On the 9th December 2014 the Four Corners Festival is hosting a night at Strand Arts Centre to screen “Joyeux Noel”, a film about the Christmas Truce that took place on the Western Front on Christmas Day, 1914.
It is being held to celebrate the courage of those who stepped into “No Man’s Land”, during times of conflict, to show a different way. The French film from 2005 relates the events of that day, seen through the eyes of French, Scottish and German soldiers.
Remembering World War 1 is particularly poignant here in Northern Ireland where, from 2012- 2022, we have a decade of commemorations. Reflecting on the events which took place 100 years ago, some of them still impacting our lives today, I can’t help feel that many arose from a failure of relationships.
The Home Rule debate, the Easter Rising, the First World War, with the Somme and other battles, the Anglo Irish War and the Civil War, all betray a fundamental failure to build and maintain constructive relationships. The consequences were often tragic and led to further division and conflict.
The most significant of those events from a century ago, was of course, the First World War, where countries across Europe and beyond became engaged in a conflict which left some 16 million people dead. Many more were injured and that war sowed the seeds of a further and even more destructive conflict, some 20 years.
It is tragic that such devastation occurred despite the common bond of Christianity that was shared between many of the major countries involved, from Orthodoxy and Catholicism, through to the various Protestant Churches. These countries and their leaders, in theory at least, were supposed to be influenced by doctrines like “Love your neighbour” and “treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated”, yet they used developing technology to produce new and advanced weaponry, to cause unprecedented death and destruction.
Often they also sought to claim that God was on their side!
As Ghandi apparently once said in South Africa:
“When I read the scriptures, I see Christ. Too often when I meet Christians, I don’t!”
Such a comment is all too true when one looks at those involved in the First World War and so many other conflicts before and since.
That is not, in any way, to take away from the bravery of those who fought and died during the war. However we should always challenge robustly the necessity of resorting to violence, pointing out that it often does not solve problems but rather compounds them. Being realistic, conflict cannot always be avoided but there is nothing glorious about war and we should strive to avoid it where at all possible.
That is why, for me, one of the events that we should celebrate with least reservation from that period in our history, is the Christmas Truce of 1914 along the Western Front. If one believes in God, he surely sent a powerful message across many parts of the Western Front that day; where the guns fell silent and soldiers from both sides came out of their trenches to share stories, food, drink and even a football pitch. More importantly, despite leaders who tried to prevent them from doing so, they built relationships with men whom, the previous day, they had been trying to kill.
It showed a different path. It opened up different possibilities.
Despite what they learnt from that experience, and we can understand why, they climbed back into their trenches and the slaughter began again. It was to accelerate over the next four years.
Churches across these islands and in mainland Europe have often been involved in commemorating those who died as a result of World War 1. Surely, this Christmas, 100 years after the Truce of 1914, all churches should reflect on what happened that day and the message that came so strongly from God, saying very clearly, there is a different path which involves building relationships, rather than destroying them.
And it leaves you with the question ‘What if’? What if those young soldiers had defied their leaders and refused to return to their trenches? What if they had persuaded the rest of their colleagues to come and join them in No Man’s Land? Sadly that did not happen. But think of the lives it would have saved and the devastation that would have been prevented.
This Christmas, 100 years later, we should celebrate all those who, in many conflicts around the world since, have come out of their literal or figurative trenches, to build relationships in No Man’s Land and encourage others to join them. They bring humanity and hope to places where often there is none and remain as a check on those, who all too often move easily into conflict without fully exploring the alternatives.
It is the Christian way and certainly a lesson that people on this island should learn from, as we work through the decade of failures that has become our ‘Decade of Commemorations’. In the future we should ensure that our weapon of choice is friendship!