This year we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of WWI -- or the Great War -- in Europe. In the midst of this commemoration, we will do well to remember the remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914. The khaki uniformed British soldiers and grey uniformed German soldiers on the Western Front crawled out of their trenches and walked across the barbed wire into a no-mans-land where they commingled on Christmas 1914. A century later it seems so strange to think of the soldiers laying down their rifles for a time so they could recognize one another as people and not only enemies.
Also strange is the fact that such a truce has happened since 1914. 54 years later in 1968 during the Vietnam War, government leaders in Saigon and Hanoi declared a 24-hour Christmas truce. I know about that truce because I was there.
Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen went back to their camps and stopped their fighting. I still remember the experience of being with my men as we took a LCM-8 cargo boat back across the Perfume River to return "home" to our hooch (a very basic plywood and canvas living space) in our rear camp near the village of Tan My. As we crowded into the well-deck of the cargo craft, the silence was almost frightening. There were no mortars tubes in the distance uttering their distinctive sound as rounds were fired, no howitzer canons in our cantonment fired back, no B52s were in the air blanketing Hill 798 with ordnance, no U.S. warships were firing projectiles over our heads, no machine gun fire was saturating the horizon, no Swift boats were charging up and down the river. Nothing. Nothing but quiet. It was the eeriest quiet I have ever heard. One by one we entered the hooch and collectively began to wonder what we should be doing to commemorate the truce. I remember that someone back home had sent one of the men in my division a plastic Christmas tree. Dean from Minnesota said that we ought to gather around the tree and sing -- and we did. As the British and German troops did during the Christmas truce of 1914, at the Christmas truce of 1968 spontaneously we started singing "Silent Night." We didn't quite sing it right, but no one seemed to care. Without anyone giving voice to the idea, I think that many of us knew that as we sang the words "... all is calm, all is bright..." that we were singing a carol that gave us hope; hope that for a time we would not be dominated by our loneliness, bitterness or fear. Secretly I think many of us hoped that this truce could be the beginning of the end of the war. I remember thinking that perhaps we were learning that there may be a better way to solve our political and ideological differences other than trying to kill one another.
Yet, when the calendar turned over to December 26, both in 1914 and 1968, some things went back to "normal": ships, tanks, and aircraft began to move again; enemy troops were eyeing one another; and weapons were once again being fired. However, not everything was back to normal. Though few would give voice to the thought, many of us surmised that if our leaders could arrange for a 24-hour ceasefire or truce that we were capable of more: a week, a month, a year, endless?
As has been the case so many times before, in 2014 the citizens of the world are approaching the celebration of the birth of Jesus in a world filled with angst, anger and no small amount of brutal hostility. What can we do? It may be time for our religious, political and community leaders to call for a truce, for a ceasefire. What would happen if we did that in our streets, on Capitol Hill, in our state houses, in our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues? What would happen if we took the risk to trust one another long enough to learn the other's story; to hear the other's concerns; to live and walk where the other lives and walks? To treat the other as though we are all fellow human beings with a mutual stake in finding a solution of harmony, and then refused to treat others as objects of scorn and hatred? What could happen if we refused to give voice to our righteous indignation or refused to find people to blame for our troubles so we can claim the role of a victim?
Is the idea of peace on earth and good will to all merely an idealistic though unattainable state of being, or in the spirit of the one who was laid in a manger is it entirely possible? We need a break, a pause, a cease fire, a truce.
If we are quiet long enough we may be able to hear one another, and in so doing hear the sound of a voice other than our own. This is risky because by exposing ourselves to one another through the quiet between us we might allow the incarnate Christ to penetrate the shells we have placed around our hearts and our souls. In a quiet moment we could hear the voice of the one whom we call God, and that voice might be in the words of the other.