In Search of Morality

In his book, Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, Philip Hallie tells the story of Andre Trocme, Protestant Pastor and Huguenot descendant.

Trocme had lost his mother at an early age. He was very serious and contemplative and it was this contemplative view of the world that eventually led him to become a minister.

As a young man to satisfy his requirement to service of some kind he volunteered for mapping a dangerous region. He refused to carry arms. His officer pulled him aside and told him that now there were twenty-five isolated men in an area where robbers and dissidents might attack them at any moment. By giving up his weapon and ammunition he had put the whole group in danger. If the other soldiers had done this, they might all be massacred, but even with one unarmed soldier, their power to protect themselves was considerable weakened. The lieutenant told Trocme that his refusal to bear arms had come too late. He had already embarked on a military campaign; he was already committed. He should have refused at the very beginning, when he could have avoided making the march into the desert. With his whole mind and his body he should have made his choice sooner, in time.

This conversation in the desert was a turning point in Trocme’s thinking. It taught him that the ethical commandment against killing had to be obeyed as early as possible if it was to be obeyed effectively. It taught him that nonviolence could, in fact, increase violence if it was not chosen in the right way at the right time.

He was very concerned about the why of behavior. What is the motivation? He felt strongly that it was important to make a positive contribution to the world around you – to help others. He felt that help must never be given for the sake of propaganda or recognition. Help must be given only for the benefit of the people being helped, not for the benefit of some church or other organization that was doing the helping. He felt that the life and the integrity of the person helped were more precious than any organization. Trocme would never try to convert the Jewish refugees who came in need to Le Chambon.

He saw what was happening all over Europe in the 1930s and determined to do something about it. He sent a proclamation that he was accepting applications for both students and faculty in the school he was founding which would have locations in both France and Switzerland with free travel back and forth between both locations. There would be no questions asked. His meaning was well understood and he was flooded with applications from all over Europe – Jews who saw a way to flee from the danger becoming more and more evident.

France at the time was led by a hero of World War I – Marshall Petain. In 1940 Petain said: “The government remains free, and France will be administered by Frenchmen only.” How could you say no to a man who had restored the essential France in the very teeth of military defeat after the great War?

Trocme 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. His school was approved by the government but after some time government officials became nervous about how their allies in Germany might view the situation. They came to visit with Trocme and asked him where he was hiding all the Jews. Trocme replied that he was not hiding anyone and that he never bothered to ask about any kind of religious preference. They were welcome to go visit with everyone and he was willing to give them a list of all of his faculty and students in both France and Switzerland. This satisfied them for awhile but then they became more and more nervous.

Trocme was arrested. Before he entered that police station in Limoges, he thought the world was a scene where two forces were struggling for power — Good and Evil. After a week of interrogation he was put on a train to Auschwitz. The government officials then feared a reaction from the community and before the train crossed over into German territory he was kicked off the train. He was told to walk home and mend his ways. After his return he determined that there was a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity. He wrote that he now saw the struggle in the world as being between God, the Devil, and the Halfwits of mind and heart were all struggling with each other to take over the reins of power. He now saw that his main job was to keep the halfwits from getting or gaining any kind of power or influence.

In writing about life in Vichy France Jean Paul Sartre stated:: “We lost all our rights and first of all that of speaking; we were insulted face to face each day, and it was necessary to be still; we were deported en masse, as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners… But in spite of all of that we were told that we were free.”

To commemorate the sequence of events which took place in this little village and the school which allowed so many refuges to find safety through an open gateway out of Europe, Jules-Gerard Saliege, Archbishop of Toulouse wrote the following letter:


“There is a Christian morality and a human ethic which impose duties and recognize rights. Both rights and duties are parts of human nature. They were sent by God. They can be violated. But no mortal sin can suppress them. The treatment of children, women, fathers, and mothers like a base herd of cattle, the separation of members of a family from one another and their deportation to unknown destinations, are sad spectacles which have been reserved for us to witness in our times. Why does the right of asylum of the church no longer exist? Why are we defeated/ Lord, have mercy on us. Our Lady, pray for France. In our own diocese, in the camps of Noe and Recebedou, scenes of horror have taken place. Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. It is just as criminal to use violence against these men and women, these fathers and mothers with families, as it is against anyone else. They too are members of the human race. They are our brothers like so many others. A Christian cannot forget that. France, our beloved country; France, known to all your children for a tradition of respect for human life; chivalrous, generous France, I trust in you and do not believe that you are responsible for these horrors.”

Trocme himself wrote in retrospect: “I had without knowing it joined Sartre and Camus.” Sartre’s idea that each person is to himself a dark useless hole in a full, pointless world, and Camus’s idea that all our joy and all our valor come and go because of absurd circumstances and not because of any rationality or love in the universe, were at the center of Trocme’s grieving and surprised mind. Never before, except perhaps at the age of ten when his mother died, had he fully realized how precious the life of another person is; but never again would he believe that it was up to God alone to protect precious life. God could only join us in our grief, not save us from it. “By upbringing, by the word of God, be clearheaded thinking, by some means or other, each of us learns certain moral rules that help us to control our passions, to keep them in check, the way a well-governed people is kept in order. Ethics is inwardly experienced self-control. When the moral law within you rules your passions, you are good. When your inward government is in chaos, in anarchy, you are bad.”

Within himself was a microcosm of all humanity, contained within the limits of his own skin both the world’s destructive forces and the world’s creative forces. He realized, or, to use Camus’s word, he comprehended that struggle because he reenacted the struggle within his own mind.

The American poet John Peale Bishop once wrote: “The most tragic thing about the war was not that it made so many dead men, but that it destroyed the tragedy of death.” He was saying that in the course of the war, people lost the awareness of the pricelessness of life.

According to positive ethical laws, personal hygiene, clean hands that do no harm and harmless passions and language are not enough; the decent person must have working hands, he must be his brother’s keeper. He must do what he can to prevent others from violating the negative laws of a life-and-death ethic. When Moses tells Israel in Deuteronomy 19 to set apart such places of refuge, he makes it plain that if the Jews do not prevent innocent blood from being shed in these places, “the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.’ For citizens of such places, it is not enough to be harmless; it is necessary also for them to keep others from doing harm to those who come within their gates.

Negativistic morality “thou shalt not” is then not “ethical behavior.” The most heinous are those who have committed the Sins of malicious fraud, or betray and who use language to tempt and betray. The positive morality is to do something to prevent betrayal, hatred, and murder. As Isaiah puts it. “seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless plead for the widow.” “Love thy neighbor as thy self.” DO SOMETHING…

Bernard Shaw said: “The only trouble with Christianity is that it has never yet been tried.”

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