As I write this, on Christmas day, 2014, it is 100 years since something amazing happened.
In the middle of a war, peace broke out… at least for a day.
It wasn’t an organized peace. There were no official flags of truce. Neither side even had the approval of their officers. They just stopped shooting on Christmas Eve.
People have been looking for explanations of the causes of war for a long time, and pointing fingers in a lot of directions. But why wouldn’t we look more closely at an actual modern example where people DID lower their weapons, however briefly, and address their foes with the same dignity they might offer their neighbours?
There have certainly been enough artificial attempts to make this sort of thing happen. We have had formal treaties like the League of Nations, the UN, or NATO, but these haven’t secured peace. We have tried international trade agreements, and G7, G8 or G20 type groups of nations. We have offered carrots and sticks to different nations for abiding by international expectations. People placed great hopes in events like the Olympics to foster such goodwill. But all this fails to have the desired effect. But on this one particular day, it happened spontaneously.
Trade, education, and various political solutions have brought us no nearer to the goal that broke through from the grass-root level in the middle of civilization’s first truly modern war, with all of the nasty surprises that rapid technological advances permitted: gas attacks, mechanized warfare, machine-gun nests and barbed wire. In the midst of the blood, mud, and suffering we see this inexplicable truce. Why?
It was no coincidence that the guns fell silent on that particular day in December, in a battle between two nations that celebrated Christmas. All along the trenches, in a miserable winter, soldiers on either side took up traditional Christmas hymns. Up and down the trenches, they stopped shooting. They cautiously crept out of their trenches, and greeted each other in no-man’s land. They shook hands, and exchanged gifts.
For a short window of time, they were permitted to regain their humanity, and that of the men they’d been shooting at, only hours earlier.
The commanding officers were furious, and saw to it that this never happened again. But the question is: why did it happen at all?
The thing about Christmas, is that it is not an inward-looking festival. In singing the carols and hymns, we are fixing our attention on the event of the Triune God breaking into human history. We are resetting our perspective. If Christ is at the center, there is a transcendence that lifts us above the ways we usually define ourselves.
The us-and-them arising from allegiance to nation, colour, clan, social standing, language, or any of a thousand other ways we split into factions doesn’t work here.
The us-and-them division dies with him on the cross. As we draw near to him, we find ourselves fulfilling his promise of drawing near to the others he has extended his forgiveness to, however different they may be from ourselves. In approaching God as “Father” we accept that we are his children. In accepting that we are his children, we find we’ve become brothers to people very different from ourselves.
Isn’t this precisely the goal that (atheistic) French Revolutionaries failed to achieve? They claimed to be instituting a “brotherhood of man” just before plunging their nation into the “Reign of Terror”. The Revolutionaries merely rewrote the “us-and-them” boundaries to include different groups of people. They never actually solved the problem.
Faith in Christ, however imperfectly demonstrated by His people in ordinary situations, is uniquely transcendent, in that — since he extends his invitation of repentance and restoration to ALL people, even groups traditionally hostile to one another — that it is able to lift us beyond our usual petty grievances. Male and female. Greek and Barbarian. Jew and Gentile. Slave and Free. We can all find our common ground in Christ.
This is exactly why the widow of my martyred friend in India can say, as I have quoted her before:
“.. I only ask Jesus that my husband’s ministry – to spread the Gospel – will continue, that people will learn the Good News of our Savior, that people will learn to forgive and believe in His Name.” (Notice there is no hatred or desire for revenge in the words of Kadamphul Nayak…)
Critics have long attempted to blame the war on religious motivation, as though irreligious people are less likely to squabble. When the Federalist Papers presented reasons their model of government would produce a more stable nation, they listed a number of motivators for war, including grievances, trade, and personal interest. Religion didn’t even make their top ten. But in at least one instance, in one of the most grisly wars in human history, something made war stop.
It wasn’t athletic tournaments, philosophical “pure reason”, ideology, or social engineering. It was a love for God and for man who bears His image, that — however briefly — triumphed over the mud and blood of the battlefield.
May God bless you, and yours through this season, and well into the New Year.
(For those interested, there are many accounts of what happened that day. This one is as good a place to start as any. h/t Osei Dixon for the link.)