Clare Martin writes about the moral courage it takes to stand up inside our own echo chambers and make a stand for listening to the other side.
With the holiday season upon us, our TVs are full of the usual heart-string-pulling adverts, like the Sainsbury’s one that showed the Christmas Truce of 1914. In it, you see English soldiers in the trenches, listening to the tremulous melody of Stille Nacht drifting across the battlefield. It’s Christmas Eve, and the Germans are singing. The next morning, an English soldier steps up from his trench with his hands in the air. ‘No don’t do it!’ the others say. We see the Germans scramble for their guns until one of them understands. “Halt!’ he screams. As the strains of Silent Night swell on the soundtrack, the soldiers begin to climb out of their trenches. First a few of them, and then more and more, meeting in no-man’s land to shake hands and play an impromptu game of football. At the end they retreat back behind their battle lines. We see a German soldier draw something from his pocket. A bar of chocolate, gifted to him by a soldier from the enemy side. “Christmas is for sharing” Sainsbury’s tells us is the moral of this tale.
The advert is based on a true story. Early in WW I, there were numerous incidents where German and English troops met in no-man’s land for spontaneous truces at Christmastime. It was an act of rebellion that revealed underlying bonds of sympathy amongst the foot soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Later on, both British and German military high commands outlawed Christmas truces. As the fighting wore on, the atmosphere changed. Enmities deepened. Despair settled in. The truces became a thing of the past.
This advert reminds me of what a genius human beings have for taking a spiritual truth and watering it down into something cosy you can nestle up with, like a furry hot water bottle. Because this story isn’t about chocolate or sharing Christmas treats. What this story shows is something raw and terrifying and almost totally indigestible. It shows that peace doesn’t start with safety. And it doesn’t start with common sense. Peace starts with the courage to step onto a battlefield with no prior guarantee you won’t be shot.
It’s a vision of peace that’s especially pertinent in our polarised age. ‘Culture war’ is what some people call the entrenched value divides that play out in vitriolic encounters across our social media landscape. Even the term is hotly contested, with some arguing that it is used to unfairly sideline vital issues. Whatever we may think of the phrase, recent research shows that a majority of Britons feel dissatisfied with how polarised our civic conversations have become. This begs the question: if most of us want culture peace and not war, how did we get into this mess?
There are many answers to this thorny question. But one I’d like to suggest is that not enough of us are engaging in the radical, contrarian work of the peace-maker. Instead, we’re in thrall to a superficial idea of ‘keeping the peace’. In an age of sharply rising mistrust between different groups, we’ve reached a point where it’s easier to champion a strong certainty, than it is to stubbornly defend nuance. On either side of any issue, it’s the most extreme perspectives that tend to be valorised, while the middle ground is rarely defended with the same passion. Those who are confident in their certainties often have the loudest voices. And those who feel doubtful, those who think ‘I agree with you in essence, but somehow I think you are taking it too far,’ rarely have the same confidence about what they think, and thus stay silent. This helps to drive the echo-chamber effect. For fear of having our opinions shot down, we fail to voice them, except within the echo chambers where we’re sure everyone else will agree. The more we entrench in our echo chambers, the further we drift from one another, since, as David French has pointed out, ‘When people of like mind gather they grow more extreme.’ Keeping the peace within our own echo chambers actually drives our collective drift towards conflict overall.
Instead, what we desperately need more of is contrarians in both camps to stand up and say “Hang on, we’ve got to listen to the other peoples’ points of view!” No person who does this can expect to be greeted with congratulations and approval. No one nowadays wants to hear their ideological enemy might have a point. But as peacemakers, we need to grow our appetite for risk. We need to accept we could get shot down, and step up anyway.
Too often we hold a banal idea of a peacemaker as someone who circumvents or solves division. But the truth is the opposite. What distinguishes the peacemaker is their willingness to walk toward conflict in a spirit of hope. It takes courage to step into the path of war and say no to it. And it takes a canny, counter-cultural intelligence to pick up when there may be larger, more powerful forces at play, who profit from us being foot soldiers in their ideological wars. It’s for this prickly, rebellious, risk-taking character of the peacemaker that we at St Ethelburga’s would like to make a stand now. And we’d like to call on anyone else out there who wants to join us in this idea of peacemaking: not as something sensible or nice, but as an audacious act of leadership, stepping alone into no-man’s land, and daring to reclaim it from those who would make it a battlefield.
In Michael Morpurgo’s retelling of the Christmas truce story, the narrator is a young soldier writing home to his sweetheart. He tells her about meeting the Germans in no-man’s land, sharing sausages and schnapps. ‘In the midst of war,’ he writes, ‘we were making peace.’ As Britain heads home over the holidays (COVID guidelines permitting), many of us will encounter battle lines drawn down the centre of our gatherings: between Brexiter and Remainer, conservative and progressive, those who hate ‘woke’ and those who defend it, lockdown sceptic and lockdown supporter. What could it look like to approach these battle lines with the contrarian instinct of the peace maker? Can we put down our weapons, and consider that we may have more in common than it appears? Is it possible there are powerful forces that stand to gain from stoking our enmity, and that our best hope is to reconcile with each other? Can we make a stubborn case for what we don’t already know about the other side, but that we might discover if we dare to climb up out of our trenches? Can we, too, make peace in the midst of (culture) war? I hope we can.
Join Clare along with St Ehtelburga’s COO Tarot Couzyn for the upcoming Retreat in daily life: resilience and renewal in uncertain times. With four evening sessions on zoom and prompts for solo enquiry and reflection in between.
Photograph of soldiers playing football in No-Man’s Land during the Christmas Truce. Dated 1914. Getty Images.