On Christmas Eve, we marked the 95th anniversary of an event that has passed into national legend: the Christmas truce of 1914.
In a few places along the Western Front, a temporary peace broke out during World War I. British and German soldiers swapped cigarettes and played football; the dead were retrieved from no man’s land. There were echoes of the medieval Truce of God imposed by the Catholic Church (no fighting on Fridays, please), but this was a spontaneous outbreak of decency among men who had not yet been brutalized by too much killing.
It is not a particularly significant anniversary. It is worth observing, however, because of what it says to combatants today, who are dug into their opposing lines of trenches so deeply that they do not even see their opponents, let alone communicate with them.
In the Great War, that was true quite literally. The lines of trenches – the German a uniform sludge, the British a patchwork of khaki and off-white – were, in places, only a few tens of yards apart, but the combatants might go for months without seeing each other.
It was too dangerous to try. After the Americans entered the war in 1917, two eager young West Pointers were being shown around a sector by a British officer.
“Keep your head down here, there’s a fixed rifle,” he said.
“Where?” said one of the Americans, jumping up to see.
A split second later, he was dead.
So the Christmas truce becomes a powerful metaphor. It speaks of the courage to encounter, to meet the enemy face to face not in conflict but in conversation.
Its subversive potential was seen all too clearly by the scarlet majors at the base. Here was a movement that might make it impossible to continue the war, as ordinary soldiers in that untravelled age met their foreign counterparts for the first time and found them the same as themselves. The cold calculations and twisted ideologies that drove millions to their deaths would not survive another season of goodwill like this.
So the generals stopped it. And by the end of 1915, after Loos, Second Ypres and Neuve Chapelle, the mood had changed anyway. No one felt like football.
The trenches today are mostly metaphorical rather than material ones, but they are every bit as dangerous. In every part of the world, the battles lines are drawn. In Israel and Palestine, there is a great wall dividing two peoples. In Korea, there are fences and minefields. In Afghanistan, tragically, it’s hard for the CIA’s Predator drones to tell where the trenches are, but they’re there.
Of course, there are other types of trench warfare. We saw some at Copenhagen, where the intransigence of a few nations wrecked a deal for the rest. The U.S. has seen a good deal of it over the last few months, as President Obama’s efforts to extend healthcare to 40 million uninsured Americans all but foundered on the rocks of ideology and vested interest.
Speaking of ideology, the rise of militant atheism over the last few years has provided yet another battleground: many Christians in the U.K. feel marginalized, threatened and undervalued.
Can the built-in tendency of human beings to retreat behind their walls and seek safety in group-think ever be corrected? The Gospel answers “yes.”
Here’s proof. The parents of 11-year-old Sam Riddall, who died after he was struck by a car last May while walking home from a church youth service in Bristol, have forgiven the driver, Hannah Saaf. She had a history of mental health problems, had been smoking cannabis and absconded for nine days before being caught.
“At Christmas we remember God sending Jesus into the world to bring peace,” said Sam’s father, Martin. “It is this same God who is giving us strength to forgive Hannah for the terrible thing she has done to us by killing our son.”
It would be far easier to retreat behind the walls of anger and loss and refuse to see Hannah Saaf as a fellow human being at all. But they were given grace to act differently, subverting the world’s way of destructive revenge. It is by such acts that the world will be brought to peace.