Christians in Practice?
Following the fall of Paris to advancing Nazi forces in 1940, France was partitioned into a northern, occupied zone and a southern ‘free’ zone ruled by the Petain government from Vichy. Many Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution headed south but there met an increasingly hostile regime taking increasingly deliberate steps to round up Jewish families in internment camps. Some managed to escape, others were smuggled out by aid agencies, and sought either to cross the border into neutral Spain and Switzerland or beyond, or to disappear into the countryside. Gradually, word got around that the Vivarais-Lignon plateau in central France offered one such place of refuge.
Which of its inhabitants first decided to take in the first Jewish refugee and offer them shelter is a matter of some debate, but the cause was quickly taken up by leading local figures who organised a network of neighbours and parishioners to offer shelter. Gradually, word spread that Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and neighbouring villages were good places to hide. Over the course of the war, perhaps a thousand or more Jewish and other refugees arrived there – some temporarily absorbed into the local community, others passing through whilst making their escape. Not every aspect of the story had a happy ending: those rescued constituted only a small proportion of the hundreds of thousands sent from France to the concentration camps, and not all of the personal stories of rescued and rescuers ended happily. However, the role played by the plateau’s population in rescuing refugees from Nazi persecution is nonetheless remarkable, and Le Chambon is one of only two whole village communities to appear in the list of ‘righteous non-Jews’ in the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
All of this rested on what Caroline Moorhead has called ‘a felicitous combination of people, places and timing’: First, there were individuals and organisations (both within and beyond the area), who spotted the dangers early and were quick to organise escape networks before the true scale of the threat became manifest.
Second, the ready welcome provided by local inhabitants drew on a much longer communal experience of persecution and resistance to outside authorities which made it easier to contemplate offering help (the plateau’s strongly Protestant heritage within a variously Catholic or Secularist France was particularly important here).
Third, rescue networks made full use of the distinctive profile of the local area (notably the presence of a large number of children’s holiday homes to hide refugees, and expanses of remote mountainous woodland into which to escape).
Fourth, there were key local figures who set the tone as rescuers. The most celebrated is Le Chambon’s pastor and convinced pacifist, Andre Trocmé, but there were also many others, by no means all of whom shared Trocmé’s Christian faith, level of education, public office or experience of social welfare work.
Fifth, help sometimes came from the unlikeliest of sources, including some Vichy police who turned a blind eye to the presence of so many new arrivals.
Sixth, rescuers of Jews on the plateau and beyond often shared common characteristics despite their varied backgrounds. In a major research project in the 70s and 80s, holocaust survivor Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner noted rescuers’ frequent capacity for ‘extensive relationships’, and a strong impulse towards compassion and hospitality towards others, learned from parents, congregations or communities who applied this ethic to all people – not just to members of the in-group. This was not always expressed through personal warmth, but was evident through the offer of sanctuary.
What has this remarkable story to do with Christians in Practice, and with understanding the relationship between Christian discipleship and community engagement? First, it reminds us that whilst community engagement frequently has an everyday, persevering character to it, we are also likely to be called into timely, unexpected and out of the ordinary expressions of practical love for others. This is where ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is unpacked in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Reading Caroline Moorhead’s retelling of the story, Village of Secrets, over the summer has really challenged me personally about how we are responding to the current huge refugee crisis.
Secondly, the story offers much food for thought about how Christian communities might nurture community engaged discipleship today. As in Le Chambon, how can we create space to hear the prophetic voices highlighting the plight of others? How can we draw on our own experiences of being helped to show compassion to others? How can we make the best of the unique resources and circumstances of our local areas? How can church leaders (like Trocmé and others) create a culture in which community engagement and love for neighbour is fundamental? How can we seek out the people of peace outside our congregations (even the uncomfortable bedfellows among them) who can be allies in working for good?
And finally, how can we create communities in which care for others beyond the in-group is just part of the way things are? The existence of tragedy– the bereavements, arrests, the deportations and executions - alongside heroic sacrifice reminds us of the fact that authentic Christian engagement in communities will be messy and painful. For Rowan Williams, writing recently, ‘holiness… is seen as going into the heart of where it’s most difficult for human beings to be human…’ ‘…there is no contrast, no tension, really, between holiness and involvement in the world (Williams, Being Disciples, pp. 48-9). To be frank, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to run a mile, but it’s an inescapable conclusion of Le Chambon’s story, and one that’s going to challenge me for some time to come.
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Penguin, 2015)
Caroline Moorhead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Vintage, 2015 edn)
Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (Simon and Schuster, 2002 edn)
Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK, 2016)