The Common Good

Christmas in the Trenches; Aid for Asia

Sojomail - December 28, 2004

Editors' Note Special Holiday Mini-Issue
Hearts & Minds Jim Wallis: Christmas in the trenches
For Mercy's Sake Aid agencies respond to Asian quake crisis
Boomerang Readers write


Originally published in 2002, we've found that this commentary's relevance only seems to increase with each passing year. We offer it as a word of hope and introspection as we pass from a "entrenched" election season into a new year of challenge and possibility.

We're also celebrating a wonderful Christmas gift we just received: Sojourners has won Utne's 2004 Independent Press Award for Spiritual Coverage!


Christmas in the trenches
by Jim Wallis

"Silent Night," by Stanley Weintraub, is the story of Christmas Eve 1914 on the World War I battlefield in Flanders. As the German, British, and French troops facing each other were settling in for the night, a young German soldier began to sing "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." Others joined in. When they had finished, the British and French responded with other Christmas carols.

Eventually, the men from both sides left their trenches and met in the middle. They shook hands, exchanged gifts, and shared pictures of their families. Informal soccer games began in what had been "no-man's-land." And a joint service was held to bury the dead of both sides.

The generals, of course, were not pleased with these events. Men who have come to know each other's names and seen each other's families are much less likely to want to kill each other. War seems to require a nameless, faceless "enemy."

So, following that magical night the men on both sides spent a few days simply firing aimlessly into the sky. Then the war was back in earnest and continued for three more bloody years. Yet the story of that Christmas Eve lingered - a night when the angels really did sing of peace on earth.

Folksinger John McCutcheon wrote a song about that night in Belgium, titled "Christmas in the Trenches," from the viewpoint of a young British solder. Several poignant verses are:

"The next they sang was "Stille Nacht," "Tis 'Silent Night'," says I.
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky
"There's someone coming towards us!" the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.

Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man's land
With neither gun nor bayonet we met there hand to hand
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave 'em hell.
We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own
Young Sanders played his squeeze box and they had a violin
This curious and unlikely band of men.

Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone for evermore."

My prayer for the New Year is for a nation and world where people can come out of their trenches and together sing their hopes for peace. We here at Sojourners will carry on that mission, and we invite you to continue on the journey with us.

Blessings to you and your families.

+ Listen to a recent segment of NPR's Talk of the Nation featuring an interview with Stanley Weintraub, with more intriguing details of the Christmas Truce

+ See the complete lyrics to John McCutcheon's song

+ Learn about a book by German author Michael Jurgs, including previously unseen soldiers' letters and diaries

+ Read more history of the 1914 Christmas truce, including many first-person accounts

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As we join in prayer and concern for the millions affected by the earthquakes and tidal waves in South Asia, we offer this list of trusted humanitarian organziations that are responding to the crisis. (This list is by no means complete or exhaustive of all worthy organizations.)

+ Catholic Relief Service

+ Christian Aid

+ Church World Service

+ International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

+ Lutheran World Relief

+ Mennonite Central Committee

+ Mercy Corps

+ World Relief

+ World Vision

Former Sojourners intern, Jeshua Erickson, explores faith and a Christian commitment to nonviolence in his latest album, Swords into Plowshares. His music offers listeners a refreshing new way of seeing faith and politics as partners in the noble pursuit of peace and justice. Reviews and information about Jeshua can be found at

Get yours today for only $15!


Readers write

Scott Lyons writes from San Francisco, California:

I particularly enjoyed reading Rev. Joy Caroll Wallis' sermon, "Putting Herod back into Christmas," in SojoMail 12/22/04. The salient points pertinent to the lowly - indeed dangerous - birth and early life of the Lord are points we usually do not tend to focus on when reading the gospel or entering into the Christmas mindset. Fuzzy and warm do seem to win the day!

I found of particular interest the item that the Holy Family had been disowned by their relatives. It all makes perfect sense, of course, but I had not given a thought to this reality. Joseph had gone up to Bethlehem, the city of his fathers, to be counted and taxed. He would have had an extended family in and around Bethlehem. Where were they? When viewed in the light of the gospel account, one can only come to the conclusion that, of course, Joseph and his young bride had been ostracized. We remember it is only the grace of God which intervenes with Joseph, who, we are told, was a just man, and so would not permit himself to put Mary away, which would have led to her stoning as either a whore or an adulteress.

The other major point of the piece, which regards the social ramifications of the Gospel, are too often overlooked by Christians. We do well to recall from the Magnificat to the last words of Revelation, the Gospel is an indictment of accepted social mores and behaviour, and that Jesus posed then, as now, a serious threat to the "Establishment."


Andrew Barker writes from Nottingham, U.K."

It's great to get your regular mailings and Joy's "Herod in Christmas" is a great piece. However I wonder about arguing Mary and Joseph being rejected by their family from so little evidence. A closer look at word "inn" probably suggests there was little room in a house for the baby so as the animals were just down a level from a vital "room" the manger would almost be in the living space. I think some New Testament scholars would give more support to that than what can be sentimental stables or caves that are not in the text.

Anyway the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the real world. Praise the Lord.


Jennifer Griffith writes from Stone Mountain, Georgia:

I have much respect for your organization, so it's with great concern that I respond to your article, "Bulldozers (still) in Bethlehem" [SojoMail 12/22/2004]. The article seems to suggest that Israeli soldiers and bulldozers are there simply to "occupy" the land and harass the Palestinian people. Indeed, any military action by Israel apparently is seen by your organization as being of an aggressive nature.

The Israeli people have been under fire from their Arab neighbors from the very beginning of Israel's existence. Israel's borders have expanded over the decades, not because of Israeli aggression, but because of victories in wars which were initiated by her Arab neighbors - in some cases, the attack came on all borders. Against the opposition of much of the world, Israel finally began building a defensive wall. Ultimately, the number of suicide attacks has been drastically reduced. In areas where the wall was cutting through Palestinian land, an appeal was granted by the Israeli Supreme Court, and those portions of the wall were dismantled and moved. Indeed, Israel recognizes the rights of all her citizens, regardless of religion or national origin.

I know there are many Palestinians who wish to peacefully co-exist with the Israelis, but until they get together, speak out, and take control of the Palestinian Authority, there is little hope for peace. Divestment and boycotting of Israel is absolutely not the solution. May the day come soon when all people across the world understand that peace is truly the best option, and co-existence is possible.


Emily Regan Wills writes from Brooklyn, New York

John Dewitt wrote asking for concrete ideas as ways to make actual progress on issues of economic injustice, from Wal-Mart to sweatshops [Boomerang 12/22/2004]. There are ways, although nothing is ever clear: Purchase products from retailers who treat their employees ethically, such as American Apparel, an L.A.-based garment business who pay their employees a living wage; No Sweat Apparel, which carries union-made garments from all over the world; or the many organizations who sell fair trade agricultural products or handicrafts that support economic development projects. Support Wal-Mart workers who are trying to organize a union, in the hopes that if workers can bargain collectively they can improve their working conditions. Work to keep Wal-Mart out of our communities and ethical businesses in them. There are no easy answers to the problems of poverty in a global trade context, but it is possible to support workers while not supporting the businesses that have put them in such a bind in the first place.


Ron Landskroner writes from Oakland, California:

Andre Bucher commented in the last Boomerang [SojoMail 12/22/2004]: "To become a responsible shopper in today's world is a very challenging issue for which there is little to no help. This would certainly be a campaign worth to start worldwide - analyze businesses and provide customer information to take sensible decisions when shopping." Indeed, there already are many excellent resources (both on- and off-line) which offer such information and assistance. Though too numerous to list in the space allotted here, these are among the most effective and my personal favorites:

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