Throughout 2014, a number of commemorations took place to mark the 100th anniversary since the start of the First World War. Such commemorations are poignant reminders on two counts. Firstly, they are a reminder that humanity always pays a high price for the failure of peace. Secondly, in a world fraught with conflict, they are a reminder that ‘peace’ remains an illusory and difficult aim to achieve.
Conflict is sometimes punctuated by the recollection of short-lived moments of humanity; moments of brief consolation that remind us that, in the most dreadful of circumstances, humanity can still triumph over violence.
THE 1914 CHRISTMAS TRUCE
On the 24 December 1914, British and French soldiers fighting outside Ypres noticed that their German opponents placed lit candles on some nearby trees. The sound of Stille Nacht being sung could be heard across the long stretch of land known as ‘No Man’s Land’. The British side began singing their own Christmas carols. Both sides shouted greetings across the trenches. The events which unfolded went down in the annals of history as the “1914 Christmas Truce” or “Weihnachtsfrieden”.
Gradually, soldiers from both sides got together in ‘No Man’s Land.’ Over the next few days they gathered to bury some of the victims, to exchange gifts and greetings, to play games of football and to celebrate Christmas together.
This temporary truce was surprising since, only a couple of weeks earlier, the warring factions rejected an appeal by Pope Benedict XV to hold a Christmas ceasefire. It was also never repeated again; by 1916 all goodwill had evaporated and both sides kept on fighting.
The iconic image of the two warring sides coming together to celebrate Christmas has been the subject of numerous books and films. It has captured the imagination of countless generations since.
RELIGION AND WARS
The cynical will point out that all the soldiers returned to their fighting positions soon after the unofficial truce was over. This is partly true; the following years were the most harrowing in terms of violence and carnage. Nonetheless, during that Christmas, the message of goodwill and peace seemed to resonate over the war torn fields.
Some will turn to history to point out that the same religion which the soldiers profess is a source of conflict rather than a force for peace. This is partially inaccurate; it is only when religion becomes a front for various political forces that conflict ensues. The lethal mix of unthinking dogmatism, politics and economic interests has led to some serious conflicts which still plague the world to this very day.
In the First World War, both warring sides invoked the name of God to their own advantage; the Entente powers led by Britain urged countrymen to enlist for “God, King and Country” whilst the Central powers led by Germany had “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their helmets.
Using God as a vehicle for propaganda is both destructive and deceitful since it destroys the true message of faith. It further exacerbates that lethal mix which makes true and genuine dialogue somewhat more difficult.
FAITH AS A VEHICLE OF PEACE
In Churches across the world, the Nativity narrative will be read out during this season. The greeting of the angels to the shepherds will be particularly poignant: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” For Christians, this should be a reminder that the Glory of God is intrinsically tied to the presence of peace among mankind.
It is rather dispiriting to note that religion is sometimes used as a vehicle to spread hatred rather than peace and goodwill. Despite this, the real message can triumph in the most hopeless of situations.
In times when dialogue is so hard to foster, faith should be a good starting place. The search for the transcendental and the beautiful is still an inspiring force which is enriched by faith. In a situation where higher ideals are shunned for quantifiable end results, faith reminds us that there are higher goals which can be attained. The true Christmas spirit reminds us that peace is not merely a catchphrase but a veritable part of a greater plan for humanity.
In a speech delivered to representatives of World Religions at the Meeting for Peace in Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI addresses some of these themes. He says that violence and cruelty become possible “when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion.”
Christmas may perhaps be the perfect time to rediscover the ideals of peace and goodwill and to try to live them in a society which thirsts so much for them.