The Common Good

A Christmas Truce, a New Year's Prayer

Sojomail - December 28, 2005

Quote of the Week : Peace on earth - no kidding
Editors' Note : Our annual Christmas special
Hearts & Minds : Jim Wallis: A Christmas truce, a New Year's prayer
Hearing the Call : Letter from a conscientious objector
Theologically Connect : The government will be upon his shoulders
In Memoriam : The death of Pepe and other Advent stories from the Philippines
Palestine Journal : In the wall's shadow, pilgrims return to Bethlehem
Boomerang : Readers write
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"It is not surprising that most people believe global violence is increasing. However, most people, including many leading policymakers and scholars, are wrong. The reality is that, since the end of the Cold War, armed conflict and nearly all other forms of political violence have decreased. The world is far more peaceful than it was."

- Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia and former UN official, describing how worldwide peacemaking efforts - despite some major failures - have been broadly and quietly successful.

Source: Read the entire Washington Post commentary

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As relevant as ever, we present our annual Christmas special - Jim Wallis' reflection the World War I Christmas Truce. In the midst of wars literal, cultural, and political, our prayer is that more people - such as Sgt. James Marshal, whose story follows Jim's reflection - will find the courage to leave their trenches, love their enemies, and seek peace with justice.

To hear Jim's latest comments, click below to hear his Christmas Eve comments on NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon:

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A Christmas truce, a New Year's prayer
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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Letter from a conscientious objector
by Sgt. James P. Marshal

Dear Jim,

I was excited to receive the books, Call to Conversion and Faith Works, in the mail from Barnes and Noble. You see, they came at the end of a bit of a stessful week. After waiting five months for my conscientious objector application to be finally assigned to an investigating officer for the process to continue, I was blindsided.

My commander told me that I am going to process to deploy to Iraq and my application will be hand-carried to Iraq and investigated there - in a war zone.

I could have stopped on the fourth page of the first chapter of Call to Conversion. That would have been the confirmation I needed that I was doing the right thing. On that page you quoted an author regarding doing an about-face and walking in a new direction. Well, that was exactly what I wrote in the second sentence of my conscientious objector application, five and a half months ago.

I accepted Jesus Christ while in the military and after getting out last October, I decided to be baptized this past April. In May, I was involuntarily activated in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Since accepting Jesus into my heart and washing away my old self, he has continually blessed me and protected and provided for my family and me. I then made a convenant with Christ that I would try and live out his words of love, compassion, and nonviolence even knowing the road would be difficult.

Last week I refused to process to deploy and will continue to do so. Jesus knows my heart and knows the trust I have in reading his inspired word. Your words of inspiration and teaching are heaven sent and help explain to me how I can live them in this world of violence.

My vocation is becoming clearer each day. I hope this e-mail makes it to you so you will know that your work is making a difference.

May the good Lord bless you and keep you safe,
Sgt. James P. Marshal

[Editor's note: On Dec. 19, after repeated refusals to deploy to Iraq, Marshal received new orders assigning him to Alexandria, Virginia. He said, "God knew my heart and knew that I was doing this not in rebellion toward the Army, but in hopes of living a faithful life in his name."]

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Give $200 or more before the end of December 2005 and receive an autographed copy of The Call to Conversion: Why Faith is Always Personal but Never Private, by Jim Wallis, to thank you for your gift.


The government will be upon his shoulders
by Shaun Groves

Government. Power. Rule. Not a system. Not a senate or an office. The ultimate authority. The right to reign.

On his shoulders. Passed on. Bestowed upon. The power and position that caesars believed they held, that dictators crushing the Jews for centuries wielded, the authority and control exercised by mere mortals sitting on thrones inherited from fathers and mothers - this mantle is handed to a child heralded by the night sky caesar claims to conduct.

A new king. A new kingdom. The kingdom of God lying in a manger, growing in Nazareth, learning from the rabbis, wearing his prayer shawl, preaching in the synagogue. ""The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19).

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The death of Pepe and other Advent stories from the Philippines
A tribute to the life and ministry of Jose 'Pepe' Manegdeg III (1968-2005)
by Ferdinand Ammang Anno

Jose "Pepe" Manegdeg III (1968-2005)
Jose "Pepe" Manegdeg III epitomized the Filipino movement worker's dictum, simpleng pamumuhay, puspusang pakikibaka, or simple lifestyle, intense struggling. His sunbaked skin spoke of his toils as an itinerant organizer, beginnings as a social activist, and his humble origins in the rustic coastal town of Pagudpud in the northern Philippines.... Pepe was politicizised early in life during the last years of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the period in which his successor, Corazon Aquino - after a brief honeymoon with democracy - unsheathed her sword of war. State offensives against people's movements formed the backdrop of Pepe's growth and maturation as a social activist....

The Bible might not have been his favorite reading material, nor Christianity his frame of reference, but he lived their lessons, albeit unconsciously. In his Christian community organizing and ecumenical educating, Pepe worked with religious workers: pastors and priests, sisters and deaconesses, bishops, theologians, and other church leaders, as well as the masa, or public, of grassroots communities. He worked to bridge the gap between the churches in northern Luzon and the communities in the region, shedding light on their concerns, such as human rights and genetically modified corn....

Four days before his death, I received an e-mail from Pepe. He was talking about other things: his kids' performance in school and his failure to provide them sustained guidance, his wife's bad employer in Hong Kong, her return home within the next few days, and his need of a new set of clothes as his stock of secondhand items was wearing out. He also mentioned being tailed and harassed on a bus by a burly suspicious looking man, confirmed to him later to be part of a larger group of strangers in cars.

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In the wall's shadow, pilgrims return to Bethlehem

The Israeli-built separation barrier encircles Bethlehem with 25-foot concrete walls and barbed wire fences. (MCC photo by Ryan Beiler)
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Bethlehem welcomed some 30,000 pilgrims to celebrate the birth of Jesus this year - the largest number since the violence between Palestinians and Israelis stymied major celebrations planned for 2000. In spite of a cease-fire brokered last February, 218 Palestinians and 55 Israelis have been killed this year - though a sharp reduction from nearly 800 Palestinian and 112 Israeli deaths in 2004. Israel's withdrawal from Gaza also had an impact on the number of visitors, Haaretz reported.

Yet, reports Haaretz, "Israel's separation fence - which dips deep into the West Bank in some areas - cast a shadow over the celebrations." The barrier, which completely encircles Bethlehem, "prevented tourists from walking into town on the biblical-era route likely used by Jesus and Mary. Instead, they were forced to enter through an Israeli checkpoint. Shops, restaurants and businesses that once thrived remained shuttered, split off from the rest of the town by the barrier."

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Readers write

Rev. Lisa Martin, Co-Pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ, writes from Pottstown, Pennsylvania:

I was glad to read about your family traditions regarding Christmas ["Materialism and greed might ruin your Christmas," SojoMail 12/22/2005]. We, too, are moderately countercultural. In our two-pastor household taking a vacation in December is hardly an option, but we have tried to steer away from the commercialism. From the beginning, we decided not to have Santa make a visit. The wise ones give gifts in our house. And just as baby Jesus got three gifts, our children get three gifts - one used item, one new toy, one practical item. Our extended family thinks we are all Scrooges, but I have to say our children (6, 5, and 2) are as thrilled with three gifts as my nieces and nephew are with 23, and we enter the New Year with no added debt. No one ever makes a list of what they want - "we do 'surprises' not 'lists' in our family" my 5-year-old explained.


Rick Axtell writes from Danville, Kentucky:

David Batstone's Christmas alternative prompted me to share a practice adopted by our church, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty in Louisville, Kentucky. Beginning in 1994, we started a Reclaiming Christmas project as a way to move away from the commercialization of Christmas that has transformed the celebration of the birth of Jesus into a secular orgy of greed. Each year, we ask our families and friends to redirect the money they might have spent on our Christmas gifts toward a designated project in a developing country. Over those years, our little inner city congregation has raised $30,000 from these Christmas gifts. With it, we have been able to support the construction of a community center and a rural electrification project in Esteli province in Nicaragua, a water system in Quiche province in Guatemala, a fish farming project for another Guatemalan village, as well as occasional disaster relief. This year the money will ship medicine to Nicaragua and fund a women's weaving cooperative in Morocco.

The education around these projects certainly causes us to read with different eyes Luke's story of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem to be taxed by an oppressive occupying power, or Matthew's story of the flight from Herod's massacres. Into such a world as this, the Christ continues to appear!


Mark Brown writes from Alpharetta, Georgia:

I wanted to share something we have done as a family over the past few rears. At any family get together we include charity olympics as part of the celebration. We ask everyone at the celebration to donate $5-$10 to the winner's kitty. Depending on the holiday or function we usually end up with $50-$150 in the fund. We then divide the group into several teams and play 3-4 games such as team Scrabble, darts, charades, etc. People of all ages can play and it is great for bonding of family members. We then let the winning team choose the charity that gets all of the "kitty". We did this as part of our Christmas celebration and the winning team chose Amnesty International to receive our $75 donation. My team had chosen Sojourners but unfortunately we didn't win.


Mandy Waters writes from Fort Wayne, Indiana:

I was excited to see the title [of Batstone's article] but I was terribly disappointed by the contents. I am not writing to dispute the relational and educational benefits a family may get from traveling, however, I fail to see how spending money on a family vacation constitutes a lack of greed or materialism. A lack of greed is shown by giving to others. My family has decided to take the money we would spend on each other and use it for someone else. Some of the recipients this year include AIDS orphans, Katrina victims, and children of incarcerated parents. We also all volunteer in similar avenues throughout the year and at Christmas. For the world's poor, I am embarrassed to think that going on a vacation is any sign of selflessness.


Bobbi Dykema Katsanis writes from Berkeley, California:

To [Peter Glynn] who finds Sojourners' stance on the budget to be shilling for the Democrats [Boomerang, SojoMail 12/22/2005], I suggest a closer reading of the Old Testament. Begin with Isaiah, where the prophet has a stern warning for the nation of Israel - not individuals - for having neglected the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable among them. Do not think for a moment that our government (which is us, collectively) has any less responsibility for poverty than we as individual Christians and churches do. Individuals and churches may be able to alleviate small amounts of poverty in their own little corners of the world, but it is the policies of governments which ultimately determine how many will experience dire poverty, and for how long.


Chris Peltier writes from Shutesbury, Massachusetts:

As someone who has been critical of the recent overidentification of Jim Wallis and the Sojourners movement with the Democratic party, I was very pleased with the explicitly nonpartisan tone of the recent protest at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Don't lose your prophetic ministry in the quest for power and influence - the Christian Right has already made that mistake! Care for the poor is a Christian issue, and the GOP cannot expect evangelical voters like myself who have consistently supported them on social and pro-life issues to blindly continue our support in the face of cynical smash-and-grab tactics, which strive to balance our budget on the backs of the poor while passing on more tax breaks to the wealthy. Where are the pro-life Democrats? I think we would see the supposedly monolithic evangelical voting block disintegrate if we had a viable option which combined life ethics and care for the poor.


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views that do not necessarily represent those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Because of the volume of letters we receive, concise responses that include a name, hometown, and state/province/country are the most likely to be published. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity. E-mail:

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