So when we celebrate Christmas, we're celebrating an ideal. Embracing that ideal has been elusive, however; no sooner did Jesus pass from the scene than did people start ignoring his advice. Governments and their despots have waged war ever since; the Golden Rule has yet to vanquish hatred and greed.
Still, through millennia of killing, Jesus' message will not die because people recognize its basic truth. It is, as they say from the pulpit, the only way to the Promised Land.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f there is an opposite to the Promised Land, it could have been found in World War I, along the French-Belgian border. There, the two warring sides dug themselves into trenches; the sliver of land that separated them, pocked by bombshell craters, strewn with barbed wire and littered with corpses, was called "No Man's Land." British poet Wilfred Owen called it "the abode of madness," and he would have known: He died there.
But across the centuries, in a kind of Christmas miracle, Jesus' message found purchase in that hellscape.
On Christmas Eve 1914, only a few months into the "War To End All Wars," something revolutionary happened. As recreated beautifully in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, soldiers on both sides of the fight laid down their weapons and ventured tentatively out into No Man's Land. The hatred their leaders tried to instill into them faded as the Germans put up decorated tannenbaums, as soldiers traded food and trinkets, and as they all put their voices together to sing Christmas carols. The next morning, each side maintained the cease-fire, without any official orders, to bury their dead. For a few days, the Golden Rule took strategic command; the Christmas spirit trumped nationalistic fervor, and a vision of the Promised Land replaced No Man's Land.
"If we had been left to ourselves," said Sir Kingsley Wood, a soldier who became a British cabinet member during World War II, "there would never have been another shot fired."
Of course they weren't left to themselves. These actions were highly dangerous to the very idea of war making. Without compliant soldiers who hated their enemy, there could be no victory. But even by Christmas 1914, there was going to be no victory for Germany. With a two-front war opened up, the German leaders knew they had to overrun France immediately; within the first months of the war, they failed to deliver the quick victory they had promised.
Instead of building on the Christmas Truce to end a war already lost, the troops and officers were reprimanded, and Germany settled into a stalemate that serves as proof of war's inherent folly. Since World War I, wars of choice have been uniformly disastrous for the people of the world and the nations that have chosen to wage them.
After those hours of hope out in No Man's Land, World War I continued for 46 more months, and claimed 9 million soldiers' lives, along with millions more civilian lives. The conflict planted the seeds of World War II, left chaos in the wake of the broken-up Ottoman Empire, set Russia on a path of self-destruction and applied industrial efficiency to doing that thing unto others that you would never want them to do unto you: killing.
But we don't seem to be learning anything from these experiences, and it's been a wicked cycle of violence, presaged by John the Evangelist, as he wrote to early Christians: "He who does not love his brother abides in death."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & orry, this isn't much of an uplifting holiday story. But it's hard to muster much cheer, as another Christmas has come, and we have soldiers on the front lines with no end in sight.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw opposed World War I, and he might as well have been talking about 2006 when he wrote a friend about the 1914 Christmas Truce, which was widely reported. "It is all hallucination, this war spirit," Shaw wrote. "We all talk nonsense. German papers, French papers, English papers write the same article... tell the same lies, believe the same impossible stories."
At that time, Shaw was working on what would become one of his greatest works, Heartbreak House, which just finished a revival run on Broadway last week. In Charles Isherwood's review for the New York Times, he wrote that the time is ripe for the show again, and that, "Shaw indicted a culture saturated in false values, its most privileged citizens corrupted by idleness and indifference, content to drift toward the abyss.
"Shaw surely meant it to shock his countrymen into an awareness of the possibly dire consequences of a continued political and moral paralysis."
For too long we have stayed in our trenches, listening to our leaders' increasingly shrill orders to stay down and do what we're told. We need to have faith that we can venture out into No Man's Land, both here at home, where there are still too many painful divisions, and out in the world. That's the only way to discover what we have in common with those we are taught to distrust or even hate. And it's the only way to cure indifference and stave off political and moral paralysis.
In 1914, a handful of misguided men threw a war, and a lasting peace almost broke out. And that's a Christmas story never to forget.