At our annual Erasmus Lecture in October, Jean Bethke Elshtain named Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a Protestant village in France famous for hiding thousands of Jews  and other refugees from Nazi and Vichy authorities during World War II, as an exemplar of loyalty.

Margaret Paxson writes about Le Chambon and a handful of similar villages on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in the Wilson Quarterly , contrasting them with the Ukrainian capital of Kiev where more than 30,000 Jews were massacred in 1941.

Why, we all ask, did the French villagers act differently—-demonstrating loyalty not merely to their family members and friends but to strangers? Paxson writes :

Perhaps the first thing to understand about Plateau Vivarais-Lignon is that the community has been taking in strangers—persecuted, or poor or ill—for centuries. The villagers know how to do it; they possess the knowledge as a habit and a skill. Since the 16th century, the plateau has been home to a great number of Protestants. Up in hard-to-reach hills and far from the center of French rule, the Protestants on the plateau sheltered their coreligionists or shuttled them to safety during the gruesome struggles of the Reformation that marked the end of Roman Catholic hegemony. Many of the present-day plateau dwellers are descendants of the Protestants who remained in the region.

But according to academic studies, theology—-like the local church’s emphasis on loving one another, which Paxson mentions—-was not the only factor underlying their actions. Their ethic was also shaped by their own experience of persecution:
Studies of altruism . . . don’t show that Protestants are necessarily more likely to perform altruistic acts than others. They do, however, find that one social feature that seems to encourage heroic altruism is the experience of having been an outsider, or a minority, or persecuted oneself. Altruism fares best, in other words, among those who have been treated badly and have decided that treating others well is best for all.

Virtue is hard won, it seems. Yet the French villagers’ generosity saved the lives of some five thousand.

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