A Conspiracy of Goodness

A tribute to the good people of  Le Chambon-sur-Lignons, for sheltering and protecting @ 5000 Jews during WWII, their commitment to a “conspiracy of goodness,” in defiance of Hitler.

CHRIST IS OUR PEACE

Text: Ephesians 2: 11-22

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In Him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”  Eph. 2: 19-22

When the nation of France fell to the Nazis in June of 1940, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a predominantly Calvinist village in south-central France, witnessed to the truth of this scripture – as they built together spiritually a dwelling place for God.

The majority of the villagers of Le Chambon were descendants of France’s original Protestant population, the Huguenots, followers of French theologian and pastor John Calvin, spiritual forefather of the Reformed movement and the Presbyterian Church.  When the Protestant reformation began in the 16th century, France was predominantly Catholic.  The French Protestant Huguenots were declared heretics and outlaws by the Pope, and one French king after the next tried to force Huguenots to reunite with the Catholic Church or else face death.  There were public roundups and massacres.  Thousands of Huguenot men were hanged, women were imprisoned for life, and their children were place in Catholic foster homes in order to rid them of their Protestant faith.  Despite persecution, they survived – as Calvinists.  They worshiped in secret in remote forests and underground churches, and they learned the arts of evasion and disguise to live among the majority Catholic culture.

By the late seventeenth century, two hundred thousand Huguenots fled France for North America and other countries in Europe. Those who stayed in France retreated to high mountain villages, like Le Chambon, where they led quiet and peaceable lives, in a region of France that became known as the “Plateau of Hospitality” because of its history of taking in refugees during periods of religious and political persecutions.  Thus, when the Nazis occupied France in 1940, the peaceable people of Le Chambon were well prepared for what was to follow.

On the Sunday after France fell to the Nazis, the village minister, Pastor Andre Trocme of the Reformed Church of France, preached these words to the congregants of Le Chambon:

“Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty.  Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly.  We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the Gospel.  We shall do so without fear, but also without pride and without hate.”

Soon thereafter, when the first German Jewish refugee knocked on the door of the pastor’s home, his wife Magda said that it never occurred to her to say no.  She explained, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘how did you make a decision?’  There was no decision to make.  The issue was: do you think we are all brothers or not?  Do you think it is unjust to turn in the Jews or not?  Then let us try to help!”

Help – they did – the people of Le Chambon offered hospitality and protection to approximately five thousand Jews fleeing persecution and imminent deportation to concentration camps.  The good villagers hid the refugees in their homes, on their farms, in schools, and in the countryside, and they helped many to escape by an underground network to neighboring, neutral Switzerland.  The actions of an entire community were unusual during the Holocaust as they involved the commitment of the population of an entire region to a “conspiracy of goodness.”  During World War II throughout Europe, there were many brave and righteous individuals who resisted Hitler, sheltered Jews in their homes, and helped God’s chosen people to escape to safe havens.  For an entire village to take collective action and defy the Nazis was unheard of.  The people of Le Chambon stand alone for their commitment to a conspiracy of goodness.

The villagers were descendants of the Huguenots who had survived religious persecution and persevered in faith for over four hundred years since the advent of the Protestant Reformation.  One could say that the Spirit of Jesus Christ was in their very DNA.

“The people in our village knew already what persecutions were,” said Magda, the pastor’s wife.  “They talked often about their ancestors.  Many years went by and they forgot, but when the Germans came, they remembered and were able to understand the persecution of the Jews better perhaps than people in other villages, for they had already had a kind of preparation.”

Under Pastor Andre Trocme’s leadership, and with the support of his wife Magda and assistant Pastor Edouard Theis, the people of Le Chambon treated the Jewish refugees as equals – as though they were their own people – as citizens of the household of God.  In addition to offering safe shelter to the Jews, the good people of Le Chambon forged identification papers and rations cards for the refugees, educated the children in their schools, and through an underground resistance network, guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland.  Pastor Andre asked his nephew Daniel Trocme to become the principal of Les Grillons, “the crickets,” a boarding school for Jewish refugee children, established with the financial support of the American Friends Service committee (the Quakers), the Swiss Red Cross, and other foreign relief agencies that helped this predominantly rural village afford the cost of food and provisions for the influx of refugees.

In the words of one survivor, a former child refugee in Le Chambon: “Nobody asked who was Jewish and who was not. Nobody asked where you were from. Nobody asked who your father was or if you could pay. They just accepted each of us, taking us in with warmth, sheltering children, often without their parents—children who cried in the night from nightmares.”
—Elizabeth Koenig-Kaufman, a former child refugee in Le Chambon

The Nazi and French authorities knew what was taking place in Le Chambon since it was impossible to hide such wide-scale rescue activities.  Whenever Nazi and French officials came to investigate, informants gave advance warning so that the Jews could go into hiding in the forests.  A teacher would announce to the Jewish children that it was time to hunt for mushrooms in the woods, and there they stayed until the coast was clear.

When authorities demanded that the pastor cease his activities, his response was clear and biblically-inspired: “these people came here for help and for shelter.  I am their shepherd.  A shepherd does not forsake his flock.  I do not know what a Jew is.  I know only human beings.”

As Pastor Andre preached in one of his sermons:  “Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.”

With an indomitable spiritual ancestry and commitment to live out the truth of the Gospels, the people of Le Chambon are recognized for their big and little moves against destructiveness that resulted in saving the lives of thousands of Jews.

In our lifetime, it is unlikely that we will face conditions comparable to what happened during World War II – let us pray that we don’t – yet we do not live in a world at peace.  Headline news reminds us every day that people are still persecuting and killing one another because of differences of race, religion, politics, national origin, ancestry – so many man-made categorizations that divide more than unite us: black, white, Hispanic; Christian, Muslim, Jew; republican, democrat, tea party; American, Russian, Israeli, Iranian – groupings that give us distinct identities – yet that can contribute to hatred of the other who is not in our group.

The people of Le Chambon showed us what can happen when people commit to a conspiracy of goodness.  They built together spiritually a dwelling place for God as they sheltered the persecuted in their village.  If those French Calvinists could do it 75 years ago, so could we.

We may not be called upon to shelter refugees as they did.  Nevertheless, wherever we are, we can create safe havens to receive and to bless strangers in our midst.  When our instincts are to judge, stereotype, and marginalize, in the words of the Chambonaise Pastor:  “Look hard for ways to make little moves against destructiveness.”

In my own words, let us look hard for ways to make little moves towards peace – little moves toward being the peace of Christ in our broken world, for the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sources:

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2013).  David and Goliath. New York, Boston, London:  Little, Brown & Co.

“Le Chambon-sur-Lignon,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007518, accessed 18 July 2015.

“The Righteous Among the Nations, The Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Andre & Magda Trocme, Daniel Trocme, France,” Yad Vashem,

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/stories/trocme.asp, accessed 18 July 2015.

Young, Justin. (Dec. 4, 2005).  Andre Trocme and Le Chambon: The Preciousness of Human Life. UC Santa Barbara.  http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/church/ChurchLeChambonJustin.htm, accessed 18 July 2015.

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