Resisting the Darkness

By Matt Gunter

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

On an August morning in 1942, three buses rumbled up the road to the French mountain village of La Chambon. The buses were accompanied by police cars, police of the Vichy government, which in league with the Nazis had sent them to gather up Jews and take them back to concentration camps. The officials knew that the village of La Chambon was a major hiding place and way station for Jews seeking to escape the Holocaust. When they arrived, the police captain confronted Pastor Andre Trocme, the spiritual leader of the village.

The policeman went to Pastor Trocme and asked, “Are you hiding Jews in this village?”

Pastor Trocme, committed to truth-telling, responded, “Yes.”

The policeman ordered, “Give us their names.”

Pastor Trocme replied, “To be honest, I don’t know their names.”

“Show me where they are,” the policeman insisted.

Pastor Trocme said, “No, I won’t do that. They are my brothers and I am commanded by my Lord to love my neighbor.”

The police then searched the village. They were unable to find any Jews or anyone who would identify a Jew. They left in frustration, warning Pastor Trocme and the villagers that they would be watching and that they would be back.

Pastor Trocme and the folk of La Chambon continued to offer refuge to Jews and helped thousands escape the terror of the Holocaust.

The story of Pastor Trocme and the village La Chambon is inspiring. You can read about it in the book Lest Innocent Blood be Shed by Philip Hallie. It’s an inspiring story because, in the midst of a world gone mad, in the midst of the darkness of the Nazi terror that engulfed Europe, this village chose to be light in the darkness and to walk in the way of peace and life. When others played it safe, these people risked much to save human lives — lives that many of their countrymen did not consider worth the risk. But they did it for the sake of love. They did it for the sake of Jesus.

They knew what they were risking. To be caught harboring Jews, or helping them to escape, not only put their own lives at risk but the lives of their whole family. Even children of rescuers were sent to concentration camps. If you wanted to be the friend of Jews, you could share their fate. It was all the same to the Nazis. The villagers of La Chambon believed it was a risk worth taking. The risk was real. Some members of the community died for their efforts.

La Chambon offers a model of what the Church is supposed to be — a resistance movement. We believe that with the coming of Jesus the dawn from on high has broken upon us, and shines on us who have dwelt in darkness and the shadow of death.  Following that light, we can be free of fear, knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. And we can dare to follow that light as it guides us into the way of peace.

And that means resisting the darkness. We have been confronted in new ways with that darkness in recent weeks by those captivated by the death-cult that is the so-called Islamic State. And captivated is the right word. Those who belong to ISIS or are inspired by them are captives of a dark story. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Islam is necessarily a dark story. Certainly, not all Muslims subscribe to this dark version of Islam. But, ISIS and groups like them are fully committed to a very dark story that inspires death. Representatives of ISIS have said they love death more than we love life. They have demonstrated that. They have also demonstrated that they believe their version of reality — their story — enough to sacrifice their lives for it.

The best way to oppose the dark story of the people like ISIS is to affirm and live a different story. And we have a different story. “Gospel, after all, means “the Good Story.”

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah sang this hymn at a time when his world seemed pretty dark. The Romans occupied Israel. For all their sophistication, the Romans practiced their own version of a death cult and could be just as ruthless, cruel, and violent as the Nazis or ISIS. It was in the shadow of Roman occupation that Zechariah proclaimed the dawn from on high was breaking. With the birth of his son, John, who would be the forerunner of Jesus, the Messiah, a new story was beginning. It is a story of forgiveness of sins and deliverance from death. It is a story that, as St. Paul wrote, opposes the spirit of death with the spirit of life and peace (Romans 8:6). We are in the season when we celebrate the advent of that Good Story.

But, I think that prompts some questions. Do we believe our story as firmly as they do theirs? ISIS says that they love death more than we love life. They have also demonstrated that they believe their story fully enough to die and kill in order to play a role in that story. Do we believe our story as fully?

Are we prepared to risk our lives for its sake as they are for the sake of their story like the villagers of La Chambon did for the Jews? Are we prepared to look hard at the ways the darkness infects our own imagination making our hearts fearful and stingy, suspicious of others and prone to violence? If not, will we not be choosing to live our own version of the dark story that has captured our enemies and those who wish us harm?

Let us affirm and live a different story. Let us be a people of the resistance, like the villagers of La Chambon. Let us live as though we really believe the dawn from on high has broken upon us, freeing us from the darkness and the shadow of death. Freed from fear, let us follow the light guiding our feet in the way of peace.

The Rt. Rev. Matt Gunter is Bishop of Fond du Lac.

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