The other day, I took in the foreign (to me) film Joyeux Noel. After seeing it I was struck by a couple of quotes attributed to Gandhi, both getting at the same idea. One is, “I like your Christ; I don’t like your Christians.” The other is, “If it weren’t for the Christians, I’d be a Christian.” In the United States, Christmas is frequently a pagan celebration, whether in or outside the church, that observes a holiday but doesn’t enact a holy day.
In the movie, set on Christmas Eve 1914 during World War I, French, German and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms to celebrate Christmas. The moments of celebration, though, give way to the more important establishment of relationships and community. These officers and troops often paid a price for their “fraternization” however, as they were frequently punished for their “misconduct.”
One of the more ‘Christian” characters in the film is Horstmayer, a Jewish German officer played by German actor Daniel Bruhl (a/k/a Daniel Bruhl Gonzalez Domingo), who has no personal interest in Christmas but yet instinctively understands what the season is about. (The casting of Bruhl is all the more powerful in that he was born in Spain of a Spanish mother and German father, grew up in Germany and speaks fluent Spanish and German.) Perhaps the least Christian character is the war-mongering Bishop played by Ian Richardson. I allege this not because I’m a pacifist; indeed I subscribe to some manner of “just war” theory. Rather, the Bishop doesn’t seem to recognize that all war, just or not, is evil. Further, he seems to have completely forgotten the Biblical passage about love of the enemy.
The movie is not Christian-bashing, though, as the Scottish priest castigated by the Bishop for presiding at an open mass in the unofficially-declared neutral or cease-fire zone understands that Christmas is an enactment of the faith, and that faith is not a tool for advancing nationalistic goals, but is instead rooted in the establishment of community. (I recently attended a continuing education event where presenter Robert Linthicum said the “job of the church isn’t to bring people to Christ but to create shalom” — shalom being real, working community and not just the “peace” that the modern world often reduces the word to; perhaps a topic of discussion in itself for another time.) The Bishop in Joyeux Noel sees his role as helping to defeat the enemy in battle and pays little attention to the resurrected Christ who died for all. For the Bishop, Christmas is a celebration or observance to be exploited. He sees himself as committed to justice, but his heart has been captured by hate.
In our own lives, are we better at enacting the Christian faith, or just at observing it passively and passingly in meaningless ritual?
Posted by Joel BÃ¼tow (my name in German)