished gold. Gedor and Gibeah, from their bald tops, without emotion look down on centuries that have rolled away before them, like the mist of the morning. What shifting scenes, what tragedies of life have been played out on their sides and in the vales below. What mighty forces have gone out from before them to subdue the world, and to bring to it, peace and good will towards men. And still old Gedor and Gibeah stand on and on in grim silence, waiting for the perfection of that peace to come.
-- Poems by Howard Marion McClellan, African Methodist Episcopal Church. Sunday School Union. (Publishing House A.M.E. Church Sunday School Union, 1895)


* The Biblos web site's comparative texts for Gospel, Luke Chapter 2 verses 7-14 include:
  • King James Bible: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'
  • New American Standard Bible: 'Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.'
  • Darby Bible Translation: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good pleasure in men.'
  • Young's Literal Translation: 'Glory in the highest to God, and upon earth peace, among men -- good will.'
  • Douay-Rheims Bible: 'Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.'
. ** From: luke 2:14 on the shields-up blog.

*** Luke 2:14 in Greek is δόξα ἐν ὑψίστοις θεῷ καὶ ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας. The last two words: (1) ἀνθρώποις, anthropos, is in the dative plural masculine, means man-faced, i.e. a human being -- certain, man and (2) εὐδοκίας, eudokia, in the nominative singular feminine, means satisfaction, i.e. (subjectively) delight, or (objectively) kindness, wish, purpose -- desire, good pleasure (will), seem good. Gayle's blog post calls attention to rhymes and word-play in Luke's text in order to show that Luke's inclusive language encompassed women as well as (presumably masculine) poor shepherds.

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