Lasting lessons from the Christmas truce

In 1914 violent conflict was raging. There was global suffering of a scale previously unknown, and it was known as the Great War (until 21+ years later it became simply World War I). WWI was a different time — 19 out of 20 war deaths were combatants. In 2018 we see 19 out of 20 war deaths are civilians.

In December 1914 something magical took place in trenches in several places along the Western Front; opposing forces were able to stop killing each other in a Christmas truce. Shooting was halted so that the bodies of the fallen could be collected, enemy combatants sang carols together and even enjoyed friendly soccer matches. Soldiers from opposing forces actively engaged in violent struggle took advantage of an opportunity to lay down their arms in the celebration of Christmas, which is at its core a celebration of love. No man’s land briefly turned into a place of peace.

The earliest lessons of the Christmas truce reflected a natural aversion to killing identifiable people who had done nothing in particular to harm one or one’s people. Military command on both sides —especially German versus French and British — gave strict orders forbidding such fraternization. But it was the inevitable atrocities of war that would doom such natural overtures of peace from the ranks.

By WWII specific efforts to combat “friendliness” were made in many forms, the dehumanization and emnification of enemies were central to this charge. This was all a reflection of a belligerent nation’s need to overcome a core human value: Reverence for life. In order to degrade human rights governments and leaders have gone to great lengths to quash this fundamental desire for peace, our psychologies of survival and our innate revulsion of killing.

Indeed, truces and ceasefires provide reminders of the tremendous capacity of humans to do good. In my Christian tradition I cannot think of any better reflection of Jesus’ teachings in compassion, charity, and forgiveness. Can we make truces in 2018, domestic and international? Is it possible to return to common values in peace and reverence for life? I think so, and I would like to encourage everyone to reflect on these lessons.

I teach conflict resolution, and one of the fundamental truths of conflict is that there are no guarantees, no one-size-fits-all approach and no universal answer. It depends is where the thinking and examination starts, but if people can stop shooting at each other both literally and metaphorically, we all ought to be able to engage with North Korea, with Mexico, or simply sit through a family dinner, even with people who voted for “the wrong person.”

Efforts have been made to undermine our innate desires for peace, this is part of the challenge. Politics, for example, mislead and obfuscate. Trump has told thousands of lies as President, he is willing to lie about anything, and he uses his lies to divide people—he draws his power through division. He attacks truth, but we can see past his subterfuge.

In conflict, I teach, trust is built when we make and keep agreements and when we are advocates for the rights of all. The lies of our political leaders may make our lives more difficult, but they don’t stop us from honoring our own word to each other and insisting that our governments do the same.

In 2018 it is clear that cyber warfare has weaponized fake news and ignorance. Putin’s agents, in particular, attack the U.S. by manipulating Americans into fighting with each other. It is a much more sophisticated process of what I recall from grade school. I remember fights could be manufactured through illegitimate gossip, and Russian agent trolls have promoted misinformation campaigns for extremely nefarious consequences.

The Russians are wonderful people but are ruled by an autocrat who wants us to destroy ourselves — and we’re doing it one lie at a time. Putin’s operatives are trolling Americans to manufacture as much chaos, political upheaval and violence as possible. Trump is their boy. We are their targets.

If you see “Make America Great Again” or “Black Lives Matter” and your blood boils that means division is winning. If you see it as an opportunity toward dialog, then you beat Putin. Like the soldiers who made the Christmas Truce of 1914, we can begin to dissolve the forces that mandate our positional status as enemy. If we could hold to that, we could succeed in what they tried to start.

Connecting to each other —first as Americans who reject the politics of division and then to the efforts to stop the geopolitical hatreds that produced both the Cold War and now the Russian, American and Chinese efforts to gain dominance over all — we might have a chance to create a worldwide, permanent Christmas truce. Nothing less than the future of humankind is in the balance.

Click here to submit a letter to the editor about this post.