It might seem odd to anyone who understands what Jesus taught that the U.S. presidential candidates who most stress their Christian devotion are often the same ones urging more wars. But this defiling of Jesus’s message of peace is not new, as Gary G. Kohls recalls from an inspiring moment in World War I.
By Gary G. Kohls
The peace that had existed for decades in Europe – since the Franco-Prussian War 40-plus years earlier – had resulted in tremendous progress in culture, infrastructure investment, commerce and international relations. Europeans of all stripes crossed borders relatively freely.
Before World War I, European Jews and Christians intermingled and intermarried with few eyebrows being raised and, although covert Christian anti-Semitism definitely existed, overt persecution of Jews was not a major problem. Jews were welcomed in the militaries and served with distinction.
When Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, European peace rapidly unraveled and – by a series of errors of judgment, bureaucratic inefficiencies, ineptitude, lack of communication skills – all the nations seemed to declare war on each other.
It was mostly a case of “death (and killing) before dishonor” in which, no matter how worthy or unworthy the war aims might be, negotiation toward a peaceful settlement was considered to be a dishonorable way out of a conflict.
Indoctrinated boys – ignorant of the mutual mass slaughter of past and future wars – were looking for glory and a way out of their boredom at home. Unaware of the reality and virtual incurability of “shell shock” (the term for post-traumatic stress disorder in WWI) young men all over Europe rushed like lemmings to the recruiting stations to sign up for war.
WWI ultimately destroyed four empires, chemically poisoned the soil and water supplies of agrarian France (with the massive amounts of military toxins) and killed off 14 million people, 90 percent of whom were young, naïve combatants.
Entire generation of young French, British and German men had been wasted, either killed, wounded, rendered permanently disabled, insane, criminal or in other ways a menace to society.
No one, especially the military planners, had foreseen the coming mass slaughter and the stalemates that were inevitable with trench, artillery and machine-gun warfare. Everyone was blinded by the propaganda message that war was glorious and God-ordained rather than satanic.
Churches for War
Predictably, the Christian churches joined the patriotic fervor with their nationalistic blindness, refusing to teach what Jesus had always taught about violence (that it was forbidden to those who wished to follow him).
The pulpits on all sides – British, Scottish, French, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian, Serbian, Italian, etc, — rang with flag-waving, patriotic fervor, telling their doomed sons that it was their Christian duty to obey their secular leaders and to march off to war to kill the fingered (equally Christian) enemy on the other side of the battle line.
Five months into the slaughter, however, the Christmas season came, the holy holiday that reminded them of the safe homes they had foolishly left behind. The physically exhausted, malnourished, spiritually deadened, sleep-deprived, combat-traumatized soldiers on each side of No Man’s Land sought some respite from the cruelty of war and the frozen trenches.
The frontline soldiers were at the end of their ropes because of the unrelenting emotional stress, the hyper-alertness, the bad food, the rats, lice, frostbitten toes and fingers, deadly artillery bombardments, machine-gun massacres and suicidal assaults that were stupidly ordered by the commanding officers in the rear.
The day-to-day horrors of No Man’s Land were punctuated by the nightmarish screams of pain and pleas for help coming from the wounded soldiers who were helplessly hanging on the barbed wire or lying in the bomb craters, each one dying an agonizing death that often lingered for days. Rescuing wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land was expressly forbidden.
So, on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1914, the troops on both sides settled down to special food, special liquor, special rest – and the spontaneous singing of Christmas carols.
An over-confidant Kaiser Wilhelm had even ordered 100,000 Christmas trees, with candles for decoration, to be delivered to the German trenches for Christmas, thinking that the expense of such an act would boost morale. After all, the war was soon to be won by the superior German army and so using the supply lines for such unnecessary items seemed to be an acceptable expense to incur.
And then the spontaneous events happened at various points on the 700-mile-long trench lines that stretched all across France. The singing of Christmas carols started an extraordinary chain of events that culminated in acts of mass treason that would never be duplicated in the history of warfare.
One of the best-loved versions of the story was that the Germans started singing “Stille Nacht” and the British responded by singing the English language version, “Silent Night.” Then, the French and Scots joined in and all sides sang together in their own tongues, the Scots accompanying the Germans with their bagpipes.
The sense of their common humanity, which had been driven out of them in the rigid authoritarian schooling systems and in basic combat training, broke through to consciousness. Homesickness may have set in or perhaps the futility of the slaughter had become clear or perhaps the realization that these “enemies” could have been friends if only they had met in different circumstances.
Or perhaps their sheer exhaustion had taken the fight out of them and they didn’t care about the war any more – win or lose. Most of the combatants only desired peace and quiet and an escape from the hell they were being forced to exist in. The permanent peace of being dead even had its appeal.
However it started, the soldiers disobeyed the orders forbidding “fraternization with the enemy,” dropped their guns and came out of their trenches to greet one another in the middle of No Man’s Land. The former enemies shared pictures from home, chocolates, schnapps, wine. Soccer games were played. Friendships were made, addresses were exchanged and every soldier who experienced the events was forever changed.
The willingness to reflexively kill someone who had never done them any personal wrong suddenly vanished, never to return. So powerful was the experience, that most of the affected men had to eventually be removed from the front lines because they were refusing to obey orders to kill usually shooting high if they were being observed by their officers. They had to be replaced with fresh troops who had never had the life-changing, thought-provoking experience.
Fraternization with the enemy during a time of war was treated as an act of treason that was punishable by summary execution. In this case, however, because of the huge numbers of potential executions by firing squad, the commanding officers did not want to draw public attention to this inconvenient, inflammatory and potentially contagious episode.
They also knew that any focusing on the unauthorized truce would threaten the conduct of the war. Therefore they ordered no executions. There were lesser but still severe punishments, however, with many of the German soldiers who refused to fight and kill being transferred to the eastern front to kill and die in the war with Russia.
The Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film for 2005 that so beautifully characterized the spirit of the Christmas truce of 1914 is “Joyeux Noel” (French for Merry Christmas). It is a moving tale whose basic story comes directly from surviving veterans who experienced the event and also from the letters of soldiers who wrote home about it, letters that somehow survived military censorship.
The story that is so movingly told in “Joyeux Noel” needs to be retold again and again in this era of the cleverly orchestrated, nation-bankrupting, perpetual “U.S.-led” wars of empire that are being fought by our indoctrinated, soon-to-be-exhausted young men and women in uniform.
Some of them are doomed to a life overwhelmed by the horrendous realities of posttraumatic stress disorder, sociopathic personality disorder, suicidality, homicidality, loss of religious faith, permanent and virtually untreatable traumatic brain injury, chronic drug dependence (both legal and illicit) and a host of other nearly impossible-to-cure problems that are overwhelmingly preventable.
Militarists do whatever they can to prevent soldiers from experiencing the shared humanity of their targets, whether they are citizens of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan or North Korea.
There appears to be an unwritten rule in the military that Christian military chaplains, who are supposed to be nurturers of the souls of those in their care, forbidding them from teaching the Golden Rule, Jesus’s clear command to “love your enemies” or the nonviolent ethics of the Sermon on the Mount.
Chaplains are a part of the paid and indoctrinated apparatus of war that rejects the Ten Commandments, especially the one that says: “thou shalt not kill.” (Military chaplains, in their defense, may have never heard of gospel nonviolence in Sunday School or even in seminary. It is frustratingly all too common to find that most Christian churches and their denominational seminaries also do not teach, with any emphasis, those gospel truths.)
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 later in the war). These new troops were being brought in to replace the suddenly reluctant veteran combatants, who now refused to obey orders to kill.
The powerful response of the chaplain represents a serious warning to the Christian churches in America and also to its war-justifying citizenry and their political leaders.
This is a profoundly important and very moving film that deserves to be annual holiday fare, like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a founding member of The Community of the Third Way, a Duluth-area affiliate of Every Church A Peace Church (www.ecapc.org)