The story is told, real or embellished, of a Christmas Day in 1914 along the Western Front during World War I.
The British soldiers in their trenches on one side and their German combatants on the other observed a cease-fire for the holiday. As the shelling stopped, the Germans began to sing Christmas carols. Before long, the British joined in and sang along.
After awhile, the soldiers came out of their trenches, exchanged Christmas greetings and gifts and shared a few moments of holiday cheer.
When the day was over, they returned to their sides and began shooting at each other again for four more years. But for a few moments, the differences between two warring nations were blurred by their common humanity.
Whether this actually happened or not doesn't really matter. The lesson it teaches is one we can heed this Easter Sunday.
We Americans come to this year's holiest of Christian holidays as divided as ever, at odds over numerous social and political issues that have dominated our public discourse. As split along partisan lines as we were for more than a decade, that rift has widened into a canyon in recent weeks.
The health care bill signed into law last month was the final straw for many. Since then, we have seen members of Congress insulted and threatened, with some bloggers and rebel-rousers urging their followers to vandalize their political foes.
Some say they will no longer salute their nation's flag because of their disdain for the federal government, and have started separatist movements aimed at disuniting the United States. One group has threatened 30 of the nation's governors to step down or they'll be taken out.
The tone has turned uglier by the day, to the point when we wonder when words alone will be enough to express the anger and alienation many feel.
In this hyper-intense atmosphere, we find ourselves beginning to think of those whom we disagree with as something other than fellow Americans. In fact, we often hear political factions refer to the other side as the "enemy."
Let's remember who our enemies really are. They are not someone who lives next door or works in the next office, and who may disagree with our views on health care, foreign policy or the role of government.
Our real enemies want to kill us, to eliminate American society, not transform it. They are Osama bin Laden and his minions directing violent acts from their cave dwellings. They are driven not by disagreement over the size of government, but the existence of government itself. They see a society where no freedom exists outside of their decree, least of all the freedom to disagree with those in power.
Surely politics are important, for they determine government policies that affect our lives. But should political ideology be the determining factor in how we relate to other people?
It didn't used to be. At one time, people of different parties and ideals still shared friendships, often even the roof over their heads. Like different tastes in food, music or sports, their differences were viewed as a personal distinction worth respecting, even in disagreement.
But as our discourse has degraded from the cognitive ("here is what I think ...") to the purely personal ("here is what I believe ..."), we have raised politics to a new standard of importance. Now we judge people solely on their political views and label those on the wrong side as less than worthy of our admiration or tolerance.
At one time, fellow Americans gathered nobly to discuss the issues of the day, in Congress, in state legislatures, in city halls and county offices. They put forth ideas, they countered arguments, they made their case. In the end, they often would compromise to reach agreements that always didn't please everyone but co-opted the best ideas from both sides.
Looking back now, that seems like a "Leave it to Beaver" world cast in black-and-white, so removed from our current reality it seems like fiction.
Today, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats act as if their own brand of the truth is the only truth there is, and that the other side is dead wrong, evil, brain-dead and out to ruin our nation and the world. Divert your eyes, hide the children and put your hands over your ears lest you hear their lunatic ravings.
Such thinking is close-minded, juvenile and unproductive. And, yes, un-American.
Our Founding Fathers disagreed on policy, but did so in an aura of shared patriotism. They knew they were on the same side on the issues that counted: Freedom, justice, self-determination and a government of, by and for the people. How that government should be conducted was the center of their dignified debates.
That debate continues today, as it should, for the answers we find make us who we are as a nation. Yet whatever path we choose, we all remain Americans, committed to the ideals this country was founded on and has sought to achieve for more than two centuries.
So it would be wise to take a deep breath on this day of faith and reflection and turn the other cheek to those who take offense at our ideas. Even those who do not celebrate this Christian holiday of resurrection and salvation can share the same goals.
Let's use this day as a pause for peace, a chance to share fellowship and our nation's blessings with the folks in the other trenches, remembering that there is more that we have in common than what separates us.
And even as we return to our trenches for the political battles to come, let's try to keep our differences in perspective and not let them consume us.