“Paths of Resistance,” October 14th, 2017, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
For if we can be faithful to what this one day offers, and what it asks of us, and if that day serves to bend the arc of justice and in some way redeem the suffering of the world, that is as much as anybody needs to pray for.
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Nothing in the 62 years of my own life has prepared me for the events of the past year. Nothing I have personally experienced thus far appears to offer me guidance for action if any of the various national or international, political or military or environmental disasters that loom on the horizon actually comes to pass. My elders, who lived through the 2nd World War or the Cuban missile crisis, may have a better sense of how to cope with a world turned upside down in an instant. But for all the changes that we have seen since then, it has been a pretty smooth ride since 1955, and that’s all I know; maybe that’s true for some of you as well. On the other hand, part of the point of education is to understand that the world didn’t come into being on the day I was born; just because we haven’t been through a particular crisis in our own time, doesn’t mean that no one ever has. And so I turn to history for wisdom, as people and communities have done throughout the ages. What we remember, and how we remember what happened in the eras before ours, profoundly shapes what is going to seem possible for us in days ahead. And how we evaluate the behavior and the choices of the folks who faced a crisis long ago, can illuminate what our own actions ought to be.
Which is why I have been thinking a lot lately about Andre Trocme and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These two men were both evangelical Protestant ministers, who lived during the Nazi domination of Europe, with its persecution of dissenters and minorities, especially Jews. Bonhoeffer, whose name you might already know, was a German pastor and theologian; Trocme was a French Huguenot pastor, educator, and activist. Both were highly intelligent, committed Christians; both came of privileged childhoods; both spent a year of graduate theological study at Union Seminary in New York; both began their careers as pacifists and advocates for the poor. If you recognize Bonhoeffer, it is likely as martyr to Hitler’s third reich; he was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp two weeks before its liberation in 1945. Trocme might be less familiar; he survived the war years, dying in 1971 at the age of 70. You may have heard the name of his parish in southern France, though; he and his wife Magda served the congregation in Le Chambon sur Lignon, a village whose occupants sheltered and rescued some 3 to 5 thousand Jewish and other refugees in the years between 1940 and 1944. Both men were appalled by and unalterably opposed to the rise of National Socialism and Adolph Hitler; both believed that Nazi ideology was fundamentally incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the Christian church had a moral duty to bear witness against Hitler’s policies, and to help those who suffered as a result of them.
Andre Trocme was five years older than Dietrich Bonhoeffer; born just after the turn of the century, in 1901, Trocme studied religion in Paris, at the Sorbonne. During his six years there, he was increasingly drawn to the beliefs of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical pacifist organization founded in response to the horrors of World War I in Europe. In 1923 Trocmé helped establish the Fellowship’s French chapter. In 1925, seeking a course of study that emphasized social action as well as theology, he enrolled at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. While there he met an independent-minded young Italian woman named Magda, studying at the School of Social Work; within a year they were married. Upon his return to France the following year, Trocme took a pastorate in a northern mining village. There he brought out his pacifist beliefs in full force, giving sermons on the subject of non-violence, hosting pacifist youth groups, and giving testimony at trials of conscientious objectors. The bureaucracy of the Reformed Church quickly became uncomfortable with his unconventional views, and the young pastor soon agreed to relocate to a small, remote southern village with its own quirky history. In Le Chambon sur Lignon, on the Vivarais Plateau, the collective memory of their own suffering as a religious minority created in the inhabitants a strong suspicion of all authoritarian governments. As Huguenot, that is to say Calvinist, Protestants, they had been persecuted in France by the Catholic authorities from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and later they would provide shelter to fellow Protestants escaping discrimination and persecution. The non-conformist Andre and Magda Trocme and their four children were a perfect fit.
By 1938, Trocme and his university friend and assistant the Reverend Edouard Theis decided to establish a pacifist Christian boarding school to prepare local country youngsters to enter the university. The Collège Lycée International Cévenol was soon drawing students from around the world. When Germany invaded France and established the puppet Vichy government in 1940, Le Chambon lay outside the occupied zone. Nevertheless, Trocme told his parishioners, “Tremendous pressure will be put on us to submit passively to a totalitarian ideology… The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to oppose the violence that they will try to put on our consciences. … 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.”
In December of that year, a German Jewish woman fleeing Nazi internment came to the door of the Trocme parsonage. Magda welcomed her, sheltered and fed her for several days, but was unsuccessful in persuading the mayor to issue false identity papers for her. The woman went on to try to make her way to the Swiss border, and Andre got in touch with the American Friends Service Committee in Marseilles, to explore how his church might help provide relief supplies to some of the 30,000 foreign Jews being held in internment camps in southern France. The Quaker leaders told him that they could often get people released from the camps, the problem was that no one wanted to help them; there was nowhere for them to go. When Trocme assured them that his own and other villages on the Vivarais Plateau would welcome these detainees, including the Jews, a steady stream of released prisoners began to flow to Le Chambon from camps at Gurs, Le Milles, Rivesaltes and others. Children whose parents had not survived, or could not get released, were registered as international students at the Lycee Cevenol. Farming families in the region took in strangers who they would identify as ‘cousins’ or ‘in-laws.’ As word of mouth spread, endangered Jews and others made their own way to Le Chambon, where the ever-efficient Magda assigned them to schools, shelters, or host families in the area. Many were eventually escorted over the 300 kilometers to the Swiss border, by local guides who were well aware that they were following the same route their persecuted Huguenot ancestors had traveled centuries earlier. Several international organizations helped to provide funds for food, clothing, and false identity papers.
The danger of these activities increased when Germany occupied southern France in late 1942, since the authorities were not unaware of what was going on. In February of the following year, French police arrested Trocme and Theis, as well as the headmaster of the local primary school, Roger Darcissac. The story goes that the officers arrived to take Andre in the early evening, and he and Magda first ate supper with them. As always, Magda saw nothing extraordinary in this gesture; “Why not?” she says, “It was dinner time.” The three men were held for an anxious month at a camp near Limoges, and then released. But not everyone was so fortunate. That June, German forces arrested 18 students at a village high school, and sent the five Jews to Auschwitz, where they died. Their teacher, Daniel Trocme, Andre’s cousin, turned himself in so as to be with them; he was eventually also gassed by the SS. And Roger Le Forestier, Le Chambon’s physician, who was especially active in helping Jews obtain false documents, was arrested and shot by the Gestapo two weeks before the Vivarais Plateau was liberated on September 2, 1944. By that time, the citizens of Le Chambon and the other plateau villages had rescued nearly 5,000 refugees, the majority of them Jews, and many of them children.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an educator. Five years younger than Trocme, he did his academic work in Tubingen and Berlin, briefly serving a German parish in Barcelona, and spending a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary in 1930. He never crossed paths with Andre Trocme, but I like to think maybe they checked some of the same books out of the library there; they shared many of the same Christian pacifist ideals. Bonhoeffer was something of an academic star; he received his Doctor of Theology degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Berlin, at the age of 21. Considered too young for ordination, he was awarded the study and teaching fellowship which brought him to New York, where he was not impressed by the academic rigor, but made life long international friendships, and was introduced to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell. He returned to Germany with a collection of recordings of African American spirituals, and an abiding commitment to the idea of Christianity as a force of liberation for the poor and oppressed. He was immediately made a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin; the youngest person ever appointed to that post. Once he turned 25, Bonhoeffer was ordained in the established German Protestant church, and was appointed as a youth secretary to the fledgling organization that would become the World Council of Churches. But his promising international academic and ecclesiastical career was radically disrupted by history a year and a half later, when Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Two days later, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous ‘cult of the Führer.’ He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence.
As Hitler’s administration worked to consolidate power, one of their targets was the established national church. Many pastors welcomed the advent of a strong leader who proposed to make Germany great again, and were especially supportive of measures to exclude ‘non-Aryans’ – meaning anyone with Jewish ethnic heritage, even if they happened to be baptized Christians – from positions of influence in either the government or the church. Bonhoeffer found himself increasingly in the role of the young leader of resistance against these forces. When the non-Aryan exclusion provision became official church policy that September, he helped Martin Neimoller, to organize the Pastor’s Emergency League as a vehicle for religious resistance. Something between 20 and 30 percent of Protestant ministers in Germany joined the league. These activities made Bonhoeffer’s position at the University politically tenuous; he was offered a parish ministry in Berlin, but instead chose in the fall of 1933 to accept a two-year appointment to serve a pair of German-speaking congregations in London. He hoped that from this location, he would be able to use his international contacts to encourage support for churches and ministers in Germany who were committed to resisting Nazism. In May of 1934, Karl Barth and other anti-Nazi theologians drafted what became known as the Barmen declaration, which said nothing explicitly about Hitler or his political agenda, but affirmed that orthodox Christian churches were exclusively accountable to God’s commandments and to Jesus’s leadership. As his term with the London churches reached its end date, he again had a choice; he was invited to India to study nonviolence at Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, or to take charge of an underground seminary for the education of ministerial candidates who had signed the Barmen declaration and intended to lead churches which opposed the Nazi regime. He returned to Germany as head of the Confessing Church seminary in Finkenwalde on the Polish border. By 1936 he had been denounced as a “pacifist and enemy of the state,” and his authorization to teach at the university was revoked. The following autumn the Gestapo closed the seminary, and arrested 27 students, teachers, and former students. By 1938, the Gestapo had banned him from the city of Berlin, and with war obviously nearing, Bonhoeffer was in danger of being conscripted into the German military. He would have refused armed service as a matter of conscience, which would have been a capital offense, so his sister’s husband arranged to have him join the military intelligence office on the basis of his foreign contacts. There Bonhoeffer discovered an upper echelon group plotting to assassinate the Fuhrer, and tried to assist them by seeking assurances that Britain and other allied nations would offer reasonable peace terms if the conspiracy were successful.
In June 1939 at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer again left for the United States, but he quickly came to regret his decision. He wrote “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice from security.” Despite strong pressures from his friends to stay in the United States, he returned to Germany in July, on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic.
By 1941, Bonhoeffer had been forbidden to speak in public, or to print or have published any of his writings. He continued to correspond with his pastor friends and former students, while writing a book about Christian Ethics which he intended to be the culmination of his theological work. He also used his position in the intelligence office to aid German Jews seeking to flee Nazi-controlled Europe. In January of 1943, he became engaged to be married, and in April he and his sister and brother in law were all arrested. Originally suspected of having embezzled money from the government for their own benefit, Bonhoeffer and his brother in law were held in prison awaiting trial for eighteen months while the charges were investigated. Over time it became clear that the money was actually meant to be used to help escaping Jews reach Switzerland, a more serious matter. In July of 1944, one of several attempts to kill Hitler failed, and documents were discovered indicating that Bonhoeffer had a minor role in the conspiracy. He was then seized by the Gestapo and transferred to their high security prison facility, before being placed in a concentration camp, first at Buchenwald and then Flossenberg. When the diaries of Admiral Carnaris, the leader of the intelligence office, and of the assassination conspiracies, were found and shown to Hitler, all the known participants were condemned to death out of hand. Bonhoeffer and several others were executed by hanging on April 9, barely two weeks before the camp would be liberated by Allied forces, and Hitler himself would commit suicide.
Both of these men were Christian leaders, for whom Christian values opposed everything Hitler stood for, and called them to action to prevent as much damage as they could. One flew quietly under the radar as much as possible, working in solidarity with the humble people of his parish to aid and shelter their fellow human beings in grave danger. The other gave national and international witness against the evil that Hitler and his intentions represented, and sacrificed his own pacifist conscience in the effort to prevent that evil from achieving its ends. Both believed that they were doing what any person of conscience and decency in their position would naturally do, and both were appalled by the failure of the church they loved and served to live up to what they saw as its moral calling in response to the times. One was faithful unto death; the other was more fortunate, but that was sheer accident in both cases, and might easily have turned out otherwise. Each is remembered with honor and gratitude. So where does the path of integrity lie? With the voice that sounds the alarm as loudly as possible, the public testimony that will not be denied; or with the quiet service that frustrates evil’s intention of suffering, and preserves innocent lives? Both must take a stand, break the unjust laws, risk betrayal and persecution, find a courage they did not know they had. Neither can act alone, but must implicate others, risking not only their own lives, but those they have a duty to protect. And, they are to a large extent mutually exclusive. The person who is hiding Jews in the basement had better not be writing scathing letters to the editor, and the person who does write those letters, probably isn’t the best one to be hiding Jews. So give it some thought: what would you want your role to be, if the circumstances were to come upon us such that a choice had to be made? What part would you hope to see this All Souls community play? Neither side of the dilemma is easy, or safe. But as Bonhoeffer so truly foresaw, the German churches that played it safe and took the easy path in that crucial decade of Hitler’s power, found themselves morally bankrupt later on, when the crisis had passed, and the implications of that decision began to come clear.
As for me personally, I see the virtues of both sides. And maybe after all you simply find yourself where you find yourself as history unfolds around you; maybe the task comes to you as an opportunity – a fugitive stranger at the door, a radio show – and you just do what seems like the right thing in that moment. Which makes me think of the most perfect prayer I know. It was originally spoken by another leader of greatly insightful integrity – the first Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold. In his journal, later published as Markings, he records this aspiration: O Lord, thine the day, and I the day’s. This prayer does not whine about our need for courage or strength or wisdom; it does not give god advice about how to proceed, or complain about plans that we don’t understand. It simply hopes that whatever the day may bring to us, it will be part of whatever good and holy creative purposes are at work in the world, and asks that we may be equal to the demands and opportunities that will be found within just that one day. For if we can be faithful to what this one day offers, and what it asks of us, and if that day serves to bend the arc of justice and in some way redeem the suffering of the world, that is as much as anybody needs to pray for. I think of Andre and Magda Trocme, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when that prayer rises in my spirit. These days are not like all the other days I have known; I don’t know what they might yet demand of me, and of us. But others have found the paths of integrity and resistance, before now, and the courage to follow them. Which means there is hope.