One of the stranger phenomena in the annals of history is the Christmas truce of 1914. It was a parenthesis of peace in the middle of World War I—a brief, mutual cessation of hostilities between British and German soldiers along the Western Front of a global war.
The truce of 1914 came about partly because of the peculiarities of one of the most ghastly confrontations of men in the history of the world. The German aggressors had broken into France through Belgium and were repulsed at the Battle of the Marne. But the Allied forces were unable to beat the Germans all the way back, and when neither side was willing to give ground, a stalemate ensued, with both sides digging a series of trenches. By the time they put down their shovels, there was a continuous front line stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea. Men in opposing trenches faced each other for so long that they became, for a while, like neighbors of the same hood.
As Christmas neared, someone started singing German Christmas carols. Then a British soldier replied with English carols. In the week before Christmas, as hostilities subsided, someone walked across the “no man’s land” between the trenches, bearing cigarettes and gifts to his enemies on the other side. Food and souvenirs and burials of their dead were swapped. There was even an intramural soccer game.
Not surprisingly, when headquarters got wind of it, they took a dim view of fraternizing with the enemy, and the subsequent Christmases, especially in 1916 after the battles of Verdun and the Somme, were not quite as chummy.
I am trying to decide what I think of all this. The dehumanization and facelessness of war is awful, but the motherland must be defended. And how will you bring yourself to fix in your crosshairs the man you just showed your family photos to? On the one hand, war is hell. On the other hand, war is necessary. (The Bible itself is full of war, and God is called a warrior—Exodus 15:3).
What I come around to is the opinion that just as the truce of Christmas 1914 was a small parenthesis in the middle of a great war, so the great wars of human history are themselves parentheses within a greater peace. God created man as a creature who was to enjoy peace and to cultivate and subdue all nature around him. That irenic vision flashed briefly in the Garden of Eden until the aberration of sin intruded. The period of hatred and war that Adam’s sin ushered in may seem interminable to us who are living through it. But it is important to remember that this seemingly endless state of war is not really endless but will someday be swallowed up and lost without a trace within a much larger destiny of peace.
And this overall vision—of a parenthesis of peace within a war, which is in turn a parenthesis of war within a greater state of peace—is what allows me to make sense of my feelings about the Christmas truce of 1914. It allows me to feel fine about rooting for these “fraternizers.” For I believe that what these young, homesick German and French solders were experiencing in the momentary thaw of war was an instinct embedded deep within the heart of every man.
“[God] has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And that deep desire is a desire for Shalom.