Mankind is growing ever less violent, ever more moral. We live in a world of unprecedented peacefulness. By almost every measure, life is longer, happier, healthier, kinder than ever before in human history. Such, at least, are the conclusions of Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of Our Nature I just finished reading.
Because these ideas strike many as counter-intuitive, Pinker amasses an astounding body of evidence to support them. It’s a dense and powerful book, and at times while reading it, you feel inundated by statistics and sources. I found it both persuasive and powerful. And the stories, the descriptions, the history! At times, I was overwhelmed by the book, overwhelmed to the point of tears, reading Pinker’s recitation of the atrocities human beings have historically visited on their fellow human beings.
Do people still murder? Yes, but murder rates have never been lower, and the trend is for them to fall further still. Does war still disfigure the international landscape? Of course, but there have never been fewer wars than now, nor wars as comparatively non-lethal. And acts that were once commonplace are now unthinkable. We no longer burn witches, or torture heretics, or allow our governments to brutalize gay people. One example out of thousands: the History channel will air, starting on Memorial Day, a mini-series about the Hatfields and McCoys. Can we even imagine that bloody feud today? Of course not–cops would show up, SWAT teams, CNN.
Why is this happening, why this new period of peace? Pinker suggests many reasons, among them the wider dissemination of knowledge through printing presses, radio, TV, the internet. The power of ideas of non-violence, the science that stresses our common humanity with other races and peoples. The growing power and influence of government, the Leviathan, with its monopoly on sanctioned violence. People have made it happen. We have chosen to make it happen, to write about it, talk about it, get out the word.
Thought shift: change of topic. I loathe Sunday School lessons about the Last Days. Detest them. I know, we’re supposed to say, with the Revelator “even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” I don’t. I have a horrid fascination with the Book of Revelation, with the Four Horseman, with Conquest, War, Famine, Death, with the Seven Seals, with images of destruction. I don’t know if Mormons believe in the Rapture–in people taken up into heaven, pilots raptured out of their planes, drivers from their cars. I do know I don’t believe in it. We’re supposed to find the Last Days bearable, because they lead to the Second Coming and the Millennium. In those classes, I hear good people, my brothers and sisters, saying ‘the world is so wicked right now, I look forward to His coming.’ I shudder at that thought. I don’t think the world is particularly wicked, and I think it’s getting much less wicked all the time. I love reading contemporary scholarship about the Revelation, love the evidence supporting the idea that it was not about the future at all, but about Nero and Rome and the first century A.D. I’m rooting for it to not be about today.
So what if, instead, the Millennium, that thousand years of peace, where the teachings of Jesus flood the earth, where the Prince of Peace reigns, what if that’s something we’re supposed to make happen? What if this isn’t supposed to be about bloodshed and horror wiping out The Wicked? What if it’s about peace, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our government institutions and schools and media?
What if Pinker’s right? What if we’re heading towards a kind of millennium right now, a comparative one, one in which we just keep doing a little better, every new generation? What if Saturday isn’t a time for warriors at all, but peacemakers?
What if bringing about the Millennium is something we’re supposed to do?