Monday, 11 November 2013

The Song, the Table, and the Kingdom.

An Ode to the Christmas Day Truce 

It was night before Christmas, when throughout the battlefield. 
Soldiers sang of 'Silent Nights' and a Christ revealed. 
They soon left behind guns and declared a ceasefire. 
Men traded their hate for a place in the choir. 

In the horror of War there was a peace for a moment
We found 'humanity' in the face of our opponents 
We no longer saw 'the enemy' through the sights our guns
Instead we shared together in Communion as God's united sons

To our shame, the Christmas Day Truce was not destined to last
For the Powers that be, would have 'the other side' gassed 
Men laid down the way of the Cross and took up the Sword for "some glory"
We believe in the old lie: Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori

The Christmas Eve of 1914 was one of strangest examples of the power of peacemaking to ever be documented in modern warfare. Soldiers, on both the German and English//French sides, left their trenches and ceased hostilities during one of the fiercest wars ever fought on the planet. The event is called today: The Christmas Day Truce. 

The setting of this Christmas Day Truce was the trench warfare of WWI. It was most brutal form of warfare the world had seen yet, with an estimated average 14,500 men dying each day. Trench warfare is the stalemate of two opposing forces who have 'dug in' to secure their positions. This approach to warfare makes any advancements extremely difficult. Soldiers were forced to go over the top of the trenches, into no-man's land, and charge toward the opposing side in order to overtake the 'enemies' position. These methods were rarely successful as the 'entrenched' side had a tactical advantage by being hidden from direct fire. 

The men in the trenches were farm boys, clerks, and tradesmen. In the Commonwealth alone, over a million men volunteered in the early days of the war. They received basic training, and were rushed off to the front. Nothing could have prepared anyone for the horrors of trench warfare. It was cold, muddy, and the air had the stench of rotting flesh. It was a hell on earth. These were no battle hardened  troops on the night of Christmas Day Truce. These were husbands who missed their wives and children. These were young boys who missed their mothers and fathers. I can only imagine that the morale of those men in the trenches must have been at an all time low that Christmas Eve. 

The trenches were not that far apart from each other. You could hear the shouts from the other side. You could see the 'enemy' from the forward trenches. It is this unique setting that set the scene for something amazing to occur. 

The Germans began by placing candle lit Christmas trees along their trenches. These trees are know as Tannenbaum Trees. This caught the attention of the English troops, who peered in curiosity and amazement at the sight of these Tannenbaum Trees. Soon the Germans began to boisterously sing out loud an assortment of Christmas carols: 

Stille Nacht, heili’ge Nacht” 
(Translation: Silent Night, Holy Night) 

In a popular telling of the story, a German is said to have shouted across the trench:

English men… sing us a song

It's said that a mean spirited English gentleman yelled back: 

We’d rather kill than sing” 

The Germans responded, 

You're singing just might kill us, if it's bad enough.” 

Both sides laughed, and soon the carolling began to rise up on both sides. The singing eased the tension and gave way to celebration.

The leaders on both sides came out of the trenches and agreed to a ceasefire for 24 hours. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man's Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties.  
Sergeant-Major Frank Naden writes about the Christmas Day Truce:

“On Christmas Day one of the Germans came out of the trenches and held his hands up. Our fellows immediately got out of their trenches and the Germans got out of their's, and we met in the middle, and for the rest of the day we fraternized, exchange food, cigarettes and souvenirs. The Germans gave us some of their sausages, and we gave them some of our stuff. The Scotsmen started the bagpipes, and we had a rare old jollification, which included football, in which the Germans took part. The Germans expressed themselves as being tired of the war and wished it was over. They greatly admired our equipment and wanted to exchange jack-knives and other articles. Next day we got an order that all communication and friendly intercourse with the enemy must cease, but we did not fire at all that day, and the Germans did not fire at us.”

Football in No-Man's Land 
Another report tells of a Christmas Day Mass. A Chaplin serving in the war gathered the joined congregation of Germans, English, and French. The Mass was delivered in the familiar religious language of Latin that was common among Catholics around the world. The chaplain would have opened with the words:

In nominee Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. 
Translation: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 
They sang, they prayed, and shared the Eucharist with each other.
 The former enemies shared pictures from home, chocolates, schnapps, and wine. Soccer games were played. Friendships were made, addresses were exchanged and every soldier who experienced the events was forever changed. The Christmas Day Truce was truly an amazing peculiar event that baffles historians to this day. The immediate result of the truce was a break down of hostility across the waring lines. Reports suggest that in some areas the cease-fire lasted until after New Year's Day.

Leaders on both sides of the conflict were shocked and shaken by the unofficial Christmas Day Truce. It took serious action for fighting to resume in some areas. Commanding officers were forced to rotate the troops out of area, because the troops had lost the will to fight. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British Corps, had to issue official orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Fraternization with the enemy is amount to treason. The whole story of the Christmas Day Truce was even censored by government on both sides. The story is said to have finally been broken by the New York Times, and subsequently the British papers followed suit. In the following years of the war, artillery bombardments were ordered on Christmas Eve to try to ensure that there were no further lulls in the combat. Troops were also rotated through various sectors of the front to prevent them from becoming overly familiar with the enemy. World War One finally came to an end on November 11, 1918. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts of world history.

The Song, the Table, and the Kingdom. 

I share the story of the Christmas Day Truce as a launching pad to talk about the Church’s witness to peace. 

There is a lot that could be said, but I would like to focus on few key things from the events of the Christmas Day Truce: SONG, TABLE, and KINGDOM.

"Song of the Angels" by Luzia Vizoli

On that fateful Christmas Eve in 1914, the soldiers on both sides began to sing the songs of the church instead of the songs of hatred and hostility. It's amazing to think that the songs of 'holy nights' and 'Christ come into the world' literally disarmed the hostilities of war and shut down the war machine for a day. The power of the song has never been so obvious. 

I believe in our lives we are constantly 'singing songs' with our actions and words. The writer of Proverbs puts it like this, "The tongue has the power of life and death." (18.21) Or in other words, what we confess, both in our lives and as a collective community, will become a reality. When we sow seeds of hostility, hatred, and evil we will ultimately reap hostility, hatred, and evil. It's an unfortunate truth in a decaying world. The church, however, is called to sow seeds of life and not death. James, the brother of Jesus, promises us that peacemakers who sow in peace will reap a harvest of justice and righteousness.(3.18) 

The Song of the Church is to be the promise of another way, another world, right here and right now. When the earth sings the songs of hatred and animosity; our calling as the Church is to prophetically testify and bear witness to the Prince of Peace. The Church is the voice that cries, "Let the world sing a new song!"Theologian John H. Yoder sums this up beautifully when he writes, 
Although immersed in this world, the church by her way of being represents the promise of another world, which is not somewhere else but which is to come here. That promissory quality of the church's present distinctiveness is the making of peace, as the refusal to make war is her indispensable negative transcendence. The church cultivates an alternative consciousness. Another view of what the world is like is kept alive by narration and celebration which fly in the face of some of the "apparent" lessons of "realism."[1]
Too often the Church has matched melodies with the songs of men and perpetuated the status quo. Imagine the scene that C.S. Lewis provides us in his book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Narnia is under the reign of White Which who has subjugated the land to a perpetual winter. When the Church gives our ultimate allegiances to anything other than Christ, we are like those who have aligned themselves to the rule of the White Witch. The church is called, much like Mr. & Mrs. Beaver and Mr. Tumnus, to resist the reign of Jadis the White Witch and proclaim the true reign of Aslan. We may suffer persecution from the forces of the White Witch, as Mr. Tumnus experienced, but we proclaim Aslan as the rightful ruler of Narnia. To those who sing the songs of the White Witch, the Church declares boldly that: "Aslan is on the move."[2] 

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.(2 Cor 5.20) We are God’s agents of redemption, the salt and light of the world.(Matt 5) We sing a new song that prophetically declares the reign of Jesus in the world today. Have you heard this song?

A song of reconciliation
A song of forgiveness 
A song of peace 
A song of healing to a broken world


The table that I speak of is the Lord's Table, also know as the Communion Table. While I doubt there was a literal table in No-Man's Land that fateful Christmas Day; there was a call for Christians on both sides of the conflict to share in the Lord's meal. The Communion Table is a call to unity in the body of Christ. It is the common - union table. To suggest that those who partake of the bread and wine would be at war is a scandalous thought to unity of the Body. The Apostle Paul's primary correction of the communion practices at the church in Corinth was the division at the Lord's table. "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you." (1 Cor 11.18)Paul directly confronts the division of the Lord's table by writing, "Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!" (1 Cor 11.22) Dr. Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the implications of the call to unity at the Lord's table:

The Eucharist becomes the meal of unity binding Christians through time and space to be one body, one Christ, for the world. That we have been made one makes it impossible, therefore, for Christians to contemplate killing other Christians with whom we share this meal. Such killing is not murder, it is suicide. [3]
There is nothing more scandalous to the unity of the body of Christ than partaking in Common - Union and then functionally denying that union through the shedding of blood."It will not suffice to simply cite “our duty” to the Powers as justification for killing brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side of a political dispute. It is this factual rupturing of the unity of the body of Christ that is so very often overlooked in many conversations about Christians and war making.”[4] 

The Table of Lord invites us to a new humanity in Christ. It's a humanity where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.28) The Table invites us to leave our division behind us for Christ's sake, and to make every effort to maintain the unity of the church. If we take the path of warfare, we will ultimately participate in the suicide of the Church. Pastor Brian Zahnd suggests that Church has indeed committed suicide (as Hauerwas suggests above) in the past century of World Wars. Zahnd writes:
This may explain the death of Christianity in Western Europe following the two world wars. It was mass suicide. Or Mass suicide. Selah.[5] 
"The Deserter" by Boardman Robinson, 1916.

The kingdoms of hostility rely on the preservation of the ideological myth of redemptive violence. Central to the myth is the division of 'us' and 'them'. It is the myth that the enemy is less than human. It is the myth that the only way to make a better world is power enforced through violence. It is the ideological belief that peace is a goal to be attained and not the means toward the end. It is nation against nation; kingdom against kingdom; man killing other men. 

Jesus has a different Kingdom. Jesus does not allow us to participate in the division of 'us' and 'them'. Jesus does not reciprocate the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek to violence and pray for their enemies. Jesus did not join the Caesars//Herodians in the powers of oppression and refused to unite his movement with the Zealots who sought to overthrow their oppressors through violence. If Jesus the Messiah was not going to use violence to rescue the oppressed nation of Israel, then how could we as followers of Christ ever claim to use violence as means of conflict resolution? There is a better way, the Jesus way. It is the way of overcoming evil with good. The Gospel is a subversive force to the systems of domination, division, and supremacy; precisely because it undermines them through the power of cruciform love. Walter Wink reflects on this:

Not only did Jesus and his followers repudiate the autocratic values of power and wealth, but the institutions and systems that authorized and supported these values: the family, the law, the sacrificial system, the Temple, kosher food regulations, the distinction between clean and unclean, patriarchy, role expectations for women and children, the class system, the use of violence, racial and ethnic divisions, the distinction between insider and outsider—indeed, every conceivable prop of domination, division, and supremacy. The Gospel is a context specific remedy for the evils of the Domination System.[6]

The events of Christmas Day Truce directly challenged 'The Powers' ability to maintain the myth of righteous violence. The willingness to reflexively kill someone who had never done them any personal wrong suddenly vanished through encountering the humanity of the 'other'. The Powers and the authorities were disarmed through Christmas carols and acts of hospitality. This is why the backlash of the Christmas Day Truce is so striking to me. The Powers on both sides of the conflict needed to threaten execution for fraternization with the enemy in order to shutdown any efforts to declare 'unofficial truces'. Generals on both sides were forced to rotate troops from the front due to their inability to kill. The Powers must do whatever they can to prevent soldiers from experiencing the shared humanity of their targets, whether they are citizens of Germany, Japan, Italy, or Iraq and Afghanistan. To experience empathy towards 'the other' is counterintuitive to humanity at war. 

It grieves me to no end that the Church does not witness to peace in a world of war. Too often Christian churches join the patriotic fervour with their nationalistic blindness, refusing to teach what Jesus had always taught about violence. We become religious versions of the shared cultural assumptions of our age making us the chaplains of the status quo and no longer prophetic.[7]  

Joyeux Noel, a 2005 movie about the Christmas Day Truce  captures a scene that demonstrates powerfully the co-opting of church as the tool of the Powers. Check out this scene:

Near the end of "Joyeux Noel” there is a powerful and sobering scene, a confrontation between the Christ-like, lowly, anti-war Scottish chaplain and his pro-war Scottish bishop while the chaplain was giving last rites to a dying soldier.

The bishop had come to relieve the chaplain of his duties and abusively ordered him to return to his home parish because of his “treasonous and shameful” behavior (being merciful to the enemy) in the battlefield.

The chaplain tried to explain his actions to the authoritarian, pro-war, German-hating bishop, saying that he had just performed “the most important mass of my life” and that he wanted to stay with his comrades who were rapidly losing their faith and were in need of his ministrations.

The mass that he had presided over on Christmas Eve, had been attended by German, Scottish and French Christian soldiers (and one Jewish German officer) who had prayed together and been transfixed by a powerful rendition of Ave Maria. The bishop cruelly denied the Christ-like priest’s request to stay – and in a thought-provoking scene, he removed his little wooden cross from around his neck, leaving it swinging as he walked out the door.

As with so many of the victims of organized Christianity, the priest had lost his faith in the institutional church.

The bishop then proceeded to deliver a pro-war sermon to new recruits -the exact words having been obtained from a homily that had been delivered by an Anglican bishop in England during WWI. These new troops were being brought in to replace the suddenly reluctant veteran combatants, who now refused to obey orders to kill. [8]

One last word from Tony here.

Thanks for reading...

Works Cited
1. John H. Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel, pg. 94
2. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, pg. 146
3. Stanley Hauerwas, Commentary on Matthew, pg. 219
4. York, Tripp ed. A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: What about Romans 13?
5. Brain Zahnd great blog,
6.Wink, Engaging the Powers, 65–86
7. Lifted from a Brian Zahnd tweet.
8. Summary of the scene from

No comments:

Post a Comment