When Jews from Germany, occupied France and various other German occupied countries of Europe fleeing for their life came to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France seeking refuge, Andre Trocme, pastor of the Reformed Church of France (Eglise Reformee de France) congregation and his wife Magda took them in and dispersed them among the congregants of the church who hid them from both the French police and the German SS and Gestapo. Le Chambon became a Sanctuary City for these refugees.
The people who hid these women, men and children on the run from the Nazi police put their lives on line in doing so. I lived and worked among these folk who were veritable heroes, risking their lives by defying both the French collaborator government and the German Nazi occupying forces. Books, articles and movies have been produced to celebrate their action and both a tree was planted and a commemorative plaque in honor of pastor Trocme and his wife Magda, as well as the good people of the little town of Le Chambon, were placed at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust authority into its Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.
During my five years in Le Chambon after the war, I preached and taught in the town’s Protestant church or temple, as it was called. On one of these occasions while having a conversation with some congregants after the church service, Monsieur Chazot, one of the men, came up to me and thanked me for the sermon. I, in turn, thanked him for the admirable actions he and his fellow congregants had done in hiding and saving the 3,500 refugee Jews who found a safe haven in the little town and its environs. Being relatively new in town, I asked Monsieur Chazot what it was that motivated him and his wife and many of the other town people to take the extraordinary risk of giving shelter and providing safety for the Jewish refugees who in desperation had come to find refuge from their persecutors’ antisemitic wrath. Without saying a word, Monsieur Chazot smiled and pointed his finger to the inscription engraved in stone over the church entrance. It read aimez vous les uns les autres or “love one another,” – a quote from the gospel of John 13:34-35.
How did the Chambonais make it from this gospel text to becoming a safe haven for the Jewish refugees? The answer lies in the preaching of their pastor Andre Trocme, both a learned man, a biblical scholar and morally upright person, i.e,. a genuine Christian. Trocme knew about the the Cities of Refuge (Hebrew: arey miklat) cited in the Old Testament and taught that Le Chambon become such a city for the refugees fleeing Hitler and his ilk.
We read in Joshua 20:
“Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elder must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly…..’ “
In the case of Chambon, there is no question of fugitives having killed someone unintentionally and fleeing from the avenger of blood. It is rather the case of totally innocent people fleeing from Nazi police who are pursuing them with the intent of imprisoning and/or killing them for racist reasons. The motivation for providing these women and men a safe haven is, however, the same as in the numerous biblical texts that deal with such Cities of Refuge, namely their presumed innocence.
Against the above background let me now quote from one of our president’s tweets addressed to Californians who, in his opinion, would like to disengage from living in cities who joined the American sanctuary movement: sanctuary cities are “crime infested and breeding concepts [sic]…Sanctuary cities are undermining US laws.” (Trump Tweet, 4-18-2018)
While I and many other readers are at a loss of understanding what the president means by “breeding concepts,” I suggest we do not lose sleep over Mr. Trump’s disability of writing proper English.
I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the callousness of the president of our country as the 700 children come to mind who since October 2017 have been forcibly separated from their parents by I.C.E. I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the transformation that within a relatively short time has taken our country from a land of generosity to a land of narrow and selfish attitude, with an extreme xenophobic outlook, forgetting that our ancestors or we, with the exception of our native nations, have come here as refugees and immigrants.
I thank and congratulate all those who take the idea of sanctuary cities and places seriously and stand up for their inviolability and sanctity, providing safety for innocent women, men and children on the run from persecution and non-viable life situations.
“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”