Each year since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded on this very date, not coincidentally the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.
Just a scant two weeks from now, worshipers will be gathering to celebrate Christmas Eve. Most will listen to a reading of the words recorded in Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In January of 1897, the newspaper in Stockholm reported that Nobel, an affluent holder of some 355 patents and the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the greater part of his fortune to the establishment of five prizes, one to be bestowed on the person “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Nobel could not have foreseen the two world wars and nuclear age to come but although he was acutely aware of the potential of his invention to reshape the face of warfare, he also believed that the threat of its terrifying employment might actually promote peace. He once told anti-war activist and author (Lay Down Your Arms) Baroness von Suttner, “My factories will perhaps make an end to war sooner than your congresses. The day that two army corps can annihilate one another in one second, the civilized nations will shrink from war and discharge their troops.”
This year, the former president of Finland will join the ranks of Nobel Peace Prize winners for “his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts.” In 1989-90, Martti Ahtisaari played a significant part in the establishment of Namibia’s independence; in 1999 and again in 2005-07, he sought a solution to the conflict in Kosovo; in 2005, his organization Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) proved crucial to the complicated Aceh question in Indonesia; and presently, Ahtisaari and CMI are helping to carve out a peaceful conclusion to problems in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Central Asia, and Horn of Africa.
While the Nobel Peace Prize, one of 300 awarded across the globe, has neither brought peace on earth nor good will toward men, why is it as highly respected as it is?
A number of reasons have been suggested, including both the reward’s sheer longevity (107 years) as well as its significant monetary value (slightly more than $1.5 million) but it’s probably the consistently solid selections of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which has, over the years, managed to preserve its political independence while broadening its interpretation of the word “peace” to include virtually any field remotely relevant to Nobel’s vision.
During the earliest years, the prize was often awarded to pioneers in the organized peace movement. During the period of the two world wars, laureates were acknowledged for their work in such arenas as arms control and disarmament, peace negotiations, or democracy and human rights. Since World War II, however, the Nobel Committee started looking at efforts to limit the harm rendered by man with respect to climate change and/or risks to the environment. In 2004 Dr. Wangari Maathai was the first African female to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Just last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore were likewise given the nod.
The committee, of course, is not without its critics. Maathai is only one of a dozen women who have been invited to join the club (See: Champions for Peace by Judith Stiehm). Also conspicuous by his absence is Mahatma Gandhi. Although nominated five times (1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and 1948), he never took home the prize, an oversight that prompted the Dalai Lama to accept his Nobel “as a tribute to the man [Gandhi} who founded the modern tradition of non-violent action for change.”
Alfred Nobel predicted that his prize would be awarded for no longer than 30 years. If the world had not become peaceful by then, he wrote (albeit erroneously) human beings would simply return to barbarism.
Another scientist of some renown, Albert Einstein, likewise observed, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
When the angel appeared to the shepherds, what were the first two words he said?
That’s right, “Fear not!” It was only after the shepherds’ trembling had subsided that the angel added, “I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
Perhaps the purpose of the Nobel Prize is not to bring world peace. Perhaps the purpose is to provide tidings of great joy, namely, despite the impossibility of the task, somebody is always willing to give peace a try.