You may have heard the story. The beautiful, heartwarming story of people in the midst of tragedy that are able to find a commonality in the season of Christmas. In World War I, on Christmas Eve, English and German soldiers shared a few moments of Christmas joy together, between trying to kill one another from their respective trenches. Beautiful. Transcendent.
But the story doesn’t end with the return to hostilities. It doesn’t end with Generals so infuriated and threatened by this impromptu event that they expressly forbid any other such events. It doesn’t end a year later, when another request for a truce is made by the Germans – and denied because of these orders. It doesn’t end when, instead of general merriment, a 45-minute truce is agreed upon so that the dead can be buried.
It ends when the English soldier who agrees to this travesty of war is actually court-martialed. Tried for disobeying orders. Convicted, in fact, of disobeying orders. But sentenced only to a verbal reprimand.
I suppose it is a human desire to see enshrined in our cultural institutions, our governments and other leaderships, divine approbation. We like to think that God is on our side, and that God is more specifically guiding and inspiring our leaders. Even in this age of cynicism, we presume that while there are plenty of bad apples, the barrel they are collected in is overall of divine design, certainly superior almost inherently to any other possible barrel. Particularly in moments of stress and uncertainty and trauma we want to see our leadership as men and women seeking their best to follow God’s directives.
This is dangerous. This is wrong.
The Christ child comes into our world precisely to create moments such as along the Flanders front in 1914. Moments that transcend the evil which so often dictates human course. Moments that shirk off the assumed burdens and duties placed upon us by people with other motivations than peace and goodwill on earth towards men, as the old song goes. Not merely to create moments, either, but to completely and permanently displace the kingdom of evil that still holds sway with the very kingdom of God.
This is a terrifying prospect to anyone and everyone charged with maintaining a status quo, with trading and dealing in the wares of the world on the terms of the world. And while individuals can sometimes see their way through these terms, see them for the shallowness and selfishness they are invariably drenched in, institutions – by definition – cannot. It is not their job and it is not in their best interest or the interest of their shareholders, whether civil or financial. Institutions by definition are first and foremost concerned with survival, secondarily with expansion.
We should expect that when we as individual Christians take seriously the notion that the kingdom of God has already defeated the power of evil in our world, that it is currently displacing this power in unexpected places and unforeseen ways, there will be resistance. Even from the good guys. Our own team. Those we look up to.
Sometimes, even from the Church.
There is forgiveness when this happens, but it does happen, we should expect it to happen, and we should be careful never to usurp our true hope for peace and joy and goodwill with shallow or sham alternatives. We must be careful to realize that even our most beloved icons and leaders and figures are broken and sinful, and that we ourselves with our vaunted self-determinism are often misled and misused without ever knowing it.
It is Christmas again. A century has passed since that glowing evening shared between men instructed to kill each other. The trenches in our lives and world are not always so well-defined, the hostilities not nearly as often neatly defined and codified. But in the midst of our battles both public and existential, the Christ child comes and places himself, offering us the only true, radical alternative to our self-imposed or self-endured suffering. Following His alternative is always the right choice.
How unfortunate that it will also often cause us even more suffering.
9 “You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
12 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. Mark 13:9-13