Every time I travel in Europe I try to read some European history, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and culture. In the past I’ve shared stories of Sophie Scholl (regarding her martyrdom for the distribution of resistance literature against the Nazis in Bavaria), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (regarding his denouncement of Hitler from the pulpit and his underground seminary). Knowing that I’d be in France this spring, I recently read “Village of Secrets”, which is the account of the people living Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during WWII. These remarkable people sheltered thousands of Jewish children, hiding them throughout farms in this high mountain plateau.
Theirs is a story of courageously resisting the powers and offering radical hospitality, qualities which, for them, weren’t seen as exceptional, but rather “to be expected – it’s what God’s people do.” As I read the book, I knew I needed to go there and see it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
Donna and I made a three hour pilgrimage up to Le Chambon yesterday through pouring rain, wet snow, and periodic bursts of sunshine. We arrived mid-day, and soon found the Protestant “Temple” where Andre Trocme taught non-violent resistance of state powers and was instrumental in mobilizing people to hide condemned Jews.
There are far too many details in the story to explain it all here, but I must say, while it is still fresh in my heart, that this story matters as much today as it did then, for never in my lifetime has the need for spiritual and moral courage among God’s people been both so evident, and so lacking. Trocme and others warned against “the slow asphyxiation of our consciences” and called God’s people to absolute obedience to God alone, warning against the idolatrous seductions of power and personal safety. I see three qualities as vital in enabling the people of the plateau to do what they did.
1. Intellectual Leadership: Courageous convictions only germinate in the right soil though, and as it turns out, there were some French pastors in 1941 who were thoughtfully engaging with the questions of how to respond to the Reich. A fictional book had been written at the time called “The Village on the Hill” about a pastor who refused to proclaim that Hitler was the creator of an eternal and indestructible Reich. Eventually a Nazi mayor had him removed and he took his meetings into the forest. This work of fiction was digested by pastors wrestling with their responses to the times. In the end, these pastors declared it to be a spiritual necessity that they resist all idolatrous and totalitarian influences.
2. Thoughtful Ethics: The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in France had produced a movement called “Social Christianity” which fundamentally declared that the value of our faith is determined by the extent to which God’s people care for the weakest and most vulnerable in a community. That would include the unborn, young single mothers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and of course in 1941 France, all Jews. Pastor Trocme added a deep conviction that non-violence is the way of Christ, and that it was therefore the antithesis of the word “Christian” (which means “little Christ”), to use weapons as a means of bringing about God’s will.
3. Brokenness: The people of the plateau were, themselves, offspring of families persecuted for their Protestant faith since the seventeenth century. They’d had their church buildings burnt to the ground, family members executed, properties lost. And what fruit did this suffering create generations later? A solidarity with “the least of these” and a willingness to risk everything to shelter them from harm.
Trocme ran a school, and the museum commemorating this rich history is adjacent to the school. As we finished our tour, I was looking at a certificate given to Le-Chambon which honors them as righteous Gentiles. At that moment, children poured into the adjacent play-yard for recess, with the sounds of laughter and play, and jumping on an old pile of snow.
I was filled with gratitude for that time, for this place, for those people, for the tens of thousands living today because of their courage.
I left, though, with an ache in my heart because intellectual leadership, thoughtful ethics, and brokenness are, to put it mildly, in short supply today. As a result we’re collectively rudderless, ready prey for any leader willing to make vain promises of power and greatness while silencing all detractors and thoughtful discourse through petty name calling. I for one, can only pray that I’ll find the blend of courage and prudence, grace and truth, and commitment to non-violence and caring for the weak, that I’ll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
O Lord Christ –
We who have been given the privilege of voices must speak for those who cannot. We must give voice to your heart for peace, and courage, and love of the other. We must embrace your cross. Forgive us for being seduced by trinkets, honors, and all the glitter that passes for spirit. Grant that we might know your power to love, to serve, to shoot the moon in obedience to your calling. Give us eyes to see your light, ears to hear your voice, and grace to follow both. Amen