Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Matthew 5: 1-10
If you have learned anything about me at all this past year, you realize that I am a person who pays attention to stories, which I try to see through the lense of the gospel. Well, in my first semester in semianry in the course Philosophical Theology, my professor, Leroy Rouner, told this story to the class about one of his seminary professors, who was barely 20 years old, when he landed in France for the Normandy invasion in June, 1944. He and three other young men were scouting around a small French village when through no design or intention of their own, a young German soldier fell into their hands. They didn’t know what to do with him, since keeping him as a prisoner was impossible. They considered letting him go, because well, he was no more than a kid, about 16 or 17 years old. But what if he pulled down the wrath of other Germans upon their comrades, who had just parachuted into German held territory? And so, sadly and reluctantly, they decided they had no recourse but to shoot him. Four young men, who had grown up going to church and who could tell you something about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount made a decision they did not want to make. They picked some blades of grass, and the one who got the shortest blade was assigned the horrific task. They decided to shoot him in the back with no warning, so he would not be afraid, and this 20 year old recruit got the job. He carried it out against his conscience, believing he was acting against what Jesus would have him do, and eventually after the war and college, he found his way into seminary and into the field of ethics, becoming a professor at Union theological Seminary in New York. He had done something he knew to be wrong, but under the circumstances of brutal war, he did not know what else could be done.
Many of you are famiiar with the Sermon on the Mount, which, in Matthew begin with the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they inherit the earth, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, and so on. We know them as the heart of Jesus’ teaching, just as these four young men also knew them. But they also knew (as we do too) that they did not live in a black and white world, where absolute good stands on one side and absolute evil on another. And so they did what they did not want to do, because they did not see any alternative. Choosing life, as the reading in Deuteronomy dictates, is not without its ambiguity.
At Wesleyan University, where my husband teaches, there was a professor of ethics, Philip Hallie, who during World War II, was a young soldier in the infantry. Hallie witnessed and participated in the horror of war, and after the war’s conclusion he found himself haunted by the depth of evil and cruelty that people did and do to one another. He became a student of the Holocaust, cataloguing horror after horror, and contemplating the darkness that lies within the human heart and psyche. He said that after decades of studying evil, he was descending into a pit of depression and hopelessness ---until one day, reading some Holocaust literature in his office, he suddenly noticed that he could no longer read, because his eyes were blinded by tears. He stopped, wiped his eyes, and saw that the pages before him were drenched and the paper crinkled.
Why am I crying? he asked himself. And then he read the page again, the story of a French Huguenot village, Le Chambon, whose 3000 citizens, took Jesus’ commands seriously and literally. They believed what Jesus said about love---love the neighbor and the enemy. Show mercy to the neighbor and the enemy. Resisting the Nazis and the puppet Vichy government, they hid and helped to escape nearly 6000 Jewish children. Led by their pastor, Andre Trocme, his wife Magda, and his associate pastor, Edward Theis, this village is an admirable example of pure faith. They saved Jews, and they did it without harming or killing any Germans or their French collaborators. They were pacifists, who believed it was unChristian to save lives by destroying others. And it was this story, which made Philip Hallie cry. Hallie had become so immersed in studying evil that he had forgotten how to cry, but when he came across something good, he wept. And so he began a new study, the study of Le Chambon, whose story is told in his book, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.
But there is more to this story than the pure goodness and faith of these French Protestants. How was it then that this little village managed to do what it did right under the nose of the Germans? You see it was known that Le Chambon was hiding Jews, and with the record of Nazi terror, why was this village not utterly destroyed? And the answer has to do with the very thing that Le Chambon would not do---compromise.
In the last week of August, 1944, Hitler’s Third Reich was about finished in France, and trials of Germans and French collaborators were already beginning. On August 23, a German officer, Major Julius Schmahling, who had for the past two years been in command of the German troops in the region, which included the village of Le Chambon, was now facing an inquiry about whether or not he should stand trial as a war criminal. As he walked up the aisle toward the presiding officer of the hearing, who had been one of the leaders of the French Resistance, something strange began to happen. People, including members of the French Resistance, rose to their feet. As the inquiry began, a Resistance leader spoke on Schmahling’s behalf, saying that he had fought his bad war well; he fought with dignity and with justice, and he refused to harm the village of Le Chambon, because though he knew they were hiding Jews, they were not killing or hurting German soldiers.
Schmahling had been an officer in the First World War, and after that war, he became a teacher. He despised the Nazis, though he was finally forced to join the Nazi Party to keep his teaching job. In 1942 he was called up to military service, and given command of the Haute Loire region in France. He was told to go after the French Resistance, and he was also commanded to do something about the village of Le Chambon. While Schmahling did fight the Resistance, he did nothing about Le Chambon.
When the Major died in 1973, his son found a letter in his father’s wallet, a letter written in 1966 by the mayor of the French region, where Schmahling had served. The letter thanked the Major for “rendering the conditions of war as supportable as they could be within the limits of the freedom you were granted. We remember you with affection and gratitude during an epoch when it was not easy to be a good German among good Frenchmen.”
Understand that Schmahling was not a lowly soldier; he was the commander of the region, and it was his job to control the French while Germany went about its business of trying to win the war. He was serving a nation, which was murdering millions and millions of people, and Berlin put him in command, because they thought he would keep the region quiet. And Berlin was right. Schmahling did his job well; there were few attacks on German soldiers under his administration. If evil is about the twisting and systematic abuse of human life, then there is no doubt that the Nazi government Schmahling served was evil, and in serving it, he was part of that evil. But if goodness has something to do with the prevention of cruelty and murder, then there is no doubt that Schmahling did good. It was not the goodness of the people of Le Chambon, who under no circumstances would commit violence against their enemies. It was not the goodness enshrined in the Beatitudes of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Julius Schmahling had no interest in religion or in Jesus, but he did have his ethical standards. He lived in a world he did not make, but choose to accept, a world where compromises are made that some can survive, who under different conditions, would be murdered.
Most of us are probably more like Julius Schmahling than we are the people of Le Chambon. So what is the lesson here? Is it that that even in a world of lions and lambs, the world still has need of the purists, like the people of Le Chambon, as well as those, like Major Schmahling and those four young soldiers in Normandy, who were wiling to compromise that some measure of goodness might have a chance of surviving in a world where evil also flourishes. There are lines we draw in the sand, and though we do not always know beforehand where we will draw the line, still a time may come when a decision must be made. And then we decide how and to what degree we are serving Christ and choosing life over death?
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!