Salvation is such a key concept in Christianity, so much more salient during Christmas, commemorating the birth of a Messiah who is supposed to save humanity from sin.
The occasional token religious observances about Christ the savior have been overwhelmed, sabotaged by commercialism. Worse, the yearend can become a time of despair as the world looks back at a year marked by so much violence. The fears during the Cold War of a global conflagration between communists and democrats have now yielded to a scenario of Muslims against Christians.
Now comes a different Christmas story. Last Monday newspapers throughout the world featured a headline of Muslims saving Christians in northeastern Kenya. The area, which is along the border between Kenya and Somalia, had been the scene of attacks by al-Shabaab Islamist terrorists, who would pick out Christians to execute. The militants are mainly Somalis who want northeastern Kenya to secede. They have also been demanding that Kenya withdraw from an African Union force that is fighting Islamist terrorists in Somalia.
In 2014, a bus was hijacked and 23 Christians were killed. And last April, militants attacked Garissa University College, killing 147, mostly students.
Brothers and sisters
This time, Muslims turned the tables around to protect their fellow passengers who are Christian. The bus, which was carrying about 100 passengers, mostly women, was turning around a bend when armed men shot at it, injuring the driver and forcing the vehicle to stop. Muslim passengers themselves quickly identified the Christians and lent their hijab (head covering) to Christians. The Muslims also shielded the Christian passengers from the terrorists’ view.
The terrorists boarded the bus and ordered the Muslims to segregate themselves from the Christians. The Muslim passengers resisted. A Kenyan newspaper quotes one of the passengers, Abdi Mohamud Abdi, as saying: “We stuck together tightly. The militants threatened to shoot us but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters.”
The Muslim passengers told the terrorists that they would have to either kill, or release, all of them together. The terrorists eventually gave up, allowing the bus to move on. Two passengers were killed: one who had tried to escape and another who was unable to recite Koran verses.
The Muslim passengers have been praised in the press, and by various organizations, notably Kenya’s Supreme Council of Muslims, which declared: “Terrorists submit to no faith. We stand with our fellow Christians during this time and shall continue to do so. Let us be each other’s true keepers.”
A Christmas truce
Reading about the incident reminded me of another Christmas story from World War I, reconstructed only after the war in an oral history project where soldiers on both sides of that terrible conflict recounted memories from the winter of 1914.
The war had broken out some five months earlier, with furious fighting that had led to a stalemate. German and British soldiers were caught in a no man’s land during a freezing winter. The soldiers were miserable, many huddled in trenches filled with water threatening to become ice. Pope Benedict XV had called for an official truce, but German and British commanding forces refused.
On Christmas Eve, a small group of British soldiers decided to sing carols as a gift to the Germans, who responded by singing along. One soldier was said to have shouted, “Merry Christmas, English, we are not fighting tonight!” Somehow, word spread and soldiers on both sides declared their own truces. The guns fell silent, replaced by Christmas carols and soldiers putting up lanterns and candles, and “decorating” their parapets with bayonets facing up to the sky, rather than being aimed at either camp.
On Christmas Day itself, soldiers emerged from the trenches to greet their erstwhile enemies, even exchanging little gifts. The diary of a 19-year-old British soldier has an entry about how he had gone out and found a German soldier who spoke a little English. They exchanged cigarettes and buttons from their uniforms. The British soldier kept the button from his German friend, and it is now in a museum, together with an inscription about the German coming from Saxony.
The soldiers used the Christmas truce to repair their trenches, and to bury their dead. There is a moving photograph in the Imperial War Museum showing British and German soldiers actually working together to dig the graves.
There are stories, too, of shared religious services and even of soccer matches. All in all, some 30,000 soldiers were estimated to have set their guns aside.
But there is a sad ending to this Christmas story. The soldiers’ superiors on both sides were furious about the truce; they warned that never again should this be allowed to happen, and threatened court-martial and execution for those who would dare to think of peace. The following year’s Christmas, there were a few attempts from soldiers to set up their own truce, but the fighting had been intense and most soldiers were not in the mood for peace.
All throughout history, there are stories of peace in war, some associated with Christmas and others small acts of heroic kindness spread out during the year. We hear of Jews being protected by their non-Jewish neighbors during World War II, the case of Anne Frank and her family being the best known.
Small acts of compassion can save lives. Last January, riots broke out in Bihar, India, after the body of a 20-year-old Hindu man was found. He had apparently been abducted and killed because he was courting a Muslim woman. A mob of about 5,000 Hindus went on a rampage to attack Muslims in one village. Amid the chaos, one Hindu widow gave refuge to 10 Muslim neighbors and managed to keep the Hindu mobs from entering her home. After the carnage, both Hindus and Muslims held a communal religious ceremony that included honoring the widow.
We need to keep retelling these stories from far and wide. The Kenyan story is especially important as a way of showing how senseless it is when religion divides people. Christmas commemorates the birth of Jesus, considered by Christians as a messiah, and by Muslims—or at least those who know their Koran—as a great prophet. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, is loved by many Muslims.
Retelling these Christmas narratives is a fitting way to remember the Christ of Christmas and his revolutionary message of redemption through peace.
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