Even so, we should not despair. There is much to celebrate, and many achievements to praise. The birth of Christ, and the worship it inspires, represent nothing if not the triumph of human hope and creativity, and it is appropriate that on the eve of celebrating His birth, we should celebrate that creativity and hope all around us.
Peace on earth has made advances. Northern Ireland's parties defied pessimists last week by reaching agreement on the composition of the Province's new government. The first guns to be handed in during the present troubles have emerged from the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
The fall of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel holds out the hope of progress in the Middle East. Most of the year has been spent in a depressing morass of broken promises; at least it is ending with the possibility that a real leader, courageous rather than just shallow and televisual, will emerge to compromise with Israel's Arab neighbours.
Some crises did not materialise. Kosovo's civil war has simmered, but not exploded. Nato action, though not going as far as it should have done, was prompt and strong enough to deter the Serb aggression so conspicuous and unopposed in Bosnia. Pakistan's and India's nuclear testing was followed by tentative diplomatic contact. For these not-so-small mercies, we should be grateful.
Christian faith and common humanity hold that all men and women are of equal worth. Poverty prevents the realisation of this ideal; it has made unwelcome advances this year in Asia, in the financial crisis still reverberating around that region. But the Asian flu has not carried across all economies. The world financial system has not collapsed, and the rich world will at least get chances in the near future to relieve poverty, rather than sink into depression.
If all people are equal, as Jesus preached, then they should also be equally responsible for their actions. The world has made progress towards this end, too, establishing a global criminal court. General Pinochet's detention is another advance. Even if he now escapes back to Chile, he will at least have been made aware of the pain caused by his actions.
The world is not perfect. Hope and inspiration do not shine into every dark corner. But they are there, and they are growing. If the message of Christmas means anything, it is this: never despair.Reuse content