Thursday, August 19, 2010

Miracle at Moreaux (1986)

I don’t think I am going out on a limb here to say that these days most Christians understand that Jesus’s teachings are incompatible with racism. That hasn’t always been the case of course, but in my observation that is the current state of affairs. And I think it is clearly a correct understanding of Jesus’s ministry. On many occasions Jesus violated social norms to associate with folks whom his own culture thought were unclean, outcasts and/or unworthy. He hung out with all sorts of apparently despicable folks: women, Samaritans, children and tax collectors. His approach was revolutionary in that sense. And Paul makes pretty clear in the New Testament that divisions of race or ethnicity are simply irrelevant in Christ. As a result, I have never understood how Christianity could be used to justify bigotry.

Perhaps particularly baffling to me, I have never understood the perspective of Christians who are anti-Semitic. After all, as Christians, our savior was Jewish! How could we hate Jewish-ness when that was such an important part of who Jesus was? How could we hate Jewish people when his family was Jewish? Moreover, all of our early Christian heroes were Jewish. Jesus’s family and friends were all Jewish, as were most of the first generation of Christians. Even today, Christians and Jews share scripture. Much about the Christian faith is rooted in Judaism. As a result of these facts, Christianity and anti-Semitism are just fundamentally incompatible belief systems. (Indeed, though the Passion of the Christ was well-received by many American Christians several years ago, I have yet to hear any Christians express anything but disappointment and dismay at Mel Gibson’s subsequent anti-Semitic and racist rants.)

My husband and I do our best to instill in our children our Christian faith. An important part of that is to teach them about Jesus’s command to love our neighbors, as well as his expansive understanding of the concept of a “neighbor.” We encourage our children to be friends with people of different backgrounds, and to love them regardless of their religious or political beliefs. We explain to our children that that is what God wants us to do because he loves everyone in the whole world very, very much.

Recently, as we have been teaching our children about our duty to love all our neighbors, we’ve been trying to raise their awareness of racism and other forms of bigotry. Our family is biracial, and we have had friends of many backgrounds, so this is an odd concept to our children. They understand moral judgments based on behavior. Like any of us, they instinctively tend to get on their moral high horse when someone else does something naughty (e.g., so-and-so told a lie but I would never do that, that person was a bully so he is bad). But to our kids, it is not intuitive that people would prejudge others simply based on their race, ethnicity or religion. To help illustrate the existence and dangers of such bigotry, we’ve talked at sort of a high level about slavery and the Holocaust. Obviously, we haven’t gotten into all the horrifying details; our kids are too young. But they are starting to understand the grave consequences of bigotry and why we need to guard against it in our own hearts and minds.

To that end, our family recently watched a made-for-TV film from the 1980s. Miracle at Moreaux has a rather simple plot and was a low budget film. Loretta Swit played the lead, but I had not heard of the other actors. The setting is occupied France in the early 1940s. The story revolves around a nun running a small Catholic boarding school in the countryside, and three Jewish children fleeing for their lives from Germany. The nun becomes aware of the Jewish children’s plight and makes a split-second decision to hide them at her boarding school from the local Nazi patrol. The decision is terrifying because the Nazis are searching for these three Jewish children, and remind the nun that harboring Jews is a capital offense. The nun risks her own life, as well as that of the Catholic children in her care, to try to protect the three Jewish children. In the film, she is often shown on her knees praying to God. The situation is anguishing, but she sees no other moral solution but to violate the law to try to protect the three Jewish children.

The Catholic children at the school have been raised in a religious environment and their faith is omnipresent. Most of the children are very conscious of their Christian obligation to love their neighbor, and immediately try to make the three Jewish children feel comfortable by bringing them extra blankets and making sure they are comfortable in their room. One older Catholic child initially spews ugly falsities about Jewish people that her parents had taught her. But even that child eventually comes around after she gets to know the three Jewish children personally and she hears about their horrific experiences in being separated from their parents. The nun and the Catholic children eventually hatch a risky plan to help the three Jewish children escape to Spain.

There was a pivotal scene where a Nazi officer interrupts the school’s rehearsal of its Christmas pageant to interrogate the youngest of the Catholic children. The Nazi coaxes the young, impressionable child, “Do you know where the Jews are?” The child nods earnestly, and the nun looks horror-stricken. The little boy then points to two of his Catholic classmates and himself, “He is a Jew and she is a Jew and I am a Jew.” The nun smiles in relief and explains to the Nazi that the little boy has just identified the children playing Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the Christmas pageant. She points out to the Nazi officer that the Holy Family was Jewish, but he is not receptive to this fact.

The story was a little scary, but very compelling to my kids. The story line was perhaps far-fetched, but it was challenging nonetheless. We are each obliged to help our brothers and sisters in need. When the Good Samaritan stopped to help the man who had been robbed and left for dead, the Good Samaritan was not just being a nice guy doing a little easy charity work. As I understand, he was risking his own life and limb. There was a very real possibility that the same fate could befall him. The road was full of robbers and other outlaws. Moreover, a guest pastor to our church recently taught on the parable of the Good Samaritan and explained that there was another very real danger. The Good Samaritan was traveling in a land where his people were reviled. He risked his own safety by even showing up at a Jewish inn with a Jewish man who had been beaten savagely. In that cultural context, it was not clear the Good Samaritan would be welcomed or even tolerated.

Each of us likes to think we would be a Good Samaritan, but we all fall short of that even when the risks to us are not that great. I am unsure if I would have the courage to make the same choice as the nun in Miracle at Moreaux. I certainly hope I would. But it is always easier to make bold moral proclamations from a position of relative safety and security.

John 13:37-38 (New King James Version)

Peter said to Him, “Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake.”
Jesus answered him, “Will you lay down your life for My sake? Most assuredly, I say to you, the rooster shall not crow till you have denied Me three times.”

No comments:

Post a Comment