Christmas, Violence, and the Economy

Christmas Eve is different from other nights. In the film, Of Gods and Men, it is the decisive night. The Trappist monks of the Monastère de l’Atlas, nestled atop a mountainside Algerian village named Tibhirine, find themselves confronted on that night both by “terrorists” and by the newborn Jesus. Amidst increasing hostilities in the region, revolutionary fighters have come into the monastery, brandishing assault rifles, to forcibly take Brother Luc to tend to their wounded an hour away. An ailing man himself, Luc is the only doctor in the area. Christian de Chergé, the elected head of the monastery, who has already refused the existing government’s military protection and now refuses the presence of revolutionary weapons inside the monastery, further refuses to send Brother Luc or any of the monastery’s scarce medical supplies with the armed men. They may bring their wounded to the town clinic, where they will be served without prejudice, as are the rest of the sick. 

Ali Fayattia, the head of the armed group, is obviously moved by the nonviolent firmness of Christian, who, having led him outside the monastery walls, appeals to the monks’ well-known modesty and quotes a passage from the Qu’ran about the respect due Christian people, particularly monks and priests, “who wax not proud.” Their humble conditions are their defense. Finishing the quotation himself from memory, Fayattia relents, and the confrontation appears to end when he summons his troops to leave. But then Christian calls out awkwardly, “Tonight is different from other nights.” “Why?” asks Fayattia. “It’s Christmas,” Christian replies, “We celebrate the birth of the Prince of peace, Sidna Aissa.” “Jesus,” translates Fayattia, and with that name, the confrontation ends, Fayattia extending his hand and Christian, haltingly, shaking it. A short while later, according to custom, the monks celebrate the Christmas Vigil and Mass. Looking back on that decisive night months afterward, Christian would say to his fellow friars,

Once they were gone, all we had left to do was live. And the first thing we did was, two hours later, we celebrated the Christmas Vigil and Mass. It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did. And we sang the Mass. We welcomed that child who was born for us, absolutely helpless and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks: the kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. Day after day. We had to resist the violence.

Here it becomes clear not only that Christmas night is different from other nights but that all other days and nights are different because of Christmas night. Being confronted by violent men within the walls of their monastery had brought the monks face-to-face with the limit of their lives, all but paralyzing them with the presence of death, and so all they had left to do was live. And to begin to live in the face of death was simply to observe the calendar determined by the coming of Christ, to sing the words that had long been ingrained in their lives so that now they were sung by sheer inertia. But what they found in that liturgical moment was not the escapist crutch of mere repetition or familiarity, but testimony to the Prince of peace in the very same violent world in which the monks found themselves. The way that the Lord Jesus was born and the threat hanging heavily over his life at its most vulnerable are the power and the promise of life in days of similar danger at the Monastère de l’Atlas.    

Once frightened almost to the point of abandoning their service to Tibhirine, the monks began to see things differently in the bright shadow of Christmas. They found their salvation in the rhythm of the mundane tasks of sustenance, worship, and economic solidarity with their Muslim sisters and brothers in the impoverished village. Fear remained, but it was not the master of their lives. Several of them had indeed been rattled by the confrontation of Christmas Eve, but the way that daily and seasonal rhythms had been punctuated by Christian liturgy, which continually called their lives into the gospel story, prepared them to endure it in faith. And now their steadfastness grew with those rhythms, showing that the power of Christmas peace spreads not in a single night, but through a pattern of worship and work, flowing from that night into the present, day after day and year after year, in the kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells. That’s how they had to resist the violence. 

The burial crosses that line the various pathways of the monastery’s cultivated landscape tell us that this is not a pattern that pretends to escape death but one that unfolds in the very midst of it, training its participants to find the fulness of life as they work precisely there in its shadow. We easily forget that Micah’s and Isaiah’s vision of swords being beaten into plowshares is not about a mythological escape from violence. By the lights of these prophets, the Christian alternative to war is worshipful work.

In the coming days, our society will, once again, invoke Christmas to pretend that we are Christian. We will sound a hollow profession that Christmas night is different from other nights. For the Messiah child, absolutely helpless and already so threatened, we will substitute the slicked-out, Disneyified Jesus of commerce, the gnostic icon of a culture addicted to sanctimonious self-gratification that is as superficial as it is savage. There will appear to be nothing helpless or threatened about this Jesus, who is charged instead with solemnly reassuring us that our ostensibly abundant life is sacred and secure. And then we will watch as the self-righteous brokers of this culture skirmish over the extent to which this sort of Christmas should yield to more “inclusive” displays of Happy Holidays. We will listen as market speculators celebrate the contribution of Christmas greed to “the economy.” And our eyes and ears will be flooded with scenes of Christmas charity that serve to justify our violence and exploitation as the work of generous people. We can scarcely imagine the price that so many must pay for our capitalist religion, whose sparkle is the Christmas Holi-Day. Nor can we imagine what this religion does to us who are its purveyors, who know so little of worshipful work. The prophet cries out against us:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

We, too, have to resist the violence. But can we? By what rhythms do we live if their culmination is the American Christmas? How can we possibly manage the manifold refusal that Christian managed when, day after day and year after year, we say yes to “the economy” which preys systemically upon so much of the earth’s people, animals, plants, water, and soil, all in the name of “growth”? The way that Christmas toys are made in China is but a single tooth in an omnivorous machine that never turns off. It is fed by an exploitative and oppressive relationship with the people and lands of the Middle East, one that sows bitterness that is being reaped and will continue to be. Being consumed by this machine, how can we live up to the night that is different from other nights? How can we celebrate the birth of the Prince of peace? 

We might despair, but one of the reasons Of Gods and Men is such a true movie is that it shows the agonizing strain of Christian nonviolence. Christian de Chergé can be seen time and again pacing and wringing his hands, his face twisted with conflicting impulses in the face of new tragedies, his fellow monks torn between insufferable alternatives. There is no easy road to peace, and there are no short-cuts for us from a culture of violent consumption to Christian holiness. We are a long way from the life of the Monastère de l’Atlas, but even we can welcome the child who was born for us, absolutely helpless and already so threatened. It’s what we have to do. Even for us there is the slow discovery of worshipful work, daily tasks in whose undertaking we can find our salvation, learning as we refuse the destruction of others and ourselves that all we have left to do is live. Some of that will have to happen in the kitchen, in the garden, through scheduled prayers, and by a pace of life marked by bells different from those that keep time for the buying and selling of “the economy.” It will involve weaning ourselves from goods that are bought with blood (e.g., gasoline). And, if we are to live in faithful solidarity with our neighbors as Christian and his monastic community did, it will certainly be a life fraught with pacing, hand-wringing, and conflicting impulses, a life of struggling toward sound judgment in the face of apparently insufferable alternatives. But that is precisely the life of hope that is possible because Christmas night is different from other nights.

As the monks of the Monastère de l’Atlas sang on Christmas Eve,

“This is the night, the immense night of origins. And nothing exists except love, except love which now begins. By separating land from water, God has prepared the earth like a cradle, for his coming from above.

“This is the night, the happy night of Palestine. And nothing exists except the Child, except the Child of life divine. By taking flesh of our flesh, God our desert did refresh, and made a land of boundless spring.

“This is the night, the long night in which we grope. And nothings exists except this place, except this place of ruined hope. By stopping in our abode, God, as with the bush, did forbode, the world on which fire would fall.” 

I must confess that many of my extended family’s Christmas traditions, part as they are of a wider culture of violent greed dressed up as Christian devotion, leave me stumbling through our gatherings perplexed and estranged. I am sure that some of my perturbation is just falsely noble wallowing, and it is easy in such gatherings to be a perfect ass. To hope for peace is not to be nauseatingly indignant. And while I am sure that our celebrations are among those that the soul of the Lord hates, I am also sure that there is no hope in romanticizing drab poverty. As the woman who anointed Jesus for burial and the Magi from the East teach us, certain occasions call for a measure of extravagance. The question is, what kind of extravagance is worthy of the child who was born absolutely helpless and already so threatened, the child who later died by Roman crucifixion? Such extravagance must somehow say that that helpless child and that crucified man is the one omnipotent God. 

On the night they were subsequently kidnapped and herded off to their deaths by Fayattia’s men, Fayattia himself already killed in previous fighting, the monks of the Monastère de Notre Dame de l’Atlas briefly suspended their usual austerity at the initiative of Brother Luc. To their Eucharistic meal he added fine wine and the tinny sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” through a portable stereo. The joy of the table spilt over in laughter and tears. 

I am not sure what holy extravagance is at Christmas in America, but the biblical scenes of Jesus’ birth and the life of the monks of Tibhirine tell us that hope lies not in easy aloofness but abiding, if disconcerting, solidarity. We certainly cannot pretend not to be part of the problem crystallized in the American Christmas. Our complicity is deep and manifold. Somehow the way to peace must be at once the confession of our complicity in an economy of violence and our refusal to settle for it. It must be our straining, our praying, for God’s kingdom, which is “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” 

That both the civil war wracking Algeria and the presence of the Monastère de l’Atlas owed a debt to the colonialism of France and other Christian powers is not glossed over by Of Gods and Men. And at the end of the film, Christian de Chergé’s words against the backdrop of his own murder, which is a revolutionary attempt to bargain with colonialist powers, tell us that he knew well the solidarity that is the meaning of being Christian.  

Should it ever befall me, and it could happen today, to be a victim of the terrorism swallowing up all foreigners here, I would like my community, my church, my family, to remember: that my life was given to God and to this country, that the Unique Master of all life was no stranger to this brutal departure, and that my death is the same as so many other violent ones, consigned to the apathy of oblivion. I’ve lived enough to know I am complicit in the evil that, alas, prevails over the world, and the evil that will smite me blindly. I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for the people here, indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naive or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed from a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank-you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course, friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of the last minute [i.e., his killers], who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank-you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. Inchallah.