Trocmé, Christ and revolution
By Savitri Hensman, Tuesday 13 September 2011 14.02 BST
Jesus “was not concerned with the reform of certain details, but with overturning everything, including the entire economic hierarchy of society”, wrote André Trocmé in Jesus and the nonviolent revolution. It is now half a century since this work appeared, 40 years since the death of the author, born in 1901. But his life and writings continue to inspire and challenge.
Trocmé was no armchair scholar. Nor was he an easily swayed follower of cultural trends. He is best known for his remarkable work as pastor of Le Chambon, a French village, in the early 1940s.
Jewish people in France – including those who had escaped from other parts of Europe – found themselves in mortal danger when the Vichy regime agreed to collaborate with Nazi Germany. “The duty of Christians is to use the weapons of the Spirit to oppose the violence that they will try to put on our consciences,” he and his fellow-pastor Edouard Theis urged their Protestant congregation. “Loving, forgiving, and doing good to our adversaries is our duty. Yet we must do this without giving up, and without being cowardly. We shall resist whenever our adversaries demand of us obedience contrary to the orders of the gospel.”
Under the leadership of Trocmé and his wife Magda, the villagers saved the lives of thousands of refugees, hiding them and smuggling some to safety across the Swiss border. He was arrested and held for some weeks, after which he went into hiding, and his cousin Daniel died in a concentration camp. But the villagers continued to shelter those in danger, despite the risk to themselves.
After the war, Trocmé was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance by the French government. He served as European secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and spent time in Algeria and Morocco before writing Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution.
Based on a careful reading of the Gospels in their socio-cultural context, he argued that the concept of jubilee, based on the “year of the Lord’s favour” when debts would be cancelled, slaves liberated and land returned to its original owners, was at the heart of Jesus’s life and teaching. This ancient law – though not always observed – was aimed at preventing accumulation of wealth and power in a few hands.
Jesus, he believed, came to proclaim God’s kingdom of love and justice, to transform “institutions as well as hearts”. Barriers of religion, race and gender were overcome.
The early church, as described in Acts, did practice a radical ethic of sharing, although, according to Trocmé, after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity this was largely abandoned. “Over the centuries the jubilee light dimmed but did not go out.”
It was time, he argued, for the church to rediscover its calling. “When the church turns its back on the way of Jesus, its ethical teaching is lost in the intricacies of mediocre casuistry and its members fall into pharisaic moralism.” But he added: “The church that announces God’s jubilee, and puts it into practice as the Spirit blows, will show practical solutions to the problems of exploitation, oppression, inequality, and a whole host of other human evils. When this happens, the church will once again find its place in the world.”
In contrast to many with radical views, however, Trocmé urged nonviolence, drawing attention to Gandhi’s example: people could never be treated as merely a means to an end. “Jesus proclaimed a unique revolution. Unlike his contemporaries he refused to resist evil on its own terms.” Christ-like nonviolence “is rooted in love, and is therefore above all a witness to God”. Nor could abstract principles or institutional interests be put above concern for individuals, including the poor and marginalised.
Trocmé died in Geneva in 1971. Since then there has been rapid technological progress, deep inequality persists between and within countries and violence claims thousands of lives each day. Trocmé’s example and writings continue to be challenging and thought-provoking for church and society.
Photograph of pastor Trocmé and his family: http://georgeprice.net/2011/03/02/knowing-what-to-do-3/ or http://bit.ly/qloyp3 or http://tinyurl.com/6a5nzhs