On Christmas Day 1914, roughly 100,000 British, French, and German soldiers fighting along the western front of World War I crossed into No Man’s Land, exchanged gifts, played soccer, and sang Christmas carols. Some even exchanged prisoners. Though the Christmas Truce of the Great War has been much discussed, it still seems strange to us today. Indeed, it may seem even stranger in the twenty-first century than it did in the early twentieth when it took place. It testifies to a degree of simple kindness and trust that is hard for us today to imagine existing between mere political rivals, let alone parties actually fighting a real war. More than that though, I think it’s the innocent rejection of the rules and directives handed down a bureaucratic chain of command that surprises me.
The First World War, as many have noted, had a terrible and inhuman logic to it. At nearly every step of the war you can understand why things happened as they did, provided you exclusively follow a cold inhuman logic and refuse to indulge even the most basic impulse toward mercy and kindness. The Christmas Truce was that rare occurrence when procedure and pragmatism were trumped by simple human decency, when the promises of peace sung in the carols were actually realized in some small way, when the men who would fight and die such horrific deaths in the trenches would, for only a few hours, live as if there was another true story about the world, a story that contradicted the imperial ones being promoted in London, Berlin, and Paris. The truce, sadly and predictably, would be a one-time event. As noted by historian Paul Fussell, the military staffs of the rival powers were “outraged” by this gesture of good will and strictly “forbad this ever to happen again.”
Two and a half years after this Christmas Truce, a boy was born in Honiton, a rural town in southwest England surrounded by farmland. His name was Philip Britts. During his short life, which ended in 1949 due to a tropical illness he likely contracted while in Brazil in 1945, he would live through not only the end of the so-called War to End All Wars, but also through the Great Depression and World War II—both of which likewise had a similarly cold logic to them in much the same way, though not nearly so extreme, as World War I.
As an adult, Britts would join a radical anabaptist group of Christians called the Bruderhof. Perhaps fittingly, the only reason that Britts could meet the group is because they had been forced to flee their home in Germany by the Third Reich. Not long after Britts joined, the Bruderhof would again be forced to move, this time to Paraguay, due to the looming threat of the British interning the group’s German members. Why Paraguay? Because it was the only nation in the world in the years leading up to World War II that would allow the group to live there on their terms: exemption from military service, freedom of religion, and the ability to educate their children as they saw fit.
Britts’s story is told in the new book Water at the Roots, published by Plough, the publishing house owned and operated by the Bruderhof. The slim volume also contains many of Britts’s poems, nearly all of which are lovely and laced with the simple beauty that readers of the Kentucky poet Wendell Berry will recognize from his verse. In one of the early poems, “Carol of the Seekers,” Britts gives an account of why he and his wife Joan came to the Bruderhof:
We have not come like Eastern kings,
With gifts upon the pommel lying.
Our hands are empty, and we came
Because we heard a Baby crying.
We have not come like questing knights,
With fiery swords and banners flying.
We heard a call and hurried here—
The call was like a Baby crying.
But we have come with open hearts
From places where the torch is dying.
We seek a manger and a cross
Because we heard a Baby crying.
The poem calls to mind the arresting climactic scene in The Children of Men when an urban firefight between the government and a group of rebels suddenly stops at the sound of a crying baby, a sound that no one there had heard in years because—this is the basic conceit of the story—people had stopped having babies. In a Europe still recovering from the first great war and diving headlong into a second, the simple and vulnerable sound of a baby crying is what Britts describes as compelling him and his wife toward the quiet, pacifist brotherhood.
The remainder of the book tells the story of the Bruderhof’s early years in Paraguay. Conditions were primitive and the life there was, predictably, difficult. Health was poor and Britts was not the only one to contract a deadly illness. And yet when you consider the fate of Europe during these years it is hard to imagine that the bound-together life of the Bruderhof in far-flung Paraguay was meaningfully worse than the ordinary life of a typical European during those dark times.
Intriguingly, Britts seems to have learned many of the same things that Berry would learn years later as he observed the Vietnam War and the disintegration of American agriculture and rural life. In a notebook found after his death, Britts describes the “good farmer” in ways that will be familiar to any reader of Berry. Among other things, the good farmer “realizes that the farm is an organic unit in which all the organs must function in cooperation and reciprocation,” and that “he knows next to nothing of all that there is to know, that he is dealing with eternal laws which he did not make and cannot alter, and that the most brilliant achievements of human knowledge are simply the closest obedience to these laws.”
The Christmas Truce that occurred only a few years before Britts’s birth remains a rare example of humanism trumping militarism in the dark story of that awful war. That truce is perhaps a fitting symbol for Britts’s work as well as his hope. There is now no small debate happening between various sorts of religious conservatives in the United States. More radical sorts are beginning to question the natural peace that has existed between orthodox Christians and the free market while also suggesting that perhaps even the government should in some way be made to acknowledge the lordship of Christ and submit itself to his rule. The older school of conservatives has called such a move “unproductive” as well as “dangerous” and said that it represents an attempt to be clever and a refusal to embrace “the politics of prudence in a pluralistic society.”
Perhaps. While reading Britts one cannot help but realize that his ideals are also impractical and, maybe, dangerous. The Bruderhof’s refusal to take up arms was arguably a liability to war-torn Britain, as was their desire to take even their medical doctors, who would have been valuable in the war effort, with them to Paraguay. (The British government acquiesced to this request, allowing all members of the Bruderhof to remove to Paraguay.)
But it is perhaps worth asking what has been the fruit of the church’s wide-scale acceptance of “the politics of prudence.” Abortion is, fifty-six years after Roe, still legal. Indeed, if anything its political position is stronger than ever after recent Supreme Court rulings. Marriage has been undermined both by the market and by Obergefell. Many of our churches are shrinking and those that remain are likely as not so degraded that it is questionable if they even still have the Christian gospel. In such a context, one can’t help wondering what the point of being “prudent” is and what an imprudent, radical person like Britts would propose.
Well, one need not wonder. The British farmer we meet in Water at the Roots is many things, but indecisive is not one of them. He would counsel us to lay down our arms (which means more than just actual weapons, though not less), to embrace the poor, and to turn our backs on a world that has turned its back on the crying baby that we meet in the Christmas story. Certainly this is impractical, but then there is very little about the Christian story that passes that test. If the church will have a future in the West, it will be because we embrace the spirit of those infantry on Christmas Day and, simultaneously, reject the cold brutalism emanating from our halls of power. It will be because we see the little way of Philip Britts and find it beautiful. It will be because we heard a baby crying and we came to worship.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an editor with Fare Forward, and the Vice President of the Davenant Institute. He lives in Lincoln NE with his wife and three children. You can follow him on Twitter at @jake_meador.