My husband and I have gone deep, deep into a marginally unhealthy, time-consuming, and rather obsessive relationship with a French show called Un Village Francais (A French Village) on Amazon Prime. It’s about, well, a French village during and immediately after World War II. And, OMG, it’s so good. It has me rethinking my general eye-rolly-ness regarding the French, whose achievements I had previously considered exclusively wine-and-cheese related. The show also has me reading more than I have since graduate school, since the whole thing is subtitled. To state the obvious, you can’t be scrolling through Twitter while you watch a subtitled production. So I am hopefully fixing my phone-addled brain with this show. The only downside is that my decidedly non-French-speaking husband feels the need to speak in a French accent, which basically means I am now married to Pepe Le Pew. It’s not great.
We learned of it through Never Trump/former Republican strategist/Founder of the Bulwark Sarah Longwell, who also has a podcast on the show with Ben Wittes of Lawfare fame (if you’ve never heard of them, you are probably not a nerd. Congrats to you, I hope you are enjoying your life as a cool person, probably on a motorcyle somewhere). I highly recommend both the show and the podcast, as well as everything in the Bulwark universe for rational, evidence-based, centrist, super-pro-democracy political commentary. In my book, all those guys are heroes for our political times, the French Resistance of our day, but with lower stakes and fewer moral quandaries.
Of that, A French Village has many. BEAUCOUP moral quandaries. Through our American lens, we typically see World War II, and appreciate it, for its moral clarity. Nazis and their friends=BAD; Allies and their friends=GOOD. Which is, of course, true. Certainly for American civilians, then and now, far from the fight. But what this show demonstrates is that when you are very much in the fight, things aren’t quite so simple. People’s choices are too often life-and-death, and standing up for your principles can get more people killed than putting your head down and making the best of things.
Case in point, the mayor of the town, Daniel Larcher, a basically decent fellow who reluctantly collaborates with the Nazis. He has a lot of hard days at the office. At one point, he makes a list of 10 people in Nazi detention to be executed. Which is terrible. Until you consider that if he doesn’t make the list, the Nazis tell him they will kill 20 people, with no consideration for what kind of people they are, what dependents they may have, or their actual involvement in the activities for which the Nazis require punishment. So Daniel goes through an agonizing process of trying to determine who should live and who should die. You could say he killed 10 people. Or you could say he saved 10. At one point, he thinks of resigning his post. But the next guy up is a worse person than he. And 10 people are dying regardless. It’s a dramatic reenactment of the classic Trolley Problem.
Another theme that stands out is that small choices add up to larger ones. The characters become the moral products of their choices, bit by bit, little by little, and by the end, that’s how they are judged. Many of the collaborators don’t start off wanting to collaborate with Nazis. Daniel included, they want to survive, they want their people to survive, they want to make the best of a bad situation that hopefully will eventually get better. Conversely, the resisters also start out with small choices. The school principal reluctantly agrees to let a Jewish man use the printer in the school basement to make anti-Vichy fliers. He eventually becomes a major figure in the Resistance, risking his life on numerous occasions.
Then there are other characters who use their strength trying not to choose a side. There are instances where they are forced to choose, but even in many of those cases, it comes as a result of allowing life to just kind of happen to them. Their choices are fickle, and their agency leaves much to be desired. But not choosing is still choosing, it’s just a question of how much say you want in the matter.
We all grow into our destinies, choice by choice, day by day. We either sink into the quicksand or climb the mountain step by step, hour by hour.
How we are judged in broad strokes is often due to externalities, in this case, by who ends up in power, which systems or causes win out and/or are determined to be good or bad. And by which systems ARE good or bad. There are good guys and bad guys. But the show also demonstrates that good people can exist in bad systems, and bad people can exist in good systems, or in this case, fighting for a good cause. Some of the Resistance members are opportunists or adventure seekers. Some are kind of vile, or at least foolish and reckless and blinded to the possibility of their own moral failure. Which makes them potentially dangerous and sometimes causes real damage. Daniel is a lot more morally anguished, and in my book, good-hearted than his Communist brother Marcel, who is so totally convinced of his own righteousness, he basically discards his son (and this rings absolutely no bells of any kind for the missionary kids out there. Nope, not a bell to be heard).
Actions and choices are the only things that matter in terms of earthly justice. But as Jesus said, God looks at the heart. Actual morality is more complex and less easily determined by human eyes.
There are some pretty obvious, if again lower-stakes, parallels to America’s current political context, which is part of Sarah Longwell’s love of the show. Living in DC for a long time and being a former Republican myself, I have within my contacts a full spectrum of collaborators and resisters. I know some Daniels who worked reluctantly in the Trump administration because they judged the alternative worse for the country and while there, they tried to pull less awful choices out of truly awful ones with anguish in their hearts. I also know some full-on Vichy, whose unexamined fealty to the power of the moment, belief in their own rightness, and sheer opportunism quickly pulled them down into the mud. They did not emerge with a firm grasp on their souls, from my admittedly limited, human vantage point. I also know resisters who lack all pragmatism or understanding of those on the other side or hospitality to those who now want to repent. They demand purity tests for cooperation, are otherwise reckless and foolish in their pursuits, and ultimately endanger their cause. These are the types who would rather trash Liz Cheney’s conservative record than recognize that her political courage is essential to saving our democracy. These are folks who think they can get a more liberal Senator from West Virginia than Joe Manchin. I’m not a Democratic activist–and I think you can see how I feel about these types–but I have struggled to remain compassionate towards friends and family who continue to support Trumpism, most of whom could be considered victims of relentless brainwashing.
In an overlapping universe, I see the same thing playing out in evangelicalism. For many of us, the flaws of that religious system are abundantly and increasingly clear. Some of us, like myself, have come to a place of fundamental theological difference. I just don’t approach the Christian faith or scriptural interpretation as I once did. Some are piqued by certain issues–the treatment of women, the response to sexual abuse in the church, the refusal to hear concerns about racial justice or the environment. Others have generally maintained conservative theological or even political beliefs but are disgusted by the hold Trumpism has on the church–the belief in lies and conspiracy, the coarseness, the militancy, the bullying, the nationalism. But all of us can see that something’s gotta give. The system is unhealthy, and it must change.
The question is–What do we do? Do we completely disengage, refusing to be part of it, or do we stay and try to make it right? Do we collaborate or resist or do something in between?
For folks of my ilk, it’s pretty easy. We have little attachment to the evangelical church–and in fact, would be kicked out if we were honest about our particular beliefs–so we just leave. Our family has found a new church home that is more in keeping with our faith and values. It was emotionally difficult to leave our last evangelical church, but not morally difficult. My moral quandary, and it’s a real one, is now to not become what I have rejected. To never rest assured in my own righteousness or be so certain in my views that I become blind to myself, my heart becomes dogmatic and hard, and I sacrifice people for belief. It’s an ongoing struggle.
For folks in the other two categories, it’s a much harder decision. I don’t know what to tell you, and I’m going to try very hard not to judge your choices. Do you stay or do you go? Beth Moore and Russell Moore (not related, by the way) decided they had to leave (in their case the South Baptist Convention, anyway; Beth is now an Anglican and Russell goes to a non-denominational evangelical church). Both of them were rather high profile and were constantly harassed, so they probably felt they had to go just for their own mental health.
I know other people who have stayed, especially people whose livelihoods depend upon it. That’s tough. When the system is paying your salary, when your kids are fed by it, you feel you must stay, and worse, you must stay quietly. Speaking out too vociferously will effectively become leaving in many cases. These friends are in my prayers and have my deepest compassion.
At the end of the day, however, bad systems and unhealthy cultures go on as long as they have oxygen (and staff and money and, probably most importantly, women organizing the potlucks and doing any number of thankless tasks. While being subjugated. But I’m heading into a rabbit hole here.). As long as they are filled with cooperative people who don’t rock the boat. And at some point, remaining quietly in an unhealthy culture–not doing anything to try to change it, not resisting at all from within–is giving it breath and life. I’m not judging you by saying that, I’m just stating a fact. If you remain in an unhealthy system and do nothing about it–I think that’s called complicity.
But that’s for you to grapple with, dear friends who stay. Again, I’ve taken the easy way out, and I have enough of my own moral conundrums to wrap my head and heart around to keep me busy, if I’ll do the work.
If you’ve read this and see no problem with either the Republican party or the white evangelical church–Oh, honey. God help you, because I can’t. But you will probably still enjoy A French Village. We can talk about the storylines and characters while ignoring the broader themes.