No one knows exactly how it began, but French, British, Belgian, and German soldiers on both sides of the trenches began singing Christmas carols, each in their own language, and then put down their weapons, played football, and exchanged Christmas greetings and gifts with one another.
This informal Christmas truce had not been sanctioned by any government. There had been appeals from various civil society groups and Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XV who called on governments, urging “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night that the angels sang” heralding the birth of Jesus.
Not only were these appeals rejected, some of the soldiers who participated in the spontaneous truce were deemed traitors and punished for their action.
The Christmas truce of 1914 didn’t end the war. It lasted four more years, taking the lives of almost 15,000,000 combatants and civilians. The singular event of a spontaneous truce, however, did live on in European lore and has been an inspiration to filmmakers, storytellers, and religious leaders who continue to see it as a powerful example of the how the human spirit can be a powerful force rising above hate and division in the promotion of peace.
It was with this in mind that the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) launched a campaign of religious leaders calling on the governments of Russia and Ukraine to put in place a Christmas truce in Ukraine from December 25th to January 7th. The FOR appeal is quite straightforward: “As people of faith and conscience, believing in the sanctity of all life on this planet, we call for a Christmas Truce in Ukraine. In the spirit of the truce that occurred in 1914 during the First World War, we urge our government to take a leadership role in bringing the war in Ukraine to an end through a ceasefire and negotiated settlement, before the conflict results in a nuclear war that could devastate the world’s ecosystems and annihilate all of God’s creation.”
Thus far, the statement has been endorsed by over 1,000 US-based religious leaders and theologians representing most Christian denominations and organizations, and leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths.
With the war’s violence accelerating—intensified Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure and now Ukraine’s use of drones to bomb installations within Russia—no one is under any illusion that this appeal will be embraced either by the Russian or Ukrainian leadership or by the White House.
The bad blood between the two peoples is even poisoning their religious faiths. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians and Russians are Orthodox Christians. Once united under the Patriarchy of Moscow, the Ukrainian church, which for years had been uncomfortable being under Moscow’s thumb, declared its independence at the beginning of the war.
What drove them to sever ties was the Russian Patriarch’s full-throated endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion coupled with his pronouncement that Russian soldiers killed in combat against Ukrainians would be forgiven their sins.
Not wanting to overreach, the Ukrainian Patriarchy initially urged Ukraine’s 7,000 Orthodox churches to sever ties with Moscow. Increasingly, they have done so. But Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelensky has taken this rupture a step further, calling for a repressive law banning Ukrainian Orthodox churches from identifying with the Moscow Patriarchy.
This split has even spilled over into Christmas celebrations. The Orthodox churches historically follow the Julian Calendar which predates the Gregorian Calendar that is now standard throughout the West.
According to the Julian Calendar, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, while the rest of Christendom celebrates on December 25th. Ukrainians have now moved their Christmas to the Western date—December 25. For that reason, the FOR organizers have called for the truce to last at least between December 25th and January 7th, so that the birth of Jesus can be celebrated in peace by both peoples.
With layer upon layer of conflict, finding space for a truce—whether government or Orthodox Church endorsed or spontaneous—seems remote. But it doesn’t make the appeal less urgent or important. In many ways, not unlike the First World War, this is a war that didn’t need to be fought and could have been avoided.
It is taking a terrible toll in human life, while driving millions into exile as refugees. In the end, no one will win and not just Ukraine and Russia, but all of Europe, will be worse off than they were before the hostilities began.
For this reason, the FOR religious leaders’ appeal represents an important call to the Christian peoples of Ukraine and Russia to let the guns fall silent during the time when both celebrate the birth of Jesus. Officialdom may not listen, but that’s no reason for religious leaders to be silent.
It is important to be on the correct side of a call to conscience, even when the odds are decidedly against success. My first involvement with the FOR was in 1967, the early years of the Vietnam war when I participated in their “The Brothers Project,” a national campaign to bring napalmed Vietnamese children to the US for medical treatment.
That project didn’t end the war, but it did educate Americans to the humanity of the Vietnamese people and the inhumane use of napalm as a weapon of war. Similarly, while I founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign nearly one-half century ago, I don’t see the fact that we are still fighting to secure Palestinian human rights as a sign that our work was wasted. We elevated a just cause and helped to educate a generation about injustice.
In this same vein, while the Call for a Christmas Truce may not succeed in creating a respite for victims of this cruel war, it will challenge faith leaders and all peoples here in the US and in Ukraine and Russia to face up to our responsibilities to seek peace—at least during the time we celebrate the birth of he whom Christians call the “prince of peace.”
*James J. Zogby is President of the Arab American Institute