Monday, December 22, 2014
This is the season that we become both reflective and generous. A crush of holidays make us acutely aware of and attentive to family and friends as well as focusing on the needs of the world. Whether we have religious or altruistic motivations or both, we tend to hope for peace, cleave to family, and generously donate to causes. Because we are at the end of a year, we also contemplate what we failed to accomplish in the preceding year and make new commitments for the coming year. As TV shows run retrospectives (biggest news stories of the year, deaths, political changes), we can watch an abbreviation of our past experiences. All too often it seems that every news report assaults us with images of violence, unrest, inhumanity, and anger. The juxtaposition of the joy of the season against the gloom of the broadcasts can in its own way deflate our spirit. Nevertheless, we continue to reach out in the atmosphere of peace, forgiveness, and giving to advocate for and help our fellow man. Perhaps to create a small flicker of light in the dark, dark news, CBS reported a story on the centennial remembrance of the start of WW I. This story involved peace, hope, and soccer.
In a lull during the conflict on a battlefield in Belgium, German and British troops stopped their skirmish in a Christmas truce and met in no man’s land to celebrate the season. As the story goes, at some point a soldier produced a ball and a soccer game erupted with all the exuberance we associate with the sport. This Christmas game has become so iconic that it is still celebrated today with a yearly “rematch” between English and German lads on a muddy pitch in Belgium. A statue and plaque commemorates the moment. While there is ample proof both written and photographic that this truce did occur, there is no proof that it included a soccer game. Yet it is the game that represents the power of a peaceful skirmish.
It’s easy to understand why people cling to what is probably a myth. First of all, it’s heartwarming to think that enemies could use a shared experience to celebrate differences in a way that didn’t bring harm. Second, we recognize the universal language of soccer that can bridge misunderstandings and unite people in a common purpose. Whether you travel to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, the contested lands of the West Bank, the Ebola-stricken towns of West Africa, or the worn-torn areas of Syria you’ll find people playing soccer. You don’t need to know the language, customs, religion, or politics of the group you face – you only need to know the rules of the game which are the same any place on Earth. Those British and German soldiers may have been able to communicate in one another’s language, but they didn’t need to so long as soccer brought them together to celebrate a season based on peace.
While we can be really intense on the sidelines or the pitch, fighting for wins, we also can leave the field without the need to extract dangerously violent revenge. Competitors may play dirty, may express racist or anti-religious opinions, and may refuse to engage in basic good sportsmanship, yet it is rare that a soccer match between teams of great opposing political or religious differences ends up in violence. The match is played, the results recorded, the teams shake hands, and everyone moves on to the next match. This is a sport that can represent the best way to resolve conflicts where sharp differences exist and where players can exhibit remarkable tolerance even as they struggle to overcome their opponents. It represents the model we wish the whole world would follow in all aspects of disagreement: Fight with integrity, without violence, and accept the outcome with grace.
As we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Arba’een (the largest peaceful pilgrimage in the world) in this month, we are mindful of the overriding themes of love, peace, charity, and hope. The story of a soccer game in the midst of a battlefield supports those themes. Whether myth or not, it points out how much we want to believe because the belief, just like Santa Claus or Elf on a Shelf, gives us joy and hope. With that I wish all of you a new year with sorrows which have been soothed by joyfulness, fears which have been drowned in hope, and hardship that has been served by charity.