A Conspiracy of Goodness
There is a small village in the center of France with a unique history. In the midst of World War II, the country was partly occupied and partly “free,” meaning the French government, headquartered at Vichy, led by Maréchal Pétain, cooperated with the Germans, who in turn granted a certain measure of liberty to its citizens. Everyone understood, however, that no true freedom existed in either of these zones. The Nazis bore down hard and had no intentions of allowing any sort of independence from the claims of the Third Reich. In this context, and particularly in France, Jews and other “misfits,” such as handicapped people, were regularly denounced by the authorities and sent to concentration camps in Poland. All told, French collaborators turned over some 83,000 Jews, including 10,000 children, for deportation to the death camps. Only 3,000 of them returned.
One place turned out to be a powerful exception to this complicity. In the Haute Loire, on the plateau of the Ardèche, a farming village called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon made history by harboring some 5,000 refugees, most of them Jews, many of them children. A good deal of sacrifice was involved. The village basically doubled its size. Families took in children and their parents, making them feel as though they were fellow “Chambonnais” (citizens of Le Chambon), going to school, working on the farms, sharing meals, and so forth. There was great risk involved. The village became a center for the forgery of documents. It was obvious that Jews had virtually doubled the population of this remote village. The Nazis were not entirely stupid. Occasionally they would raid the village and interrogate the people, asking them about the children. But the Chambonnais stood firm.
The story gets more interesting. Almost all of the Chambonnais were Huguenot Christians. France had persecuted Protestants heavily, especially during the eighteenth century. Those who did not flee, and those who were not put to death for their faith, survived in particular pockets of the country. They kept the memories alive by meeting in worship, hearing the Bible preached by their pastors, and singing the psalms as well as folk songs that recounted their story. They felt a special affinity for the Jews. Le Chambon became the safest place in Europe for refugees from the Nazi horrors.
Most extraordinary of all, the Chambonnais did not feel they were heroes. One of those born in Le Chambon, Pierre Sauvage, moved with his family to America, where he became a filmmaker. Out of curiosity about his origins, he did a documentary on Le Chambon called Weapons of the Spirit. When he returned to his birthplace with a film crew, he interviewed the somewhat reluctant villagers. Over and over he found that they did not think of themselves as courageous champions who had defied the Nazis. Instead, they quietly did what very few others could do, saving thousands of people from their oppressors. Why? How? “It’s simple,” they explained, “love God and love your neighbor; that’s what Christians do.” Never mind that most of the so-called Christians in Europe at best turned a blind eye or at worst participated in betraying the Jews to their tormentors. Pierre Sauvage was shocked to discover that these Huguenots had gone to the greatest trouble, risking their lives, threatening their very livelihoods, simply because that is what Christians need to do when someone is in trouble. No questions asked.
The local Reformed church became a center of reinforcement for this extraordinary non-heroic bravery. On Maréchal Pétain’s birthday, it refused to ring the bell as ordered. Pastor André Trocmé was asked to stop taking in Jews by his denominational headquarters. He flat-out refused, adding danger to himself, his family, and his flock. But historians agree that even without the skills of this clerical leader, the people of the village would have acted the same.
The Germans knew something was going on. They had lists of the citizens, and some of the names were demonstrably Jewish. But a number of their soldiers were tired of their own disturbing tactics. At least one of them, fairly high up, decided to ignore the names on the lists. The comment in the documentary says of him, “You just never know who might get caught up in a conspiracy of goodness.”
A conspiracy of goodness, indeed. Today, “being good” is more likely to invoke condescending nods by cynics who can only imagine the good to be something like the naïve behavior of a goody two-shoes. If a friend tells you you’re a “good boy” or a “good girl,” that usually means you are a nice person, you are not especially devious, and you stay out of trouble, but you are not very clever. How far is such a notion from the grit of the Chambonnais, who faced immeasurable dangers because they were…good.
According to the Scriptures, the Chambonnais are right. Goodness has an active power. When God had finished His mighty acts of creation, He contemplated His finished work and judged that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The wonderful Hebrew word tov (“good”) means not only that it was beautiful, but that it was profoundly valuable, most fitting, full of integrity. This level of goodness has its deepest resource in God Himself. “Let your saints rejoice in your goodness,” Solomon prays at the dedication of the temple (2 Chron. 6:41). After the ark has been brought safely back to Jerusalem and the covenant with David is renewed, David exclaims with profound gratitude, “And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:28). God’s truth is a good thing. The gospel itself is a call to enjoy the very goodness of God (Titus 3:4). It is good news because it comes from a good God, a uniquely good God (Luke 18:19).
Ultimately, a thing is good because God calls it good. But He can call a thing good because He is Himself the source of all goodness. He defines the good. Although we may have a conscience that tells us some basics about what is good, there are times when what God says may be counterintuitive to us. This is true of our suffering. It may not seem appropriate for Christians to be called to suffer. But that is indeed our high calling in Christ (Phil. 1:29).
Even when bad things happen to us, though, everything works together for the good for those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). We should be careful here. Not everything in itself is good. But when God ordains the circumstances of our lives, even the evils in our experience contribute to a good outcome. The French translation of Romans 8:28 uses a musical metaphor: “…all things concert together for the good.” Every part of the orchestra is needed to make a good symphony, including instruments or melodies that would not sound at all good if played solo, isolated from the whole.
Not only does God direct all things so that the ultimate outcome is good, but while we remain on earth we can be doers of the good. The gospel engenders goodness in us, God’s people. Through Christ’s finished work, we may change from being evildoers to doers of good. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Paul tells his Roman readers (Rom. 12:21). We can do this in Christ because He is able to give us power to be good, a power not possible for sinful people in and of themselves (3:12).
Radical, biblical goodness is profoundly connected with both beauty and truth. “In a world without beauty, the good also loses its attractiveness.” This saying from Hans Urs von Balthassar (The Lord of Glory, vol. 1, p. 18) could no doubt be expanded to include the true. Indeed, neither beauty nor goodness is possible without a basis in truth. Of course, many philosophers from Nietzsche on have believed that we can be good without God. But there are two problems with this approach. First, it is not borne out in history. Although there are undoubtedly “good” people who do not confess the name of Christ, the logic of denying God in matters of morality most often leads to great darkness. Nietzsche himself mocked the Christian view of goodness and favored instead the pagan virtue of raw power. He is considered an unwitting predictor of the Nazi muscle that destroyed so many people and so much goodness.
But second, true goodness is not restricted to following rules. Moral behavior, if it is to be good in any biblical sense, must be motivated by the desire to give God glory. Not only following the right rules, but doing it for the sake of God’s honor is the only acceptable supreme good, the summum bonum. This kind of goodness is simply not possible without God. Nor is it possible outside of the power of the gospel. Only when we have been gripped by the grace of the Lord can we seek not our own welfare but the good of our neighbors (1 Cor. 10:24).
If only we saw this more clearly, we could, like the Chambonnais, resist the evils of our time. We could proffer the good on our confused and twisted world. And, like them, we might see many people caught up in a conspiracy of goodness. After all, is not the gospel God’s own conspiracy of goodness?
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