Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    flowers blooming in Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon

    The Ordinary Goodness of André Trocmé and Le Chambon

    What prepared the villagers of Le Chambon to collectively resist fascism and save Jews as a matter of course?

    By Matthew Peterson

    February 7, 2022
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
    0 Comments
      Submit

    Few matches between pastor and parish would seem less likely than the one between André Trocmé and the parish of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France. Trocmé, from a bourgeois, cosmopolitan family in the north, did his postgraduate studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he met his Italian wife, Magda. Trocmé was an ardent and outspoken pacifist, which had earned him a reprimand from the French Reformed Church and cost him positions in parishes where a pastor with his background might otherwise have been an obvious match.

    André Trocmé was born in 1901 in Saint-Quentin in the Somme, only thirty-five kilometers from what became one the most prolonged and bloody battles of World War I. Growing up in proximity to the front had a profound influence on Trocmé, as it brought him face-to-face with the horrors of war. In one memorable encounter, the adolescent Trocmé saw a group of wounded German soldiers traveling by foot on their way to be treated at a field hospital. Among them was a soldier who was missing his lower jaw and whose face, as Trocmé described it later, was “nothing more than a wad of bandages pressed together and stained dark red from the blood.”1

    In February 1917, the Trocmé family was forced to evacuate Saint-Quentin and became refugees themselves. By then, through an encounter with a German soldier billeted on the Trocmé family, André had come upon the pacifist ideal that would shape his life. The soldier, a young telegrapher named Kindler, had persuaded his commanding officer to allow him to do his work unarmed because he was a conscientious objector to killing another human, and he explained to the boy how his Christianity had led him to that conviction.

    The village of Le Chambon, where Pastor Trocmé was sent in 1934, is located on a rocky, desolate plateau in the Haute-Loire, a region that has been Protestant since the seventeenth century. Many farmers in the area struggled to feed their families; it was a hardscrabble life. Trocmé himself described the region as a closed and hostile land, “a peasantry weighed down by centuries of tradition.”

    But tradition supported them as well. As Protestants in a mostly Catholic country, the people had been deeply shaped by the experience of being in the minority, forming an identity that contributed to their strong sense of compassion for the impoverished and outcast.2 Years later Magda Trocmé recalled, “In a way, we were prepared. And the village was prepared by its Huguenot past.”3

    Magda Trocmé was speaking of a remarkable achievement. During the Second World War, the Trocmés and the village of Le Chambon, along with others in the surrounding Plateau Vivarais-Lignon, assisted in the rescue of as many as five thousand refugees, including over three thousand Jews. They provided food, housing, forged identity papers, and assistance crossing into Switzerland, doing what so many others did not: they helped those in need at substantial risk to themselves. In their essay “The Ordinary Quality of Resistance,” François Rochat and Andre Modigliani describe what happened in Le Chambon as an example of the “ordinariness of goodness.”4 How does goodness become ordinary rather than exceptional, and what can André Trocmé and the people around him teach us?

    As early as 1937, the village of Le Chambon had begun to welcome refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Following the German invasion in 1940, Jewish refugees began to seek sanctuary there. On Sunday, June 23, the day after the Vichy government signed its armistice with Nazi Germany, the people of Le Chambon went to church. In a clear, stark sermon the pastors – Trocmé and his assistant Édouard Theis – laid out the task of the Christian:

    to resist steadfastly with the weapons of the spirit. To love one another, to forgive, to do good to the enemy – that is our task. But to do this without fleeing from the world, without craven submission, without cowardice. We will resist when our enemies demand from us things that our teachings forbid or that contradict the commands of the gospel.5

    In acting decisively and early, as well as building on the Huguenot history of hospitality and resistance, the church leaders helped foster a culture in which resistance and goodness became second nature – in a sense, ordinary. Rochat and Modigliani observe, “The content of their sermon made a clear moral statement: to go along with the coming violence was unacceptable because it was anti-Christian; the villagers had to resist doing harm to others as well as preventing others from being harmed.”6

    AndreTrocme

    André Trocmé

    In his 1987 documentary Weapons of the Spirit, Pierre Sauvage, born in Le Chambon in 1944 to Jewish refugee parents, interviews elderly inhabitants who were part of the rescue efforts. The villagers make clear to Sauvage that aiding the refugees was not seen as something extraordinary, but as simply the thing that one must do.

    Trocmé did not just resist the Vichy government from the pulpit, but in other public and symbolic ways as well, inspiring others to do the same. On August 1, at noon, the bells of French churches were to be rung for fifteen minutes in honor of a newly declared military holiday, something Trocmé was adamantly opposed to doing. When the day came, the custodian, a small, gentle woman named Amélie, not even a member of Trocmé’s congregation, blocked two wealthy women who were insisting that the bells be rung. When Trocmé later asked her what she had said to them, Amélie answered, “I said, ‘The bells do not belong to the marshal; they belong to God. We ring them for God or not at all.’”7

    In August of 1942, Trocmé was instructed to give a ceremonial welcome to the Vichy government’s minister of youth, Georges Lamirand. Trocmé attempted to decline the visit but was unable to prevent it. Instead of a lavish banquet, Trocmé served a simple meal, and instead of an official parade to greet Lamirand, the streets of Le Chambon were empty. The most subversive act of the day, however, came not from Trocmé, but from high school students at the École nouvelle Cévenole, a private school Trocmé had helped start. The students presented Lamirand with a letter opposing the recent mass deportation of Jews from Paris, clearly stating their intention to resist any attempts to deport Jews in Le Chambon and, if necessary, to hide them. Through his own public and unequivocal resistance to the actions by the Vichy government, Trocmé had inspired the inhabitants of Le Chambon to creatively and brazenly resist in their own ways.

    flowers blooming in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

    Le Chambon-sur-Lignon Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo

    Trocmé had found that there was a particularly strong local emphasis on the reading and study of scripture. Much of it could be traced back to a long regional history of Protestant lecture, the reading of scripture aloud daily as a family. Trocmé’s predecessor had set up a structure for Bible study meetings that proved particularly useful during the war. Every two weeks the pastor would meet with thirteen individuals to discuss passages and talk about how they related to contemporary life. Participants, known as responsables, would then each go out to one of thirteen districts in the parish to read the texts and connect them to the lives of the people there. These meetings gave theological grounding, inspiration, and maintenance to the rescue operations in Le Chambon during the war.

    The studies systematically worked through biblical texts in a way that invited questions and discussion by Trocmé’s parishioners. In this way, participants – especially the young, who played a key role in the rescue efforts – could grapple with the scriptures themselves, as opposed to just being told what they meant.8 According to Trocmé, it was these animated discussions about the Bible and its role in his parishioners’ lives that contributed to the creation of strategies for offering shelter to the refugees fleeing the German and French authorities.9 In his autobiography, he says, “It was there, and not elsewhere, that answers from God came regarding the complicated problems we had to resolve for the housing and hiding of Jews in the coming months. It was there that we conceived of nonviolent resistance.”10 This way of studying scripture was not just good pedagogy on the part of Trocmé and the responsables; it was also necessary. As Hanna Schott points out in her book Love in a Time of Hate, trying to manipulate or push the congregation in certain directions, given centuries of Huguenot stubbornness, would have been pointless. Trocmé’s parishioners knew their Bible, but Trocmé was able to offer them a new lens for interpretation.

    At the heart of Trocmé’s teaching and preaching was Jesus and his teachings. His favorite texts included the story of the Good Samaritan, with its decisive question “Who is my neighbor?” and the Sermon on the Mount. But while Trocmé employed and encouraged a Christ-centered interpretation of scripture, he did not limit himself to the Gospels or even the New Testament. Two of the passages he found most important are in the Old Testament, in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19. Because of their own time in exile, the Huguenots of Le Chambon felt a particular affinity with the Jews of the Old Testament. In Numbers 35, God instructs Moses to tell the people of Israel that after they cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, they are to establish six cities of refuge, places where people who had killed someone unintentionally could flee. Both Trocmé and Theis were drawn to this passage because it gave the idea of a safe haven, of a city that existed to provide asylum to the fleeing, even if the circumstances were quite different between Canaan and 1940s Europe.

    In Deuteronomy, a parallel to the Numbers passage, the Israelites are told to set aside cities of refuge so that innocent blood will not be shed in their land, so that they will not be guilty of bloodshed. Trocmé used this passage to make the point that whoever offers asylum bears responsibility for what happens in that space, even if someone else does the harm. If Le Chambon were to become a city of refuge, according to Trocmé, the residents would have to answer to God for everything that happened there.11 While Trocmé had arrived in his parish with unorthodox views on pacifism, he was able to effectively use the Bible in a way that resonated and connected with the people in Le Chambon, acting as a catalyst for the rescue efforts. As Alicia Batten writes in “Reading the Bible in Occupied France: André Trocmé and Le Chambon,” “there was a symbiotic relationship between Trocmé’s approach to the Bible and the context of the plateau that become a contributing factor to the maintenance of the rescue operations in Le Chambon for the duration of the war.”12

    The rescue efforts that took place in the village of Le Chambon and the region of Le Plateau were undoubtedly extraordinary.

    What transpired in Le Chambon did not emerge from a single heroic decision as much as it did from a culture containing within it a long memory of persecution; a culture in which gathering around scripture was a daily practice; a culture of both ordinary hospitality and stubborn resistance. In a 1990 interview with Bill Moyer following the release of Weapons of the Spirit, Pierre Sauvage says that he had come to believe that it wasn’t the case that people who take major risks do so after agonizing over the decision. “I have come to believe this is nonsense,” says Sauvage, “that people who agonize don’t act. People who act don’t agonize.”13 That leaves the rest of us with the question: How does a community create a culture such as this?

    The story of Le Chambon suggests a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount. Thinking of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon as “extraordinary” creates distance between them and daily life – they seem heroic but unrealistic. Yet Jesus is clear that they apply not to a select group of extraordinary disciples, but to all who would walk in his way. If Sauvage is correct that decisions must emerge more from culture than a single moment, for followers of Jesus that culture must be shaped by the Sermon on the Mount.

    As Trocmé himself observed, it was within the parish Bible studies that conceptions of nonviolent resistance and strategies for how to house and hide the Jews emerged. These groups were less didactic and more question- and discussion-driven than traditional Bible studies often are. This structure encouraged parishioners to absorb the biblical texts and their applications, a critical commitment for those who are asked to put themselves in danger. Giving scripture such a prominent place in the community also helped connect a pastor and parish that were dissimilar in many ways. Trocmé, interestingly, didn’t see his preaching and teaching as political, as much as it may seem so to us. He was able to inspire and animate his parishioners not by moving away from scripture but by ensuring that it lay at the center of life.

    During the coronavirus pandemic people exhibited an enormous capacity for change. Things that would have seemed unbelievable in 2019 – stay-at-home orders, the cessation of entertainment and sports – became the norm for most Americans in 2020. What made that possible, however, was that people made these adjustments and changes not in isolation but in community. The extraordinary actions in Le Chambon emerged from community too. Refugees were housed in farmhouses, villagers refused to salute flags, and youth broadcast their intent to defy their government to protect refugees, not because they sought to act as heroic individuals, but because it had become the norm.

    Walking the path of discipleship alone is impossibly exhausting. This is why when Jesus invites us to follow him, he always invites us to follow him in community. In eight years of living in an intentional Christian community in Illinois and three years as a pastor in Ohio, I have observed this: as important as good theology, sound doctrine, and engaging preaching are, we are shaped and influenced more by the people around us than by a brilliant sermon or a list of dogmas. I have also recognized that much of the power of scripture comes not from the pulpit, but through interpretation and study in small groups gathered around the Bible who, like the people of Le Chambon, are given space and encouragement to claim the teachings of Jesus as their own. If we are to be people who extend the neighborliness that Le Chambon extended during World War II, we must be shaped and formed in communities that train our instincts to act in ways in which goodness seems ordinary.

    Footnotes

    1. Hanna Schott, Love in a Time of Hate: The Story of Magda and André Trocmé and the Village That Said No to the Nazis, translated by John D. Roth (Harrisonburg: Herald Press, 2017), 72.
    2. Batten, Alicia J. “Reading the Bible in Occupied France: André Trocmé and Le Chambon.” Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 3 (2010): 316.
    3. Weapons of the Spirit, directed by Pierre Sauvage (The Chambon Foundation, 2020).
    4. François Rochat and Andre Modigliani, “The Ordinary Quality of Resistance: From Milgram’s Laboratory to the Village of Le Chambon,” Journal of Social Issues 51, no. 3 (1995): 198.
    5. Schott, Love in a Time of Hate, 173–74.
    6. Rochat and Modigliani, “Ordinary Quality of Resistance,” 202.
    7. Schott, Love in a Time of Hate, 198.
    8. Batten, “Reading the Bible in Occupied France,” 328.
    9. Batten, “Reading the Bible in Occupied France,” 322.
    10. Batten, “Reading the Bible in Occupied France,” 322.
    11. Schott, Love in a Time of Hate, 171.
    12. Batten, “Reading the Bible in Occupied France,” 311.
    13. Pierre Sauvage, “Bill Moyers Interviews Filmmaker Pierre Sauvage,’ PBS, 1990.
    Contributed By

    Matthew Peterson is pastor at Midway Mennonite Church in Columbiana, Ohio. Prior to moving to Ohio, he spent eight years at Plow Creek Fellowship, an intentional Christian community in Northern Illinois. He lives with his wife, Christiana, and four children in Columbiana.

    0 Comments