America believes itself to be in a culture war. Donald Trump’s first year as President has deepened the polarization and anger that has characterized our country for decades. The nation has essentially split into tribes with both sides being absolutely certain of their own righteousness, and having little interest in finding common ground or shared values with their perceived enemies.
Despicable behavior by men across the country has shocked and offended almost everyone, though sadly many see it through the same tribal lens as they see the rest of the political scene. Many Republicans are quick to condemn Al Franken and John Conyers while “leaving it up to the voters of Alabama” on Roy Moore. Democrats were quick to attack Moore while “supporting the ethics investigation” on Al Franken…until the number of complaints about his behavior became politically untenable. Mass shootings seem to occur every other week and the carnage is almost unimaginable. Much to my despair, the reaction by many in both tribes is to hope that a member of the “other side” did the killing and immediately turn to an argument about gun control.
In the midst of all this, the Christmas Season has arrived. In the Shire, lights are being hung, the aromas of cookies fill the house, gifts are being bought, and cards sent. Families and communities may be heartily engaging in these wonderful traditions, but it all feels a bit forced. There is a brittleness in the air, a sense that the cultural conflict that is ripping through the country could be stronger than Christmas.
In this bleak midwinter, can light and peace overcome the darkness and strife?
I’d like to take you back to 1914. After decades of discord and a significant arms race, World War I broke out. Initially, both sides believed that the war would end quickly, but by the fall of 1914, the Allies (led by France and Britain) and Central Powers (led by Germany) had stalemated in Marne, a city in Northern France. This stalemate was a bloody one — an estimated 500,000 souls perished in the First Battle of the Marne in September of 1914. By December of 1914, it was clear that a long, brutal campaign was ahead. Peculiarly, the nature of trench warfare in WWI placed the opposing sides quite near each other – sometimes, less than 100 yards.
Into this despair, two voices emerged. The first was a group of British women suffragettes who wrote an open letter to German women under the heading of “On Earth Peace, Goodwill towards Men.” In the letter, they lamented the “sad Christmastide” that both of their countries were suffering. They appealed to the common humanity of their counterparts in Germany, and wished for “Christmas [to] hasten that day” when there would be “Peace and Love among the good and free.” On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict asked for a twelve-hour truce on Christmas Eve so “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”
These calls received some attention by the warring parties but they were ultimately ignored. So, the fighting was scheduled to continue through Christmas. But, tentatively, miraculously, things started happening on the front lines in France. It seems to have started with Christmas carols being sung in both trenches in the days leading up to Christmas Eve. Christmas wishes were shouted across the deadly “no man’s land” between the two sides.
Then, just before Christmas, individual soldiers in the trenches began to celebrate the holiday without official permission. Cautiously, sworn enemies stepped out of their trenches and began to celebrate Christmas. The soldier’s own words are worth reading:
We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators. Soon most of our company (‘A’ Company), hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us.
What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn’t talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!
There were also reports of joint burial services held for the dead and even of a soccer game breaking out in “no man’s land.” In some places, the truce lasted just a few hours, while in others it expanded into the New Year.
The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a miracle and triumph of the Christmas Spirit against overwhelming odds. It brings us back to the awesome reality of what Christmas means — the entry of God into the world through the birth of Jesus Christ. And, even more glorious, Jesus was sent by God into this world on a mission to lift us up out of the muck and mire of our daily trench warfare and to redeem us despite our many flaws and bad decisions. It was (and is) the ultimate gift of sacrificial love to bring us into relationship with God and one another.
That’s powerful stuff, and it puts 2017 in context. While we are in a divided place, the Spirit of Christmas remains an effective antidote because of the strength of the underlying message. If we take the time to remember and celebrate Christmas, and honor it’s true meaning, we can be people of joy, humility and peace.
So, take a chance — allow the Christmas Spirit to grab you afresh this year. Say a kind word to your neighbor, listen respectfully to someone with whom you disagree, be a friend to someone who needs it, re-connect with that family member who you don’t talk to enough. Call your own Christmas Truce this year — you won’t regret it.