October 13, 2019
It is the heartfelt anguish of every loving parent. We don’t want our children to go through the troubles we went through. Because we have been homeless, living on the street, or sleeping in our car, we never want our children to suffer the same indignity. So we work two or three jobs, spend our spare time shopping for an affordable apartment, and scrimp and save between paychecks to muster enough cash to cover the rent. We anguish over the possibility that our precious children will relive our painful history.
Because we know what it was like to be bullied, we never want our children to suffer the same humiliation. We rush to our child’s defense when we hear that someone at school has threatened them. We enroll our kids in boxing or judo classes so they can defend themselves. We call the teacher, the principal, even the police to protect our child. If the school cannot guarantee our child’s safety, we don’t hesitate to pull our child out of the public school and scrounge up the money to pay for a private school. We can’t bear the thought of our child being harassed as we were when we were growing up.
All loving parents want to protect their children from the pains we knew all too well. Sirens go off in our psyches when we envision that our children, like we did, will not acquire enough education to get a decent job, or will get messed up with drugs, or will hook up with an abusive partner. Because we have been there, done that, felt that pain, we pray to God that our children won’t go through the same. The haunting memory of our past shapes what we do now.
The same incentive for shaping how to behave occurs time and time again in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, in the laws and rules that God imposed on the Hebrew people after their rescue from enslavement in Egypt. Time and time again God urged the Hebrew people to remember their miserable history as an incentive not to let it happen again. Time and time again God reminded the Hebrew people that, because they had once been enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, they should not let history repeat itself. Freedom from their haunting past rested upon freeing others from experiencing the same.
For example, Exodus 23:9 says: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Leviticus 19:33-34 says: “When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. For you must treat a foreigner residing among [the same] as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 24:17-18 says: “Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there.”
Deliverance from the past lies in part by insuring that others do not experience the same. The LORD appealed to the Hebrew’s painful past history as a moral force for doing good, as a resolution that the experiences of their painful past not be passed onto others. We can readily understand that moral logic, for as I said earlier, all loving parents resolve that the memories of our painful past will not be passed onto our children. We cannot pay back our abusers, but we can protect our children.
The logic for parents’ conduct is the same as the logic for the Hebrews’ conduct, namely, prevent a repetition of the past. You know in your heart what it feels like to be humiliated, abused, bullied, and trapped, therefore do not let others suffer the same. But, if you listened carefully, you probably noticed a difference between a parents’ resolve to avoid repeating the past and the Hebrews’ resolve to avoid repeating the past.
Loving parents naturally want to protect their children. No one needs to instruct loving parents on their obligation to protect their children by not allowing a repetition of a miserable past to afflict their children. But, in the case of the Hebrews, the LORD instructed the Hebrews to go beyond what comes naturally. Their obligation to protect extended beyond protecting their children, their kin, even beyond protecting their own kind. The LORD ordered the Hebrews to protect the foreigners, strangers, resident aliens, all people outside their family circle, outside their tribe. Recall what Exodus 23:9 said: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.”
The LORD commanded the Hebrews to avoid repeating history, to avoid reliving their plight in Egypt by not becoming abusers themselves. They were not to do unto others as the Egyptians had done to them. They were to do unto others as they wished the Egyptians had done unto them. That was the lesson God wanted them to learn. The lesson to love the stranger was so important that the LORD repeated it more than 36 times in the Hebrew Bible. The mandate to care for strangers is among the most frequently repeated commands in the Hebrew Bible. That was the imperative they should have learned and practiced.
They should have learned from their experiences as foreigners in horrible Egypt what it feels like not to speak the language, not to be welcomed, and not to be hired. From those miserable experiences and from God’s deliverance, the Hebrews were supposed to learn how God wanted them to behave. They were supposed to learn how to show empathy for foreigners and do for them as God had done for them. Since the Hebrews knew in their heart what it felt like to be victims of persecution, they had incentive to protect others.
Protecting our own comes naturally. All loving parents protect their own children. But protecting others who are not among our own, that does not come naturally. That is exceptional, yet that is what God expects.
On top of a plateau close to Switzerland is the tiny French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Some five hundred years ago a small number of French Protestants, called Huguenots, lived in this village. Back in those days the Catholic rulers in France persecuted Protestants, which was no surprise at the time because throughout Europe Catholics fought Protestants and Protestants battled Catholics. Within France, the Catholic rulers bitterly oppressed and persecuted the Huguenots.
However, in the remote village of Le Chambon Huguenots found shelter from the French despots and Catholic vigilantes. For centuries thereafter the Huguenots remembered the affliction they had suffered from the hands of their fellow Frenchmen and the protections they had received among their fellow villagers.
After a short six weeks in 1940, Germany conquered France and cut the country in two. German military governed the northern half, the Occupied Zone, while a French government, actually a puppet government, oversaw the so-called Free Zone, the southern half. Le Chambon was in the Free Zone.
In exchange for the facade of self-government, the French government endorsed the Nazi’s policies of deporting Jews to concentration camps. In July 1940, French police in Paris rounded up 95% of the Jewish children and deported them to death camps, the Huguenot pastors in Le Champon called upon their parishioners to harbor Jews fleeing from the Nazis. The Huguenots took seriously the command “love your neighbor as yourself,” which was inscribed over the door of the sanctuary in the village.
The five thousand villagers eventually housed five thousand refugees, more than 3,500 of them were Jews. The Huguenots remembered acutely how their forbearers had been persecuted and how they had sought refuge. They had learned empathy and courage from that collectively painful experience.
Late in the summer of 1942, the puppet government brought buses to Le Chambon with the intention of filling them with captured Jews. Armed police surrounded one of the Huguenot pastors, André, and ordered him to give names of the Jews hiding in the village. He insisted that he did not know their names and did not want to know them. The official ridiculed the villagers for harboring foreigners, for harboring Jews, people who did not follow the same religion. Andre replied, “I am their shepherd. A shepherd does not forsake his flock. I do not know what a Jew is. I know only human beings.”
Pastor Trocmé secretly rounded up the Protestant youth leaders and charged them with spreading a warning. Scurrying away, the boys ran from house to house, warning the farmers and urging the Jews to hide in the forests. The next day police scoured through the village, but found no Jews. For three weeks the police searched, but found no one. Finally they drove away the buses empty. Villagers set out through the woods, chanting for those in hiding to come back home.
In November of 1942 German forces occupied the Free Zone. In spite of increased danger and surveillance, the villagers continued to shelter their refugees. Not a single refugee was turned away. From 1942 until 1944, German sympathizers in France handed over 76,000 Jews to be exterminated, but not a single villager in Le Chambon betrayed any of the 5,000 refugees hiding in their town. Never did the Huguenots try to convert or proselytize their Jewish house guests. Parishes permitted Jews to conduct High Holy Day festivities in their sanctuaries. The churches funded houses of refuge for educating, feeding, clothing, and boarding Jewish children whose parents had been deported.
The history of their once-persecuted Huguenot ancestors made the villagers empathize with the plight of their new neighbors fleeing persecution. When the villagers guided Jewish refugees over the trails to safe haven in Switzerland, they traveled the same road by which their ancestor had fled for safety centuries earlier.
When asked after the war why they risked their lives harboring Jews, some villagers replied that they were simply following the God-given command to love their neighbors as themselves. Others simply said that they believed in the dignity of every human life and the value of every person. For a variety of reasons, some explicitly religious and some not, the villagers of Le Chambon lived out what God had decreed centuries earlier to an encampment of refugees who had fled from persecution in Egypt. Having been victims of persecution, they wanted to protect others from the same experience.
All loving parents follow that logic instinctively. We desperately want to protect our children from going through the troubles we experienced. God challenged the Hebrews to extend that conviction beyond their families to the foreigners in the midst. The villagers of Le Chambon lived out that logic by protecting 5,000 refugees from deportation and the concentration camps. We, as Christians, likewise ought to look at our past, at our ancestors’ efforts to flee persecution on foreign shores in hopes of finding asylum and protection here.
Some think that because no one helped our ancestors surmount the struggles of migrating and finding work, we have no reason to help others face the same challenges today. But as every parent knows, and as the Hebrews learned and as the villagers of Le Chambon showed, sheltering others from enduring what we went through is reason enough, that is according to God. We are most rescued from our history when we rescue others from repeating it.