The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush

Blogger’s Note: One of the first three departments created in 1789 in the new executive branch of the United States government was the War Department—now called the Department of Defense. Having witnessed the evils of war firsthand while serving as surgeon general of the Middle Department of the Continental Army, founding father Benjamin Rush published an essay in Banneker’s Almanac in 1793 advocating for the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace to promote a counterethic. Among other things, his proposed Secretary of Peace would be responsible for abolishing capital punishment; dissolving state militias, including getting rid of military uniforms and titles; and providing every family with a Bible by which to become educated in Christ’s law.

His plan even provides for the interior decoration of the Peace Office—which must include lamb, dove, and olive branch imagery; biblical inscriptions; and a collection of plowshares and pruning hooks cast from swords and spears—as well as its sonic environment: the daily singing of peace hymns. The War Office, by contrast, should display images of death and destruction and bear cautionary inscriptions.

Literary satire, maybe. Then again, maybe not. Rush was an uncompromising champion of many causes throughout his lifetime, including, besides nonviolence, public education, prison and mental health reform, the abolition of slavery, mass distribution of Bibles, and temperance. While his proposal for a U.S. Department of Peace may sound airy-fairy and ridiculous, he very much believed in its practicality, and his confidence has been matched by twentieth- and twenty-first-century politicians: since the publication of Rush’s “Plan of a Peace-Office,” almost a hundred bills have been introduced in Congress proposing the creation of such a department, most recently in 2015.

The following essay is rekeyed in its entirety from Benjamin Rush’s Essays, Literary, Moral, and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas & Samuel F. Bradford, 1798).

Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson
Swords into Plowshares by Scott Erickson

“A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States”

Benjamin Rush

Among the defects which have been pointed out in the Federal Constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.

It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace-Office should be established in the time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government. Let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States” by Benjamin Rush”

Roundup: Free arts conference, new book series, Liturgical Folk, Jesus in Israeli art, Hacksaw Ridge

SYMPOSIUM:

“Art in a Postsecular Age,” hosted by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts: The twelfth annual Biola Arts Symposium is taking place Saturday, March 4, in La Mirada, California, covering “What is Postsecularity?,” “Seeing in a Postsecular Age,” “Making in a Postsecular Age,” and “Art in a Postsecular Age.” The all-star speaker lineup includes Sally Promey (The Visual Culture of American Religions), James Elkins (On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art), Jeffrey Kosky (Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity), and more. I’m super-excited to be going. I hope to see you there! It’s free, and no registration is required.

Art in a Postsecular Age.png

CALL FOR BOOK PROPOSALS:

Arts and the Sacred (ASAC) series: Brepols Publishers has launched a new academic series of richly illustrated books on theology and the arts, with a focus on visual art—historical and contemporary—and they’re looking for proposals. The series editors are Chloë Reddaway (Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Fellow in Art and Religion at the National Gallery, London) and Aaron Rosen (author of, among other titles, Art and Religion in the 21st Century). First-time authors are welcome.

DOUBLE ALBUM RELEASE:

Table Settings and Edenland by Liturgical Folk: This month Ryan Flanigan, worship director at All Saints Dallas, released the first two albums of his Liturgical Folk project, the aim of which is to root historical church language in the inherently joyful sounds of the American folk tradition. I love how Flanigan describes it: “a vision of something refreshingly old for churches that have grown tired of the same new thing.” The first volume, Table Settings, offers twelve traditional prayers and creeds—among them the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and the Trisagion—for churches and families, set to singable tunes; accompanying Flanigan on vocals are his wife, Melissa, and his three kids. The second volume, Edenland, is a collaboration with retired priest and contemplative poet Nelson Koscheski, who wrote all the lyrics; it features a wider range of vocalists. The intergenerational partnership is one element that drew producer Isaac Wardell to the project and that is highlighted in last month’s Dallas News feature story, in addition to the project’s contributions to the liturgical renewal movement in North America.

 

ART EXHIBITION:

“Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” December 22, 2016–April 16, 2017, Israel Museum, Jerusalem: “From the 19th century until today, Jewish and Israeli artists have engaged with the figure of Jesus, addressing complex questions of collective and individual identity. This exhibition, the result of extensive scholarly research, presents multivalent, unexpected, and at times subversive artistic responses: European artists reclaimed Jesus as a Jew and portrayed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering, and Zionist artists used the resurrection as a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland; some Israeli artists related to Jesus as a social rebel or misunderstood prophet, while others identified with his personal torment or his sacrifice for the sake of humanity, which they connected to more recent victims of intolerance and warfare.” Click here to listen to audio commentary on fourteen of the works from the exhibition. See also this essay from the IMJ on the figure of Jesus in the work of Reuven Rubin.

Via Dolorosa by Motti Mizrachi
Motti Mizrachi (Israeli, 1946–), Via Dolorosa, 1973. Lambda print. The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Lamb by Menashe Kadishman
Menashe Kadishman (Israeli, 1932–2015), Untitled (Lamb), 1999. Acrylic on canvas. Rachel and Dov Gottesman Collection, Tel Aviv.

MOVIE TRAILER:

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson: The hero of one of this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture is a Christian whose beliefs impel him to enlist in the US Army only on the condition that he not be made to carry a weapon—and this during World War II, when pacifism was far less acceptable than it is today. “While everybody else is takin’ life, I’m gonna be savin’ it,” says Desmond T. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in the trailer below. “That’s gonna be my way to serve.” Based on the true story of Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa and became the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.