The “season of goodwill entered the trenches” describes what some call the “Christmas Truce of 1914.” Others refer to the event as a “shining episode of sanity from among the bloody chapters of
World War I.”
While the details of this event have often been embellished in hindsight, there is one conclusion that is never denied: the fact that Christmas managed to bring so-called mortal enemies together as friends for a time.
Some say the soldiers exchanged cigarettes and cake. Some say they joined in song and in a game of soccer. But it is indisputable that at least some of the men who were lined up in trenches along the Western Front – sometimes no more than 30 yards away from one another – on the first Christmas of the First World War, ceased fire and had the courage to meet one another face to face in no man’s land.
The beauty of this moment was that it was spontaneous and unplanned, not orchestrated or scripted. With no interference by generals and politicians, the lower ranks – whose life expectancy during World War I was, by some estimates, maybe two weeks – figured out how to create peace.
The peace did not last. Generals on both sides eventually ordered that the fighting continue. And there would not be another Christmas truce in the next four years of war.
I came upon this information only recently. I don’t recall ever learning about it when I studied history in school. Most history books I’ve looked in since then give the incident only a fleeting mention, as if it were pretty much inconsequential. But the more I ponder it, the more hope-filled I become.
I’m reminded of an e-mail that made the rounds sometime ago, titled “Polar Bear: I come in peace.” It was a collection of photographs featuring a polar bear’s approach to a team of tethered sled dogs in the wilds of Canada’s Hudson Bay. It was noted by Stuart Brown, a physician and clinical researcher who founded the National Institute for Play, that photographer Norbert Rosing was sure he was soon to see the demise of his dogs. But that didn’t happen.
The photos he took draw the conclusion that the bear and dogs played together. And it was said that the bear returned many nights to “play” with the dogs. Some dispute the interpretation of “play” and say rather the animals were just being curious about each other. Regardless, no dogs were injured during the exchange – the point that captured my attention at the time.
And again, it seemed that peace was possible – dare I say natural – between supposed enemies.
I can’t help thinking that among the disciples of Jesus were also some unlikely friends – fishermen, political activists, and a tax collector – who might never have become friends if not for Jesus. Jesus often associated with and helped those whom some among his followers would have defined as their “enemy.”
And I can’t help remembering when Jesus was captured in the garden of Gethsemane and a disciple cut off the ear of one of the men arresting Jesus. Jesus stopped his disciples from fighting and healed the man’s ear (see Luke 22:51).
Jesus had much to say about those we perceive as our enemies, including, “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Luke 6:27, 28). And Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, instructed, “Love your enemies, or you will not lose them; and if you love them, you will help to reform them” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” pp. 210-211).
I know we live in difficult times these days – such instructions may seem impossible or crazy. We don’t often know whom to trust. And there are those who are so consumed by their fears, hatred, and misconceptions, that all they can think about is killing their enemies. How can peace be possible with such people? How could we ever be friends with people who want to kill us?
Almost 10 million military personnel died during World War I, and millions more were wounded. I suspect among those killed were many of the same ones who found a way to create peace on Christmas in 1914. If only they could tell us how they did it. Apparently both sides wanted peace that Christmas – if only for a day.
Wanting peace is a good beginning.
For me, the Christmas Truce of 1914 shows that living in peace is the most natural action for humankind. Peace is our God-given nature, which Jesus aptly illustrated for us during his lifetime. And if peace is more natural than war, then peace among all enemies is possible.
Surely if peace is possible for some – if possible in the midst of battle – then peace under any circumstances and at any future point can be a reality. We can live in the manner God intends for His creation. The thought of this peaceful possibility gives me hope.