There are two things, it has often been said, that human beings cannot gaze at directly without going mad – the glory of God and the darkness of human evil. After years of studying human cruelty, Philip Hallie, professor of philosophy at Wesleyan University and a veteran of World War II, must have felt close to madness. Working on a project on Nazi cruelty, he focused on the medical experiments Nazi doctors conducted on Jewish children in the death camps.
“Across all these studies,” Hallie wrote later, “the pattern of the strong crushing the weak kept repeating itself and repeating itself, so that when I was not bitterly angry, I was bored at the repetitions of the patterns of persecution…. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness toward the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Between the bars and the walls I revolved like a madman … over the years I had dug myself into Hell.”
During this time Hallie came across a short article about a small town of three thousand in the mountains of southern France, which was the only safe haven for Jews in all of German-occupied Europe. Reading with academic objectivity in his effort to classify types of cruelty and forms of resistance to it, he was about halfway down the third page of the story when he became “annoyed by a strange sensation on my cheeks.” Reaching up to wipe away a piece of dust, he felt tears – “Not one or two drops; my whole cheek was wet.” Those tears, Hallie wrote, were an instinctive “expression of moral praise.”
What Hallie was reading was his introduction to the citizens of Le Chambon and their heroic rescue of more than five thousand Jewish children in the Second World War. Later written up in his modern classic Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, Hallie came to realize the rightness of a summary by one of his readers: “The Holocaust was storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.” Yes, he concluded, “I realized that for me too the little story of Le Chambon is grander and more beautiful than the bloody war that stopped Hitler.”
What emerges in his story is the strands of the stubborn courage of the Chambonnais. They were Huguenots, French Protestants fired by their faith in Christ and the experience of three hundred years of persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. And they were led, taught, and encouraged by their indomitable pastor, Andre Trocme, and his equally heroic wife, Magda. But what comes across repeatedly is their character and the down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality of their faith.
Many French let themselves be deceived by the infamous “night and fog” propaganda with which the Germans concealed the death camps. But the Chambonnais simply did what had to be done, what they’d been taught to do, what Christ would have expected them to do – they sheltered and saved their neighbors, the Jews, who were in danger.
The evening Pastor Trocme himself was arrested illustrates the whole story. The pastor and his wife had been invited to dinner by church members who, knowing they often forgot such invitations, sent their daughter to remind them. But when she entered the dining room, she saw the police arresting her pastor. So the word flew around the village: Andre Trocme had been arrested.
Typically, however, Magda Trocme invited the two policemen to have dinner with them. Friends were later incredulous and upset with her. “How could you bring yourself to sit down to eat with these men who were there to take your husband away, perhaps to his death? How could you be so forgiving, so decent to them?”
Madame Trocme always gave the same answer: “What are you talking about? It was dinner-time; they were standing in my way; we were all hungry. The food was ready. What do you mean by such foolish words as ‘forgiving’ and ‘decent’?”
Such a response was typical. The Chambonnais shrugged off praise again and again. They would look Hallie in the eye and say, “How can you call us ‘good’? We were doing what had to be done. Things had to be done, that’s all, and we happened to be there to do them. You must understand that it was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” An outsider’s words of moral praise, Philip Hallie concluded, are “like a slightly uncomfortable wreath laid upon a head by a kind but alien hand.”
Source: Os Guinness. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Kindle edition. Locations 1092-1095).