At Christmas, despite the enmities and divisions crisscrossing our communities, we dream of the prospect of peace on earth. But as the 100th anniversary of an unlikely truce reminds us, peace isn't something we wish for or a slogan for a holiday card; it's something we build, one courageous act at a time.
It was Christmas Eve 1914. Exactly 100 years ago, across the trenches that divided the German army from the rest of Europe, British soldiers caught a familiar tune. Over the barren No Man's Land, above the moans of the dying, they heard the notes of the well-known German Christmas carol, "Stille Nacht," or "Silent Night." The melody was unmistakable, even if the words were foreign.
The Great War had begun in the warmer, more optimistic days of summer. Assured of swift and certain victory by their nations' leaders, parents had sent off their boys for the glory of God and country. Instead, the European powers had been locked for months in a brutal war of attrition. Before Christmas the pope had pleaded for a ceasefire, but the leaders of the warring nations refused to suspend hostilities -- even for a day. They were far too busy defending and advancing their own empires to acknowledge the birth of Jesus.
Imagine the surprise of the British soldiers when, out of this chaos, they heard the German carols wafting pleasantly across the divide, and saw candles lit on Christmas trees, which the Germans had somehow contrived to erect in their trenches. On this Christmas Eve, as the soothing sounds of "Silent Night" grew with the strength of more and more voices, the British began to sing back and light fires of their own. The famous Christmas Truce of 1914 (documented in Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce) had begun.
This unofficial cessation of hostilities, in violation of their commanders, began because the soldiers recognized that the "night divine" was an event given to them by God, a holy memorial of the night 1,900 years before when, Christians around the world believe, his everlasting peace invaded human history in the person of his incarnate son. In the depths of their manmade hell, that heavenly invitation was irresistible. They could not help but respond to the declaration of peace on earth and goodwill to mankind. The Advent -- and all it means for humanity -- was not a holiday to be observed when convenient. It was a reality, a God-sent gift to be stewarded.
Peace often seems just as unlikely for the communities mired in the trenches of crime and incarceration. Powerful forces perpetuate violence, distrust and lack of dignity, until it's hard to imagine a different future. When he has seen his father and two older brothers arrested and hauled off in handcuffs, it's easy for a young man in a poor community to see a police officer as his natural enemy. When the materially wealthy wall themselves off in communities where they only know others like themselves, it's natural for them to have a blanket fear of those returning from prison -- and fail to see their God-given potential. It was only too human for WWI soldiers on both sides of the conflict not to see the humanity of the soldiers firing back at them.
Whenever peace comes, it is not natural, but the result of conscious choice. Like a candle lit in the long darkness of a winter's night, peace starts with a single, incendiary act. A king is born in a stable. A soldier sings a carol instead of firing his weapon. A police officer and a protestor find common ground in caring about the safety and future of their community.
As I have witnessed many times before in prison visits, men and women in prisons and jails across the country set aside the racial divisions so often visible behind bars, celebrating the birth of Jesus side by side with people of different ethnicities and languages. Prison wardens meet to share best practices for making their facilities more peaceful, restorative places. Serving with Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, friends of mine leave the comfort of their suburban enclave and cross the invisible boundaries between communities to bring Christmas gifts to a prisoner's children. They sit in the family's sparse living room and listen to the hard-working mother share about her family's experience. They let "others" become people with faces, histories, loves, and concerns.
Peace is not an accidental absence of strife; it's a vocation. It's a rebellion against the forces that allow our differences to overwhelm our consciousness of the humanity, dignity, and value we all share as people made in the image of God. One act at a time, the light gains ground, and before we know it, all is brighter.