Have you heard of the Christmas Truce of December, 1914? This had to be one of the most bizarre war-time stories to emerge in wartime. It has been documented in soldier diaries, on camera, and in movies and books. Prince William recently dedicated a memorial in the location where this stunning turn of events occurred early in World War I. It made me think how much we could all gain by having a truce, between countries or families. Or other “enemies,” real or imagined.
All Calm on the Western Front?
The Western Front in World War II included the countries of France, West Germany Luxembourg and Belgium. Around Christmas Eve, the sounds of distant murmuring drifted along various parts of the front, towards the damp cold trenches. The voices increased in volume, until British soldiers realized it was German soldiers calling them to come over. Understandably, soldiers on the other side hesitated and grew suspicious. But against all odds, they agreed to meet halfway in “no man’s land,” a neutral space where enemies would collect dead comrades.
British machine gunner and war cartoonist, Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather, wrote: “Here I was in this horrible clay cavity…miles and miles from home. Suddenly we heard a confused shouting from the other side. We all stopped to listen. The shout came again…from an enemy soldier with a strong German accent …” From those cautious steps forward came an unlikely truce, with a spontaneous game of football (soccer), gift-exchanges and even bartered haircuts.
High commanders frowned upon this and not all soldiers participated. Some Germans continued to shoot at the enemy. One outraged German soldier said of the truce, “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” Have you no sense of German honor left?” That soldier was Adolph Hitler.
Honor in Forgiveness
On the contrary, it takes a lot of honor to put animosity aside. A truce also occurred between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda occurred over a 25-year nationwide reconciliation and accountability project, following the massive genocide in 1994. Journalist Philip Gourevitch profiled this complex process. Interestingly, those he interviewed said that forgiveness did not require trust, but a letting go of getting even. “And that means they felt like something had been gained (for the good of society), even if they themselves were not at peace…It means accepting a co-existence.”
A lack of forgiveness can result in lost lives and cultures, but also friendships or family relationships. One friend of mine described a large rift in his family that set different parts against each other. Ironically, he did not even recall how it started. And I know others who have not talked to siblings for many years, despite them living a few miles apart! Divisions can continue to fester if each party feels wronged, with no side willing to call a truce. Hopefully Christmas will always be a time when we can set differences aside and be congenial to our family members, regardless of what ills they may have committed.
I am guilty of nursing grudges for too long, but many religious faiths from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism call us to extend grace to our “enemies.” Without embracing forgiveness, we will all be stuck in a form of “no man’s land.” The initial hurt or betrayal, can lead to bitterness, resentment or even hatred. But most mental health experts agree that embracing peace and hope leads to greater spiritual and emotional well-being. While peace for those WW1 soldiers did not last, the emotions brought about by that Christmastime truce likely lasted for a lifetime!
Freedom in Letting Go
Many people who have been wronged in unimaginable ways speak of the freedom that forgiveness brings. We have heard the stories of people who have lost loved ones to murder. Whether harms are inflicted, intentionally or accidentally, the question remains: How can we forgive such acts? The most famous example, perhaps, is Corrie Ten Boom who forgave the Germans for murdering her family.
“Forgiveness is an act of will,” Ten Boom wrote for a Guideposts article, “and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” When unexpectedly confronted by her former enemy during a speaking event in post-war Germany, Ten Boom chose to extend her hand in forgiveness. Despite the initial coldness of her heart, her body flooded with warmth, and she felt God’s love course through her as never before.
The late theologian and forgiveness researcher Lewis Smedes once wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” And in some situations, the enemy is us. Forgiving ourself can be the hardest person to forgive.
A Limit on Grace?
Is there a limit to grace- a harm so horrendous that it cannot be forgiven? One of my pastors, in a recent sermon about grace, referenced a current Netflix series about the notorious serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Even Dahmer himself felt he deserved to die for his actions. Grace does not mean freedom from accountability. The details of his crimes were so cold-blooded that people did not initially believe he was capable of such atrocities. Nor could people believe his apparent change of heart, years later, when he became a Christian in prison. Yet a Wisconsin pastor Roy Ratcliff, who met weekly with Dahmer and baptized him, reminds us that God forgives even someone like him.
Ratcliff suggests that Christians do not have the right to decide who to forgive. How easy is it to rate sins on a scale of severity and place ourselves above others? “If he’s in Heaven, I don’t want to be there,” one of Ratcliff’s parishioners stated. But do Christians really get to decide who is forgiven? And would we want to give up the reward of Heaven out of spite for someone else’s newfound freedom?
In an interview with New York Times writer Dan Berry, Ratcliff shared that he feels like a better man for having known Dahmer and has learned more about grace, mercy, and compassion. Yet many condemn the pastor “for having the audacity to grant God’s blessings upon the devil.” How do people embrace enemies- or even befriend them? Isn’t that going a bit too far? A sister of one of Dahmer’s victims decided it was not. Somehow, she found the heart to attend his memorial and forgive him for his heinous crimes.
Putting Demons Aside
Another victim of harm made a similar courageous decision after World War II. Eric Lomax, a former British army officer, was forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway, featured in the film, “The Railway Man.” The Japanese held Lomax as a prisoner of war and brutally tortured him. At first, he dreamt of finding revenge. But ultimately, he was able to move past his pent-up anger and reconcile with the demons of his past. In letting go of longtime psychological wounds, he found freedom. By reframing his past, he created a new future.
In fact, Lomax managed to track down the Japanese interpreter who had participated in his torture sessions. And thus began an unexpected correspondence. Lomax said, “The letter he wrote was full of compassion and I think at that moment I lost whatever hard armor I had wrapped around me and began to think the unthinkable.” He initially was skeptical of this Japanese captor’s change of heart and his deepened devotion to Buddhism. “I had come with no sympathy for this man and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around.” The two turned out to have more in common than they imagined and became friends until the end of their lives.
Grace and Love
Some people want to keep up their hard shell, as Lomax once did. But mental health professionals agree that moving past hostility results in better relationships, health and mental well-being. Forgiveness allows us to release the control that others may still have on our lives. So that we are not defined by our past. Shedding a victim mentality requires vulnerability, and the ability to see others through a lens of compassion. Mother Teresa once wrote that if we really want to learn to love, we must learn how to forgive. She reminds us, though, “Do not think that love, to be genuine, needs to be extraordinary.” Forgiveness is a gradual process of small steps.
I could forgive the bus driver who sped past me and my classmates and accidentally drove over my leg. But initially I felt less charitable towards the teacher who made me hobble to the blackboard to write out math problems, as he questioned my missing homework. He knew what happened, but showed no mercy. And it was hard to forgive the silent administration who pretended the trauma never took place. But forgiveness does not require an apology or admission of wrongdoing. What grace are you ready to give to a person who has wounded you, whether physically or emotionally?
Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount calls us to forgive others, as does Allah and many other religious leaders. Does that mean God will not forgive us if we don’t forgive others? In podcast on Matthew 5-7, Pastor John Piper reminds us that if we remain “in the flesh,” we will not always succeed in doing good deeds perfectly. But we need not intentionally “cherish the grudge and fondle the wrong.” We have the power to forgive others as we, too, have been shown mercy.