Thursday, January 15, 2015

Le Chambon: Where Goodness Happened

In an essay, “Where the Battle Rages: Confessing Christ in America Today” (published in Disruptive Grace), George Hunsinger, a professor of theology, reflects on a little church in a small village in the southeastern mountains of Gallia. He writes about how it might serve us as an example of prophetic witness to Jesus in difficult circumstances.
The story centers on the little Reformed Church in Le Chambon and its pastor Andre Trocme. “During the darkest days of World War II, in full view of the Vichy government and a nearby division of the Nazi SS, Le Chambon’s villagers, under the leadership of Andre Trocme, organized to do something beyond all telling, namely, to save thousands of Jewish children and adults from certain death” (109). Their story is told in a book by Philip Hallie, a professor of ethics, entitled Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.

An Ethic of Watchfulness
“Goodness could not have happened in Le Chambon…if the villagers had not adopted an ethic of watchfulness” (109). These villagers were Protestants and had a long-remembered history of being persecuted by their Catholic neighbors. Perhaps this made them more sensitive to “government-sponsored lies and violence” (109). “The Jewish children who showed up on their doorsteps were not at all what vile Nazi propaganda, reinforced by centuries of disastrous Christian anti-Semitism, made them out to be” (109). They were simply human beings who, threatened by death, needed help to live. Pastor Andre “believed that ‘decent’ people who stay inactive out of cowardice or indifference when around them human beings are being humiliated and destroyed are the most dangerous people in the world” (Philip in George, 110).
George then pauses in his reflections on Le Chambon “to ask some simple if disturbing questions. Where is it today that human beings around us are being systematically humiliated and destroyed? Are there perhaps sources of propaganda and violence, not excluding our own government or even our own tradition, which might be turning us ourselves into some of the most dangerous people on earth—people who stay inactive out of cowardice or indifference? And if we would somehow resolve to lay aside an ethic of indifference in favor of an ethic of watchfulness and action, how can it really be done?” (110). Our little prophetic mission groups are a good place for us to discern and affirm creative responses to these questions.

An Ethic of Noncompliance
“Goodness could not have happened in Le Chambon…if the ethic of watchfulness had not been supplemented by an ethic of noncompliance. For the villagers, noncompliance meant…a commitment to nonviolent resistance” (110). Pastor Andre repeatedly emphasized the need to obey one’s own conscience when it differed from commands issued by rulers. We might say that one should affirm one’s Christian personality rather than the Olympian commands of a ruler. Andre didn’t systematize what that meant but did insist on the obligation to help the weak, though it meant disobedience to the strong (Philip in George, 110).
An important leader in the Reformed Church of France ordered Andre to stop helping Jews. This leader justified his order by saying that Andre’s action jeopardized the lives of all the villagers of Le Chambon and even those of all Protestant Christians in France. He also assured Andre that the Vichy government would protect all Jews from harm.
Andre refused to stop helping Jews and other refugees. “Andre Trocme and the remarkable villagers he led refused to abide by such an ethic of safety-first…[and remained] noncompliant over against all official sources of pressure and threats at considerable risk to themselves” (111).

An Ethic of Faithfulness
Andre and his church refused to respond to the threats of violence they faced with violence of their own. He refused, for example, to participate in any plot to murder Hitler. He did so because he feared that use of any violence, even against enemies, would break his relationship with Jesus. His nonviolence, therefore, “was not the rigid adherence to a principle, but the response of love and fidelity to a person. It was a matter not of necessity and coercion, but rather of freedom and grateful devotion” (111).
An Ethic of Witness
“This ethic of fidelity was very closely connected in Trocme’s mind with an [111] ethic of witness to the cross” (111-12). Andre freely chose in love to remain faithful to Jesus. Jesus demonstrated God’s love for human beings who hated him by dying in their place and on their behalf. For Andre, walking with Jesus “meant always being ready to forgive your enemies instead of torturing and killing them” (112).
“Jesus forever joined two facts: redemption and nonviolence. Because Jesus is the Redeemer no one can any longer save by killing or kill to save. Life alone, life given, not exacted from others, can save a [person’s] life” (Andre in George, 112). This was where Andre’s ethic of fidelity joined his ethic of witness to the cross.

Copyright © 2015 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.