Saturday, January 3, 2009

All Was Not Calm

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a powerful, yet still little known, symbol of peace. At more than one place along the Western front, German, British, French and Belgian troops left their positions to sing sacred songs, play soccer, share a drink or two, and bury the dead who had been trapped in No Man’s Land. The French film “Joyeux Noel” (2005) offered a vivid version of these events, and two musical groups in the Minneapolis – St. Paul area recently staged a theatrical production based on them called “All Is Calm.”

On Christmas Eve in 2008, all was decidedly not calm in Covina, California. Bruce Pardo, a 45-year-old man dressed in a Santa Claus suit, burst into the home of Joseph and Sylvia Ortega, parents of his ex-wife, also named Sylvia, armed with a gun and an explosive device. A family gathering was in progress. Pardo began by shooting an 8-year-old girl in the face, sprayed others with bullets, and set fire to the house, killing nine people, wounding two, and leaving thirteen children orphans. Though he had planned to escape (having purchased a plane ticket), Pardo was badly burned in the fire he set and ended up driving forty miles to his brother’s house, where he committed suicide by putting the gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger yet again.

While this carnage was unfolding in California, on another side of the world, in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, an equally gruesome set of massacres began on Christmas Day. According to the aid agency Caritas, a Ugandan rebel group calling itself the Lord’s Resistance Army killed a total of more than 400 people in at least three sites by using swords, clubs and machetes to force them into fires. More than 20,000 people fled to the mountains after their villages were burned down, and five people had their lips cut off by the LRA fighters in a brutal effort to forestall speech with terror. Forty-five of those killed had attempted to take refuge in a Catholic church.

In the grimmest of circumstances, the idea of sanctuary holds up well neither for place nor for time. In May 2002, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was the site of a prolonged siege by Israeli forces, with Palestinian fighters holed up inside; the impasse eventually ended with the church in shambles. Revered graves in the Iraqi city of Najaf fared no better at the hands of American forces in 2004, as the U.S. sought to stamp out resistance to its occupation of Iraq by taking the fight into Islamic cemeteries.

Despite all the bloodshed, however – one might even say because of it – the hope for not merely a truce, but a lasting peace, remains a deep need of the human heart. Longfellow gave voice to this in "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," written at the height of the American Civil War, upon hearing news that his son was wounded.

And in despair I bow'd my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Today, charities are already at work, raising money for the Covina survivors and the killings and cutting off of lips by the Ugandan rebels have not stopped Caritas from giving voice to the victims or continuing its work on their behalf. Surely this why, in the Christian liturgical year, December 29 is set aside to remember “the holy innocents” – the infants martyred by Herod in a futile, desperate gesture to suppress the new world being ushered in by the baby Jesus. Without looking away from the violence around us, we can still say Joyeux Noel.

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