It is said that, during World War Two, the village of Le Chambon in southern France was the safest place in Europe. It was this small village where Andre Trocme, a Protestant pastor, charged his church and his entire village with the task of protecting refugees, and primarily the Jewish refugees who were fleeing Nazi oppression. The story of this man and, to a lesser extent this village, is told in Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, written by Philip Hallie, a philosopher and ethicist whose study of the horrors of the Second World War had driven him to near despair.
Across all these studies, 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 repetition of the patterns of persecution. When I was not desiring to be cruel with the cruel, I was like a monster–like, perhaps, many others around me–who could look upon torture and death without a shudder, and who therefore looked upon life without a belief in its preciousness. My study of evil incarnate had become a prison whose bars were my bitterness towards the violent, and whose walls were my horrified indifference to slow murder. Between the bars and the walls I revolved like a madman. Reading about the damned I was damned myself, as damned as the murderers, and as damned as their victims. Somehow over the years I had dug myself into Hell, and I had forgotten redemption, had forgotten the possibility of escape.
But in his own search for redemption, Hallie found a story that finally broke through the walls of bitterness and anger. He found the story of Le Chambon and of Andre Trocme. When he found out about this town and this man, he knew he had to write about it, not as an example of goodness or moral nobility; not for an abstract end. Rather, he was going to use “the words of ethics to help me understand my deeply felt ethical praise for the deeds of the people of Le Chambon.”
And so Hallie shares the story he discovered. And it is an amazing story, the subject of which is a small village of men and women, the vast majority of whom were of Huguenot stock. Andre Trocme, their pastor and leader, was clearly a strange and unorthodox man. He seems to have been driven primarily by his love for Jesus and his respect for the teachings of Jesus, especially as they related to peace. Trocme was a pacifist whose standards of morality were strict. While he might carry a forged identity card, he would refuse to give a false name for himself. He was morally opposed to the war and to all violent forms of resistance. Yet at the same time he was a man of violent temper who often quarrelled loudly and angrily with his wife. And yet he was a man who was more than willing to lay down his life for those who were in danger.
Like many biographies of Christians that are written by unbelievers, it is difficult to know just what to believe about the man. Naturally, an author who is not filled with the Holy Spirit cannot fully understand one who is. I know little of Trocme other than what Hallie tells about him, yet if Hallie is to be believed, Trocme rarely preached about anything other than pacifism. He loved Jesus, but rarely seemed to discuss many of the great truths of the Christian faith. Is this the truth or is this merely Hallie’s understanding of the truth? Did Trocme understand the gospel or was he merely a “good man?” Were his actions an expression of the Spirit’s work in his life? It is difficult to know and this book offers few definitive answers.
What we do know is that Trocme was, in many ways, a tortured individual. Sadly, the death of his eldest son, the one whom he expected to carry on his work, left Trocme deeply suspicious of God so that he lived the last thirty years of his life after the war with a terrible skepticism. “[N]ever again would he believe that God protects precious life. Never again could he pray to a Protector-God. From now on, God and Jesus were to him powerless, suffering, limited. God was still the Father, but He was as powerless as Trocme the father was. God could only join us in our grief, not save us from it. He never recovered from the loss of his son and, tragically, never did his wife who, it seems, never did turn to Christ as her Savior. At this time she “turned her back on all religion, and on her husband as pastor, so that their marriage for a while was very painful, and later her criticisms of religion went back to their old severity.”
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed is a book that is at the same time inspiring and tragic. The hero of the story is courageous, but deeply flawed. Motivated by his desire to emulate Christ, he accomplished much and saved hundreds or even thousands of lives, all the while holding up the strict standards of morality he felt Christ required of him. This book is a study of character and a study of morality and ethics within the context of great tribulation. While it is not a Christian book and is not written by a Christian author, it does show what God can do through flawed, imperfect people. Sadly, the author seems to have missed the power of God displayed in it. He concludes by saying, “For me, that awareness [of the preciousness of human life] is my awareness of God. I live with the same sentence in my mind that many of the victims of the concentration camps uttered as they walked to their deaths: Shema Israel, Adonoi Elohenu, Adonoi Echod (Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One). For me, the word Israel refers to all of us anarchic-hearted human beings, and the word God means the object of our undivided attention to the lucid mystery of being alive for others and for ourselves.” Surely Hallie’s hero Andre Trocme would disagree.