Archive for history

Dec
24

The Christmas Truce, Then and Now

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Today, Christmas Eve 2014, marks the 100th anniversary of the Christmas during World War 1. On that remarkable day, soilders from all sides of the war – French, British, Scottish, and German soldiers – crossed no-man’s land and in the spirit of the Prince of Peace celebrated Christmas together. Yesterday I posted a brief review of the event and a book by Stanley Wintraub about the truce called Silent Night. Today I want to say a few additional words about the truce and what it should mean to all of us.

In the days leading up to Christmas in 1914, British General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien issued a firm instruction to the officers of all British army: “It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life… officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy… such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks…the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit… friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited.”

The General reveals something in his orders that is rather shocking: soldiers of one side do not tend to have any real grievance with the soldiers of the other side. Then why must they fight each other? Because the states they work for said so. They are ultimately used as pawns for power grabs rather than protectors of peace. As the saying goes, “War is just politics continued by other means.”

In August 1914, Europe entered World War 1 in a strange fervor. It was not initially considered a life-or-death struggle but almost like a big parade. Most of the soldiers thought of it as a game or contest, and that it would all be over quickly and they would even be home for Christmas. And to get them into the war spirit, every side launched huge propaganda campaigns to demonize the other side. No accusation was too low to be used.

Just a few months into the war, the protracted destiny of the war became clear to everyone on the front lines, and morale was desperate. They were ready to grasp at anything that could help them to feel human again.

Thus, when the spirit of Christmas suddenly rolled through the camps and prompted everyone to lay down their arms and remember that Jesus Christ was born to save, the soldiers began to reevaluate their priorities. What were they fighting for, really? Was the glory of their state really worth it? Many realized that it couldn’t be so. Although we know the ultimate result – the war resumed just as one might expect – the Christmas truce was a spark of humanity in a sea of unconscionable violence.

The incident truly reveals the deceitful nature of the state and the violence it perpetuates. In general, we have no need to start a quarrel with other nations. Wars occur not because every citizen of one nation has been wronged by every citizen of another nation, but because the state apparatus of one nation has decided it needs to wield its will against the state apparatus of the other nation. It takes the state propagandizing citizens to have them believe the enemy is actually every German, or Italian, or Mexican, or Iraqi, rather than the citizen’s own government that daily tyrannizes them.

I highly encourage you to read Silent Night, or to watch the great movie Joyeux Noel which dramatizes the Christmas truce, this Christmas season. You won’t regret it. And finally, remember that Jesus is truly our Prince of Peace, no matter what storm you encounter whether personal struggle or worldwide war.

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This Christmas Eve marks the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce, when French, British, Scottish, and German soldiers unexpectedly laid down their arms and celebrated Christmas together. It was a remarkable event unmatched in its touching display of humanity despite the horrors surrounding them. A few years ago, I wrote about Silent Night, a book by Stanley Weintraub that chronicled the events of this truce. I want to highlight this article again here and encourage you to soak in some of these remarkable details of this incredible event. Tomorrow I will write a little more about the truce and what it should mean to all of us.

Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night isn’t a book that warrants a long review because the point is so clear. The book is about the World War I Christmas Truce. All over the front lines in Europe in 1914, men laid down their arms and remembered the Prince of Peace. During and afterwards, many wondered why they were fighting in the first place. Weintraub’s book retells the events of “horror taking a holiday” over Christmas on the front lines through soldiers’ personal recollections and other reports.

On June 28, 1914, Bosnian-Serb student Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The murder triggered a fast-paced series of events that ultimately led to what we now call World War I. On one side were the Entente Powers: France, the United Kingdom, and Russia; on the other side were the Central Powers: Germany and Austria-Hungary. By August 1914, the countries were engaged in total war the likes of which had never been seen on earth – trench warfare. On the front lines, opposing men were separated at times by less than 100 feet, living in filthy trenches dug into the ground. Both sides believed that the war would be over quickly, but as December 1914 approached such a resolution seemed much less likely. Soldiers excited of the prospects of war glory quickly lost their initial enthusiasm in favor of sheer survival. But as Christmas eve approached, an unlikely truce was forged by troops all across the front lines. Much was learned when those who only knew their enemies through propaganda and caricatures actually conversed with their foes. Read More→

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Review of Malcolm D. Magee, What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy (Baylor University Press, 2008), x + 189 pgs., hardcover.

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Although I purchased this book soon after it was published, other commitments compelled me to add it to my mountainous stack of books “to be read.” Since this year is the one hundredth anniversary of World War I, and I have already reviewed two books on World War I (Jack Beatty’s The Lost History of 1914 and Philip Jenkins’ The Great and Holy War), I figured that if I was ever going to read What the World Should Be, I might as well read it this year.

George W. Bush was not the first president to have a “faith-based” foreign policy. Most people know that Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was the U.S. president from 1913 to 1921. Some perhaps know that he was the governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. But few probably know that he was the son of a Presbyterian minister, president of Princeton University—then a Presbyterian institution that had always been headed by clergymen until Wilson—from 1902 to 1910, and had a faith-based policy of his own.

But like the faith-based foreign policy of Bush, Wilson’s was shaped by a defective faith.

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Here is a great quote from Rob Bell (via azspot), with a generous hat-tip to our friend Bonnie Kristian.

“Most of the Bible is a history told by people living in lands occupied by conquering superpowers. It is a book written from the underside of power. It’s an oppression narrative. The majority of the Bible was written by a minority people living under the rule and reign of massive, mighty empires, from the Egyptian Empire to the Babylonian Empire to the Persian Empire to the Assyrian Empire to the Roman Empire. This can make the Bible a very difficult book to understand if you are reading it as a citizen of the the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Without careful study and reflection, and humility, it may even be possible to miss central themes of the Scriptures.”

Whether or not you like Rob Bell – I think he can be a mixed bag at times – you have to appreciate the insight of this quote regarding empire in Scripture. We frequently discount from our 21st century Western perspective just how dire things often are for the people of Scripture, and just how much they had to depend on God for providence and protection. We can thank God for how blessed we really are with the amazing operations of free market capitalism (NOT government!) and reflect upon how the Bible continues to speak to the oppressed today. Thanks for the tip, Bonnie and Rob!

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English Baptist minister Robert Hall (1764-1831) was the namesake and youngest child of fourteen born to a Baptist minister. One website recounts his life thusly:

He was an accomplished theologian at the tender age of nine, having then mastered (among other works) “Edwards on the Will” and Butler’s “Analogy.” Notwithstanding such precocity, he did not prove to be a fool, but was one of the few “remarkable children” who turn out really remarkable men. In his fifteenth year he began his series of studies for the ministry at Bristol College, where his progress in learning was rapid; but as a preacher he seemed likely to be a failure. On his first public trial he repeatedly broke down, through an excessive sensibility that made public speech an agony to him, almost an impossibility. He mastered this weakness, however, and thenceforth steadily increased in power as an orator. Four years spent at King’s College, Aberdeen, where he was first in all his classes, brought him to his majority. His pastorates were at Cambridge, Leicester, and Bristol, and in each city his ministry was greatly successful. Many of his sermons were printed and had a wide circulation. No preacher of his time was more highly esteemed by the leaders of thought in Great Britain. Hall was master of an ornate and stately kind of eloquence long extinct in the pulpit, much esteemed in its day and perhaps too little esteemed now. To the present generation his sentences seem cumbrous, his style is pronounced affected and stilted, his tropes frigid. Indeed, the reader of today is at a loss to understand how his sermons could ever have won such encomiums as they received. Yet at his death, in 1831, it was universally agreed that one of the greatest lights of the pulpit had been extinguished.

Hall’s legacy as a popular preacher and cultural celebrity is now largely unknown. His Works, which were widely read in the nineteenth-century, are now rarely cited. Those who today walk by the statue of Hall in the middle of De Monfort Square in Leicester, England, certainly have no idea who he was. Hall was a defender of religious liberty, freedom of the press, and peace. The occasion of his sermon on war was the Day of Thanksgiving throughout England that was proclaimed for June 1, 1802, after the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in March that temporarily ended hostilities between France and Great Britain during the French Revolutionary Wars. I have transcribed the sermon from The Works of Robert Hall, A.M. (Vol. I, 4th ed., London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834, pp. 81-121). – Laurence M. Vance

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