Each Person, Each Day
By Wendy McDowell
“I’ve seen enough of people who die for an idea. I don’t believe in heroism; I know it’s easy and I’ve learnt it can be murderous. What interests me is living and dying for what one loves.”
—Albert Camus, The Plague
A longtime admirer of Camus, I read The Plague again after watching Pierre Sauvage’s remarkable documentary, Weapons of the Spirit (1989). During the Nazi reign of terror in Europe, Sauvage and his family were provided a safe haven in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a tiny mountain village in Central France populated by poor farmers with their own ancestral history of persecution as Protestant Huguenots. Sauvage was only an infant when he lived in Le Chambon, but many years later he decided to research and chronicle the exceptional “conspiracy of goodness” that took place there. The humble residents of Le Chambon actively resisted the Nazi occupation of France and harbored some 5,000 Jews during the war, many of them children. But as the film reveals so poignantly, the peasants who risked their lives never saw themselves as heroes. They simply witnessed suffering and responded to it, in keeping with the biblical admonition to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Magda Trocmé, the widow of the village’s influential pastor during the war years, puts it this way: “Each person, each day, did what seemed necessary. . . . It was a general consensus.”
Camus came to Le Chambon in the summer of 1942 to convalesce from a bout of tuberculosis and work on The Plague, but he surely observed the persistent acts of resistance. After viewing Sauvage’s film, Camus’ allegory of France’s occupation takes on flesh and blood, and the sympathetic characters in The Plague speak in the voices of Le Chambon’s resisters. Though Camus is often lumped with more nihilistic existentialists, his writings reveal a deep respect for religious commitments if and when they lead to individual acts of kindness and love, acts which directly challenge the principalities and powers responsible for cruelty and death.
Camus also consistently eschews any idea of heroism, insisting that resistance is “a matter of common decency.” It is Grand, the lowly, meek clerk, who is presented by Camus as the embodiment of the French resistance. Men and women like Grand exemplified the everyday decency Camus most admired—they acted without agonizing about it, and with no expectation of public acknowledgment (unlike some of Camus’ intellectual compatriots, who trumpeted their moral superiority in postwar France). No doubt, Camus’ perspective was shaped by what he saw in the faithful people of Le Chambon, who “lived and died for what they loved.”
You will find more Camus in this issue—R. Gustav Niebuhr quotes from a 1946 essay to frame his discussion of recent grassroots efforts to build positive interfaith relations in the United States. This is fitting, since Niebuhr brings to light the kinds of local efforts that have occurred “beneath the media radar” in response to 9/11 and its aftermath. He shares vivid examples of ordinary people of all faiths in towns and cities across the country who have chosen to support and converse with the neighbor in their midst.
Though it may go mostly unnoticed, the work to sustain civil society is anything but quiet. It requires people to engage in encounters and to “use their words.” Indeed, a central theme for many authors in this issue is that silence is not an option if we are to act with moral integrity on issues of urgent concern. If the previous Bulletin was given over to the poetic voice, this one is suffused with the prophetic voice. Cheryl A. Giles shows us that the all-too-common bullying and rejection of LGBT/queer youth results in profoundly detrimental health effects (including a rate of attempted suicide four times higher than their peers). She urges us to treat bullying as a theological issue, and to move beyond acceptance to advocacy: “active work to seek and create justice for those . . . experiencing ongoing abuse and neglect.”
Sarah Sentilles encourages us to speak up when women writers are censored by publishers or subject to vitriolic sexist attacks. As she suggests, “words are world-creating and world-destroying.” Tarn Wilson reflects on how even the “ordinary, clumsy, imperfect” words and gestures we offer each other in times of crisis “hold something larger than themselves, big enough to press back against darkness.” But Dudley Rose questions whether righteous anger ever brings healing: is hatred always “corrosive,” even when it is an understandable reaction to hateful acts? Niebuhr suggests that the best responses to terror involve mustering “all the effort we can . . . against fear and stereotyping and in support of education about one another.”
This is precisely the kind of religious literacy that William A. Graham advocates so that we might have a wiser and more accepting citizenry; and it is the kind of “pedagogical work” that Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls for in academia: a consciousness of power and privilege in order to “articulate a religious vision of diversity in terms of radical equality.” Other pieces urge deeper and more careful attempts to understand and present “the other,” whether it is the nineteenth-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna, contemporary evangelicals, or Ugandans (discussed by Francis X. Clooney, Brett Grainger, and Max Perry Mueller).
The kind of work this issue’s authors recommend is both “outer” and “inner”: it involves taking risks and “becoming undone in relation to others.” But these risks seem slight given the alternatives (the tragic shooting of Sikh worshipers in Wisconsin is still fresh as I write this). We can make small choices in our everyday lives not to be apathetic about suffering. As Sari Nusseibeh writes in his recent book about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle (reviewed here), “in fact real negotiations are being conducted constantly by all of us, in our homes and in the streets.”
“The habit of despair is worse than despair itself,” Camus also wrote. When asked why they continued to harbor Jews even after it became dangerous for them, Emma Héritier from Le Chambon simply replies, “We were used to it.” May this issue inspire each of us not to cultivate habits of despair, but to become used to challenging inhumane acts of destruction whenever and wherever they occur.
Wendy McDowell is an editor of the Bulletin.