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Community, Rootedness, and Deliverance from Evil

As a Christian, I habitually pray not to be led into temptation and to be delivered from evil. These are times in which those prayers become especially urgent. As war, on whatever front, becomes more likely, we are surrounded with temptations and we desperately need the wisdom to discern good and evil. Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain emphasizes that the problem with thinking about the ethics of war is that the very rhetoric of war invites us “to hate without limit” and feel like “good citizens for doing so” (“Reflection on War and Political Discourse” in Moral Issues: Philosophical and Religious Perspectives, 339).

To think clearly in our present situation we need to be asking self-referential questions: If we start a war, will that be wickedness or merely tragic evil? If we become citizens of a country engaged in war, how will we conduct ourselves so that warfare does not corrode our moral discernment? But instead of asking self-referential moral questions, we more often distract ourselves with predictable labels for our enemies: “axis of . . . evil”; “homicidal tyrant.” A recent Newsweek cover shouted “Dr. Evil” above a picture of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il. Evil, our rhetoric of war tells us, is “out there” and we, by contrast, are good and just. We have been deeply wounded by the events of September 11 and are, for the first time in many years, vividly feeling our own vulnerability. Such circumstances make moral clarity hard to come by and may make it impossible for many Americans who call themselves Christians to follow Christ’s command to pray for our enemies and do good to those who would injure us.

The twentieth-century political philosopher Hannah Arendt is famous for coining the expression “the banality of evil.” Evil, she came to think, is thoughtlessness–a chilling ability to substitute clichés for moral principles and to run one’s life on automatic pilot. She concluded that evil is banal after she sat through the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi officer who could use Immanuel Kant’s chief moral principle, the categorical imperative, to delude himself into thinking that he was morally obliged to participate in Hitler’s final solution. Because having a vivid sense of what one is doing in times of international crisis is so extraordinarily painful, thoughtlessness is a strong temptation embedded in our current circumstances. Eichmann knew that Kant thought we should respect the law; and he thought only hard enough to convince himself that he was law-abiding. We will be equally banal and at risk of perpetrating evil if we think only long enough to convince ourselves of the position that we are already predisposed to adopt. We need to avoid thoughtlessness, sloganeering, and self-righteous moral quietism. We need to think hard before we act, but then we do need to act, and to connect our actions with our thinking.

Rootlessness and Susceptibility to Evil

Jesus taught his followers to pray as a community: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” To become people who are resistant to temptation and evil, we need the resources of a community of the right sort. To avoid banality and to cultivate resistance to evil, I recommend that first we step back from our particular present and learn from the relevantly similar past history of two communities–one community that was unable to resist evil and one community that not only resisted evil but delivered others from evil. These two communities overlapped in space and time.

The story of the first community is told by Simone Weil. Weil, an early twentieth-century French philosopher, was in the process of writing a book, The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind, when she died in 1943. Weil wrote the book as a diagnosis of why France had collapsed so quickly under the German onslaught in 1940 and why so many of the French were subsequently willing to cooperate with German occupying forces. Conventional wisdom explains the defeat of France as a result of outmoded fortifications–once the Maginot Line was circumvented, it took only five weeks for the Germans to bring France to the point of surrender. But Weil looked deeper and further back for the cause of France’s defeat. France collapsed, she thought, because of pervasive rootlessness. She maintained that the conditions that led to uprootedness had been corroding culture in France since the French Revolution.

Weil believed that there are things that souls need as much as the body needs food–spiritual necessities as distinct from spiritual luxuries. Societies and governments, she thought, can be evaluated on the basis of how they help or hinder people getting whatever their souls need. Souls that lack truth, order, and responsibility will become spiritually starved. But the fundamental need of the soul is the need for roots. “A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future” (41). Weil’s concern was to make sure that cultures are nourishing. Cultures are only nourishing to the extent that they point beyond themselves, acknowledging their own contingencies and their dependence on an ultimate good that transcends the world.

If roots are necessary for human flourishing, uprootedness is very dangerous, in no small part because it is contagious. “For people who are really uprooted there remain only two possible sorts of behavior: either to fall into spiritual lethargy resembling death . . . or to hurl themselves into some form of activity necessarily designed to uproot . . . those who are not yet uprooted” (45). Those who are uprooted, uproot others. Various forces of modern life lead to uprootedness: (1) Destruction and neglect of the past; (2) work that is structured so that workers see no point or meaning in their work; (3) education which fails to make all people comfortable in the world of thought; (4) a focus on wages rather than joy and pride in one’s work; (5) seeking false greatness through conquest; (6) nationalism based on idolatrous patriotism; and (7) the trivialization of religion.

Given the state of early twentieth-century French culture, Weil maintains that the precipitous defeat of France was predictable. Like a tree with an inadequate root-ball, France toppled in the strong wind of German aggression. And, she says, “You cannot say that Hitler’s victory over France in 1940 was the victory of a lie over a truth. An incoherent lie was vanquished by a coherent lie” (231). The implication of this observation is that France was in dire spiritual peril, regardless of the military outcome. Many of the observations Weil makes about early twentieth-century France are equally relevant to the United States in the twenty-first century. Given these similarities, her diagnosis should give us pause.

Rootedness and Resistance to Evil

Toward the end of The Need for Roots, Simone Weil asserts, “History is a tissue of base and cruel acts in the midst of which a few drops of purity sparkle at long intervals. If such is the case, it is first of all because there is very little purity amongst men; and secondly because the greater part of what little there is remains hidden. One must try and seek out if possible indirect testimony of its existence” (222).

The story of the French village of Le Chambon during the Nazi occupation was one of those hidden drops of purity. Four decades later Philip Hallie, an American Jewish philosopher who had been investigating sources of human cruelty, would find himself moved to tears by a simple newspaper account of an incident in Le Chambon. Hallie would set himself the task of finding out how goodness happened in that small, isolated village. His book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, transmits the greatness of Le Chambon, turning it from a hidden drop of purity into a story that can ch
allenge and ennoble us all.

Hallie’s book testifies that goodness happened in Le Chambon because Christian love happened. I take the very existence of his book to be a surety of that fact. Hallie, an academic who had specialized in the skeptical philosophy of Montaigne, had no predisposition toward, and no vested interest in, recognizing and commemorating Christian community in action. Yet when he investigated the story of the resistance movement in Le Chambon, he found that it was centered in a network of Bible study leaders headed by a Protestant pastor, André Trocmé. By 1993 when Hallie was writing the preface to the second edition of this book, he said:

I have come to believe that if a miracle is a marvelous event involving spiritual power at its vital center, the efficacy and the survival of the village were miraculous. Whether God used Trocmé and his fellow villagers as instruments, and whether God protected the village from destruction, I leave up to the theologians. But a belief in God certainly motivated Trocmé and the villagers, and the love the villagers displayed was indeed effective. For me and for others it was beautiful and beyond all quotidian understanding, like the rainbow after the Flood (xxi).

Hallie started his investigation of Le Chambon after reading of an incident during the German occupation of this French village when Vichy French police demanded the surrender of all the Jews sheltered in the village. The authorities knew full well that the villagers had for some time systematically concealed Jewish refugees. Failure to cooperate, it was said, would mean arrest. Yet the village, led by its French Reformed pastor, refused to cooperate. Hallie set out to understand what made these people act this way, and he concluded that they were motivated by their pastor’s conviction that staying close to Jesus meant loving as Jesus loved.

Theologian Karl Barth tells us, “[T]he Christian community can and must be the scene of many human activities which are new and supremely astonishing to many of its own members as well as to the world around because they rest on an endowment with extraordinary capacities” (Church Dogmatics, VI/2, p. 828). The activities of Le Chambon astonished film-maker Pierre Sauvage, as well as Hallie. Sauvage made the documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit, as a testimony to the village that had sheltered him as a Jewish child fleeing the Holocaust. The citizens of Le Chambon, however, did not set out to astonish; they set out to follow Jesus and to help those in need of their help.

No refugee who came to a door in Le Chambon would be turned away. A network of farm houses was set up in which refugees would be sheltered, with instructions to flee into the woods if patrols showed up looking for Jews. “In the course of the first two years of the Occupation, Le Chambon became the safest place for Jews in Europe” (p. 129). As its reputation for welcome spread and the situation in Europe became increasingly dangerous, more and more people sent their children to Le Chambon to be cared for. Over the course of four years, five thousand villagers helped save the lives of five thousand refugees. But they did it in a way that did not attract notice until years later. Theirs was a quiet, enduring goodness.

The quiet goodness of André Trocmé and his wife, Magda, reached beyond non-violent resistance to active love of their enemies. When the police came in 1943 to arrest Trocmé for his role in sheltering Jews, his family invited the two policemen to sit down and have supper with them. Magda Trocmé was asked later, “How could you bring yourself to sit down to eat with these men who were there to take your husband away, perhaps to his death?” She responded by saying, “It was dinner time; we were all hungry. The food was ready.” What Madame Trocmé took for granted, moved one of the policemen to tears. As he took Trocmé away he said, “I’ll tell this story later. Yes, I’ll keep it alive” (20-23). Hallie’s book has helped to fulfill this policeman’s commitment.

The people of Le Chambon lived out an answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Their neighbor was anyone in need of help. Their neighbors were Jews who came seeking shelter. Their neighbors were also Vichy police who came to make an arrest at dinnertime. They loved the stranger within their gates; they loved their enemies and those who spitefully used them. André Trocmé read the biblical refrain to “love one another” through the lens of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This parable is, after all, the “answer” that Jesus gives to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable of the Good Samaritan led Trocmé to believe that “there are no important divisions between human beings such as ‘Jew’ and ‘non-Jew.’ The main distinction among people is between those who believe that those in need are as precious as they themselves are, and those who do not believe this” (194).

Over the door of the Reformed Temple of Le Chambon was carved the inscription “Love One Another.” From the beginning of his pastorate there, Trocmé tutored his parishioners in looking for ways to apply this by reaching out to others. For Trocmé, the essence of Christian witness had its foremost application in how outsiders were treated; the love of the parishioners for one another was rooted in their joint adventure of aiding those outside their circle that needed their help. The courage and seriousness of those in Le Chambon who risked their lives to save Jews was to be expected of Christians who, tutored by Jesus’ story of the Samaritan, thought first of those lying by the side of the road, hardly remembering to notice anything but a particular person in need.

Becoming Communities of Deliverance

Le Chambon reminds us that Christian communities must resist the temptation to become enclaves, to let their boundaries become more resistant than welcoming. In times when Christianity has cultural hegemony and “Christian” is culturally identified with a particular race or class or ethnicity, Christians are easily lulled into indifference to the plight of those on the margins. Times of international crisis where national and religious identities coincide or intermingle may lead to outright hostility, and that hostility may even masquerade as zeal for the Lord. In such situations, we should habituate ourselves to Trocmé’s kind of blindness, the blindness that responds to a demand to hand over Jews (or, perhaps in our situation, Muslims) with the retort, “We know of no Jew; we know only human beings.”

Not everyone recognized at the time that those who sheltered Jews were acting appropriately. Le Chambon’s own mayor chided the rescuers for endangering the existence of the whole village for the sake of strangers. Moreover, a high official in the Reformed Church of France sought to discipline Trocmé because his teachings were endangering the existence of the Protestant Church in France. There were many among the French who “perhaps thought of themselves as meek and humble Christians, but who were actually cowards who failed to dare, as Christ dared, to live according to their consciences” (90). Philip Hallie compares these people to those depicted by Dante in the third canto of the Inferno: “The dismal company . . . who against God rebelled not, nor to Him were faithful, but to self alone were true.”

This brings us back to the distinction between communities that display the ability to resist evil and those that do not. Hannah Arendt would call the latter group banal; Simone Weil would call them rootless; Philip Hallie sees them as those whose selective inattention envelops them in a benighting moral fog. The crucial question for us is how we can participate in a community or communities that resist evil rather than languishing among those that are banal, rootless followers of the least costly banner that comes along at any given time.

Simone Weil’s reflections on t
he growing of roots may help us here. She contended that the quality and focus of one’s attention is vital to growing roots; therefore, we need to reclaim a spirituality of work that can link the temporal beauty of what we produce with transcendent beauty. Rooted communities are those in which people see what they are doing as something that needs to be done with excellence, because all work, if done “unto the Lord,” is sacred. How much of what we do in a given day reflects such a spirituality of work? Are we functioning within communities that will not let us slide into shoddiness, where members call one another to account?

Weil thought that a huge part of France’s rootlessness stemmed from a false sense of greatness. For centuries, France had put its confidence in wealth, in military might, in the ability to control large parts of the globe. Generations of French children had been taught to admire a false greatness that comes from power and conquest. Consequently, Weil thought that rootedness required the sort of compassion that keeps one’s eyes open to both the good and the bad. If loyalty to our communities makes us lapse into romantic fantasy about them, rather than helping them become self-critical yet confidently dependent on God’s grace, then we do our communities no favor. Le Chambon’s past gave it a resource for resisting a false sense of French greatness. Because their Protestant (Huguenot) ancestors had been persecuted for not practicing the official Catholic religion of the State, they were used to thinking critically about the official stances of their country.

Several of Weil’s prescriptions for growing roots seem culled from the lessons of Le Chambon, though she had no specific knowledge of that community. She urged communities to generate genuine recognition of responsibility. When Trocmé arrived in Le Chambon in 1934 he described it as a community moving toward death, because its energies were focused inward, on its own economic survival and concerns. Its stoic resignation had ossified into a lack of expectancy and hope. He searched for a project that would give the community a new, outward focus, and came up with the idea of an international preparatory school that would bring young people from outside of Le Chambon for education. This school started very small, but grew into a base of operations for the later resistance movement. Meanwhile, it gave Le Chambon new life because it connected its day-to-day concerns with the future of the larger world.

But at the deepest level, what lay at the heart of their resistance to evil was faithfulness. In order to grow roots, Weil called for an education that leads to recognition of truths eternally etched in the nature of things. André Trocmé’s sermons provided his parishioners with such an education. He did not give them formulas or particular dictates for action. Instead he organized them into a network of Bible studies that interrogated the scriptures for the call of God in their present circumstances. Trocmé believed that “if you choose to resist evil, and you choose this firmly, then ways of carrying out that resistance will open up around you” (92).

The way that opened before them was also timely. Trocmé “had learned that a choice must be made in time–not ‘in due time,’ not languorously, but in time, now, when the hot chain of events had not yet hardened,” and he led his followers to take small steps of resistance early, to be at attention for opportunity. One such opportunity was the seemingly small step of refusal to participate in the mandated noon-hour salute of the Vichy flag; another was a refusal to ring their church bells in celebration of a regime that they could not in good conscience honor. These small steps taught them to preserve their integrity, which in turn allowed them to resist the gathering moral fog swirling around them.

Trocmé’s sermons in the last years of the 1930’s urged people to “work and look hard for ways, for opportunities to make little moves against destructiveness” (85). Hallie asserts that their attentiveness to opportunities for resisting evil preserved in them a “mixture of lucid knowledge, awareness of the pain of others, and stubborn decision that dissipated for the Chambonnais the Night and the Fog that inhabited the minds of so many people in Europe, and the world at large, in 1942” (104). Weil saw the function of culture as providing a medium for the formation of attention. The right sort of attention allows for Christian hope, which can lead to Christian fortitude.

The stubborn Huguenot culture of Le Chambon provided them with roots that led to resistance to evil. Where are our roots? Where and with what are our souls being nourished? When I asked students recently in a seminar on Philosophies of Human Community where they found community within their lives, a frightening number of them had no answer to this question. The prevailing culture around us is such that people can make considerable money providing simulacra of community. “The Sims Online” allows you to inhabit a virtual community in which acquiring more and more stuff confers status and leads to “success.” There are few resources in the prevailing culture for avoiding banality, rootlessness and moral fog.

Each of us needs to find an alternative rooted community, one that is not a quietistic enclave withdrawing from the world but one that is radically attentive to the needs of the world. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a contemporary of Weil and Trocmé, said, “He who bears in his heart a cathedral to be built is already victorious. He who seeks to become a sexton of a finished cathedral is already defeated” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Flight to Arras, tr. by Lewis Galantier, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942, p. 129). Are we building communities that aspires to be, through faithful action, a house of praise? Or are we coasting, going with the flow, waiting to see what happens?

Christian love is a call for action that leads us into the complexities of our time and situation. Though we long for purity of heart, we know from our past that as we are led into the complexities of our future we will often be confused and fumbling and wrongheaded in our attempts at loving. The Christian community’s future will be like the Christian community’s past, bearing out Augustine’s observations in the City of God:

Our righteousness, too, though true in so far as it has respect to the true good, is yet in this life of such a kind that it consists rather in the remission of sins than in the perfecting of virtues. Witness the prayer of the whole city of God in its pilgrim state, for it cries to God by the mouth of all its members, ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.’ (The City of God, 708).

Repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation are central to Christian theology because they are primary tools in the repair kit that is essential to the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer displays how few are the things we need: a sense of God’s glory, presence, and care; enough food to keep body and soul together; forgiveness, and protection from an intractable pattern of repeated blunderings. With the faith and hope that God will heed our prayer, we can face our future knowing that love will abide, with its frailty and fumbling purified and redeemed by God’s grace.

Caroline J. Simon is professor of philosophy at Hoe College in Holland, Michigan. The essay was first delivered as an Erasmus Lecture at Westmont College on January 13, 2003.