It's not cheery, but among the most jarring things I read in the run-up to Christmas comes from historian Stanley Weintraub, who has written about Christmas during wartime more than once. His recounting of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is a testament to the goodness in the heart of man, even when seeped in a culture of evil. Weintraub's latest is "A Christmas Far from Home: An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival during the Korean War." Gen. Douglas MacArthur had told troops they would be home for Christmas. That wouldn't happen. And in the book, about a war he himself served in, Weintraub writes about American soldiers who spent their holiday in a prisoner of war camp.
On Christmas Eve, the soldiers' captors decorated the camp as an indoctrination technique. Brainwashing was well underway by the time they were greeted with a "Merry Christmas" sign and a placard underneath that read, "If it were not for the Wall Street Imperialists you would be home with your families on this Christmas night." Soldiers were forced to denigrate their home country and swear allegiance to their captors.
What would I do in that situation? It's a question most Americans who haven't served in the military ask themselves. The size and scope of the drama differs dramatically, but on a daily basis, what do we believe, and would we stick to our beliefs under pressure?
Stories coming out of Iraq and Syria of Christians who will not stand down, who will not renounce their faith in the face of death, remind us that martyrdom is not the stuff of history. An elderly woman with breast cancer named Ghazala comes to mind. Earlier this year, she and a group of fellow sick and disabled Iraqi Christians defied their tormenters and told them they'd rather die than surrender their faith.
And while most choices we are faced with in our lives are not life-and-death, so many of them are about integrity and whether or not we really are who we claim to be. You can't celebrate Christmas authentically without keeping this in mind.
Johnnie Moore, who wrote "Dirty God: Jesus in the Trenches," went to Iraq this year and recently wrote about the mass killing of Christians that is happening there. "I am amazed, inspired, and convicted by the commitment to Jesus Christ shared by all these displaced Christians," he tells me. He was most struck there by the prevalence of the cross. "Christians had crosses tattooed on their arms, placed at the entrance to their tents, adorned in lights on top of their buildings. One Christian family even snuck back into their village -- which had been ransacked by ISIS -- to put the cross back on their church. ... They are willing to die for what most Christians are barely willing to live for."
Moore works for television producer Mark Burnett, the creator of "Survivor," among other things. Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, well known for her role in "Touched by an Angel," launched an effort to raise $25 million to help some of the estimated 10,000 Iraqi Christians who fled their homes and remain displaced.
They join the Knights of Columbus, Aid to the Church in Need, Samaritan's Purse and other groups that are working to help.
Stanley Weintraub wrote a previous book about what George Washington thought was his farewell to public life, when he retired as commander of the Revolutionary Army in 1783. In his address at the time, Washington impressed upon his victorious countrymen that their work needed to continue in lives of virtue and civil service to a new republic. We need that same spirit of service today. And it's what the Christ child celebrated at Christmas calls his people to.