By Ephraim Radner
For some time, I have been fascinated by the life of André Trocmé. Trocmé was pastor of the Reformed church in the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during World War II. His story, and that of his wife, Magda, and congregation, have become relatively well-known in the past few decades, and has now been retold several times in books and movies. The church and villagers hid and thereby saved perhaps thousands of Jews during this dark time, and they did so at enormous risk. A few, like Trocmé’s cousin, died.
Both the Trocmés, along with the entire village, are now recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” My wife, Annette, is involved in studying Trocmé’s pastoral life — something mostly neglected by biographers more interested in a certain politics of heroism — and I have had the privilege of looking in on his letters, sermons, Bible studies, and other daily material she has collected and begun to analyze. I continue to learn and be amazed.
Trocmé was an eager, earnest, and serious young Christian pastor. He reminds me of many of my students, perhaps of myself in another time. Everything was about faithfulness for him, being true to his pastoral vocation and the people he served, figuring out what God wanted, and engaging the Scriptures with a deep and fervent commitment and moral intellect. In his early years as a pastor, he was part of a group of mostly younger ministers who had known each other in seminary or later. They shared similar energies and hopes, met together, prayed, kept in touch. This was as deeply important in the 1920s as it is today. But, like many such groups of committed young Christians, for whom everything hung in the balance of God, it was easy for tensions and then cracks to appear in their midst.
Relationships eventually frayed over a number of issues: revival — which Trocmé eagerly embraced — but then Pentecostal revival especially, which split the group, with several members leaving the Reformed church altogether. There were also political challenges. It was a time of deep economic confusion, ideological ferment, and conflict, as socialist, communist, and “bourgeois” outlooks vied for the moral support of those who understood the deep needs of the poor and struggling working classes.
Young pastors like Trocmé and his friends were pressed to discern, make decisions, take sides, in ways that often split their parishes in two, and pitted colleagues against one another. Theological debates raged, as well, with emerging “Barthian” parties lining up against the older, almost Anabaptist sensibilities of long-persecuted French Protestant identities. Finally, there were the still-entrenched resentments and often open hostilities of Catholic-Protestant oppositions, that infected Christian life in villages and entire regions with continuous bitterness.
All this marked the early years of Trocmé’s ministry, as he served small working-class churches, tried to keep abreast of events, attended conferences, stayed in touch with friends. He watched as his tightly knit group of colleagues unravelled, and as close pastoral companions dispersed into different Christian communities and denominations in the midst of what appears now in retrospect to have been a slowly boiling religious environment. Yet he carried on. He did this, even, in the face of a growing attack from within his church on one of the Christian convictions to which he was most committed: conscientious objection.
In the 1920s, in the wake of the Great War’s horrendous destruction of an entire generation of youth, young people in Europe had become galvanized in seeking to establish societies committed from the ground up to “peace.” Secular, Catholic, and Protestant youth groups gathered in conferences or marches committed to a politics of peace, attracting tens of thousands of participants. Trocmé had become deeply involved in this movement, which, for him, engaged the deepest truths of the Gospel. Nonviolence, in the social and ecclesial sphere, was a matter of the truth of God in Christ Jesus.
This particular understanding of his faith proved to be one of the most unsettling, and finally divisive elements in the Protestant churches of France in the 1920s and beyond, often catching up into its debate the other conflicted discussions about Pentecostalism, Barthianism, politics, and ecumenism. It was, finally, because of Trocmé’s formal commitments to Christian non-violence — and hence to the demand for conscientious objection to military service — that his career was quickly directed to the margins of his church, which formally rejected some of the fundamental theological claims of the gospel as Trocmé understood it. The only churches where Trocmé could find work were those that no pastor would consider. So there he labored, with his fervent and earnest faith, teaching, visiting, running Bible studies, preaching, going to town meetings and suppers, and struggling to be understood by his congregations. There is something familiar in all this to me, as I look at how our Anglican churches (and others) have long been functioning.
In 1935, a moment of crisis came, when all the elements of the previous years’ difficult efforts and slow corporate disintegrations reached visible clarity. In an attempt to unite several Protestant churches, and in the face of what everyone knew to be a looming political challenge in Germany, Trocmé’s church body, the Reformed Church, met in conference and officially demanded that pastors perform military service — thereby repudiating Trocmé’s fundamental evangelical commitment. The French government was already bringing to trial conscientious objectors, and now the church formally articulated a theological position that was in line with the larger political culture’s.
Conscientious objectors, including several pastors and friends of Trocmé’s, were arrested and imprisoned, and their church now formally, if not personally, accepted their incarceration. One can follow Trocmé’s anguish, anger, and deep concern in his letters to friends, many out of the country, including Episcopal priests in the United States, whom he knew from earlier days and his work in the peace movement. He was now not only a pariah in his church, but one whose existence was actually at risk.
Trocmé might well have left his church, or moved to America or elsewhere. Yet, as the ’30s came to an end, he moved with his family to the village of Le Chambon, far away from the center of ecclesial debate and political struggle, in an area long associated with Huguenot refuge. There he continued his passionate but ever-so-ordinary pastoral life, his steady and often plodding biblical sermons carefully outlining his deepest understandings of the gospel and the call to penitent nonviolence, yet doing so in the course of normal congregational life.
When the Great Call came, as it were — moral decision in the face of state-sponsored murder — Trocmé and the people of Le Chambon were somehow ready. Trocmé finally went to prison — twice. But it was not at the hands of his old government and for the crime of conscientious objection. Rather, he was taken away by Vichy collaborators and Nazis, and on suspicion of hiding Jews. But, as he saw it — and, I think, rightly — the two were always linked, even if that was not evident before the fact.
Trocmé fascinates me because I see aspects of our time and church in his witness. Debate and anxiety is now bubbling up, especially among more traditional Episcopalians, in the face of this summer’s General Convention, as it proposes to alter the definition of marriage and perhaps even change of the Book of Common Prayer to reflect this new understanding. Older priests — and I am still a priest of the Episcopal Church — wonder where this will leave us. Younger priests wonder what will become of the church they have committed themselves by oath to serve. And those who have felt the call to ordination now wonder if there is a viable future for them in a church that may not only reject their understanding of deep Christian truth, but will in any case lurch further onto a path of conflict and promised decline.
For me, the issue of marriage is not adiaphora; it is bound to the central claims of the Christian gospel. This is not the place to rehearse the arguments. But the simple axis of Genesis 1-2, Mark 10, and Ephesians 5, which speak to the creation of man and woman, their union, and the nature of the body of Christ, seems to form a scriptural scaffolding of divine purpose and destiny that any redefinition of marriage must intrinsically deny. Trocmé liked to speak of “absolutes” — and in the case of nonviolence, he considered this to be an “absolute.” I do not like the term, for various reasons. But if I were to use it, I would certainly apply it to the reality of marriage between a man and a woman: this is an “ontological absolute.”
The question for me, then, is how we shall properly witness to this absolute in the face of our church’s rejection of its meaning. This is where Trocmé’s example is such a challenge to me. When one of his deepest theological convictions was not only challenged but rejected by his church, and as he watched his friends led away to prison with questionable support from their ecclesial authorities, he chose to carry on his pastoral work where he was.
Trocmé did so for at least three reasons. First, he believed all were guilty in the face of the truth’s rejection. As a conscientious objector, Trocmé was clear that he was no better than those who rejected his position: knowing the truth is only a part of the truth; one must also live it fully, and no one but Jesus can ever do this. Thus, even those who think they are right have no business thinking that, more broadly, they are more right than anyone else.
One of the two books Trocmé published was The Politics of Repentance, which lays out his understanding of the vocation of the Church, which is both a body that repents and that calls the nations to repent. That vocation demands that all the Church’s members never run away from the sins of others, in which they inevitably share somehow.
The second reason Trocmé carried on is related to this ever-present call to repentance: any witness to the truth must always be here, where a person is placed. There is no truth to be witnessed to somewhere else, since always just here is where the gospel must issue its call, must be humbly and penitently responded to, and do its work.
Third, such a witness bears its fruit somehow, and in a way that is not in our hands, and thus is not strategic. To witness on such a basis is a matter of faith, to be sure; although I think that Le Chambon may be a small confirmation of such a hope. Finally, all these reasons are tied to an understanding of who Jesus Christ is, and how he lived and lives. Trocmé’s reasons are not attitudes or theories or tactics. Jesus comes to Israel, carries on to the end, and thereby redeems the world as a whole. This is who God is. We can only seek to follow.
Every time is politically confused. Every culture is morally opaque. In this regard, the French cultural politics of the 1920s and 1930s are analogous to North America’s in 2018. The ontological absolute of human marriage is being questioned and debated, grasped after and cherished, but increasingly disdained and thrown away, in the midst of the same kind of confusions and opacity in which André Trocmé and his colleagues sought to be faithful. The Church — and in one or another way, every church — follows in step with these confusions.
Trocmé’s particular choices made in this context were hardly the only ones a Christian might make, and by his account, were not the only clearly faithful ones. But they were compelling, and one can judge them by their fruits. In our day, the absolute truths of creaturely life — that include marriage, generation, gender, the acceptance of mortal suffering (vs. suicide), and thus faith in the God who creates us — are so important, and so sorrowfully contested in our midst, that they call for our witness: just in this church, just with these people, just here. God wills witness here.
I am not certain what this might mean, which is why discussion and debate about this is desperately called for now. But with or without discussion, witness is always driven by a promise, carried by the Holy Spirit. It is not based on a map traced by the ecclesiologists.
I pray for myself, as well as for others, that we can yet be faithful.