Small acts, great transformations

As the lives of André Trocmé and Nelson Mandela readily show, transformational leadership begins with small acts of goodness and basic human decency, writes Jason Byassee.

“Why hasn’t peace and reconciliation happened here, as it has in South Africa?” It’s a question that is often asked in troubled regions from the Middle East and Africa to New York and Washington. One obvious answer: “Because we don’t have a Mandela.”

That’s understandable. A Nelson Mandela isn’t born every day. Yet transformational leaders do exist -- just enough of them to make us want more. They have an almost holy presence that you can see, touch and tell stories about. Although we can’t produce more Mandelas with assembly-line precision, maybe we can train people in the practices that make such leadership possible.

André Trocmé, a pastor in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France, during World War II, was a transformational leader. Though familiar to ethicists, Trocmé and the village of Le Chambon are likely little known to Christian lay people and even many pastors. During the war, this village of 3,000 residents saved 5,000 Jews, mostly children. Across Europe, the Nazis set about the systematic destruction of Jews, with no small help from baptized people. But in France, one small village became a beacon of holiness by refusing to close its doors to neighbors in need. As a result, Le Chambon became the “safest place for Jews” in wartime Europe, author Philip Hallie wrote in the book “Lest Innocent Blood be Shed.”

The question “why” is hard to answer. An ethicist and professor at Wesleyan University, Hallie was not a Christian or a pacifist and was a decorated combat veteran of World War II. Yet he came away from his study struck with wonder, using words like “miracle” to tell the village’s story. Some reasons for the villagers’ behavior can be suggested, Hallie said, but even they don’t fully explain what happened in Le Chambon.

First, Le Chambon was a village of Huguenots, French Protestants long persecuted for their faith in historically Catholic France. After the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 ending any promise of French toleration, Huguenots across France held out against a regime bent on their destruction. Pastors were often martyred alongside their people. For generations, Huguenot parents took their children to village cemeteries and told stories of their suffering forebears. This history, Hallie wrote, produced “a sturdy quality” among the people of Le Chambon. They knew how to hold out against oppressors and hold on to their beliefs. They also knew the fear that came from being hunted down by soldiers and the relief -- the sanctuary -- that an open door could provide.

But what the villagers did not know was how to talk about their experience. Ethicists have marveled at the villagers’ inability to explain what they did and why. If anything the people of Le Chambon were surprised at the surprise of others. “People were in trouble. They needed our help. What could we do but open the door?” For Magda Trocmé, André’s wife, the obligations of hospitality extended even, perhaps especially, to the villagers’ enemies. Once, when the Vichy regime’s policemen came to arrest her husband, she fed them. “It was dinnertime; they were standing in my way, we were all hungry,” she said. “It was the most natural thing in the world.”

Like any good pastor, Trocmé loved his church. His obvious care for his parishioners, made manifest in extensive pastoral visits, built a deep trust among the villagers. His visits laid the foundation for the house-to-house communication networks that were crucial to hiding Jewish refugees during the war.

Extraordinarily warm and available to his parishioners, Trocmé opened his doors to them at any hour, and they in turn opened their doors to him. More importantly he showed that same warmth to those he helped, often convincing them that they were, in fact, helping him.

He also expressed his love for his church through his leadership of worship. He preached that the church should always be about “small acts against destruction.” Long before the war, he insisted on peacefulness; once the emergency is upon you, it is too late. As one villager later recalled, “Nonviolence involves preparation and organization.” After the war broke out and France was overrun, Trocmé saw that his sermons had been heeded, as Jews from across Europe poured into the village. They were never turned away.

This accumulation of small, decent acts is remarkably similar to Mandela’s maturation as a leader. As a young man, Mandela was a boxer and a revolutionary. But during his imprisonment on Robben Island he learned how to defeat his enemies not by violence, but by folding them into a greater project: a racially reconciled South Africa.

How Mandela did that was remarkably simple, according to John Carlin’s “Playing the Enemy,” the book on which the recent movie “Invictus” was based: He embraced rugby.

It was not a natural or easy embrace. Rugby had long been the favorite sport of the most racist Afrikaners. Racist banners, flags, anthems and chants filled the stadiums. Black South Africans naturally cheered against their own “national” team. But when he was in prison, Mandela discovered he could make a connection with his Afrikaner jailers when he engaged them about the sport. The more he warmed up to their game the more they warmed up to him.

Mandela went further. He learned the Afrikaners’ history and language and was soon comparing their struggles against the English in the Boer Wars to the struggles of black South Africans. Eventually, he seduced white South African political leaders into partnering with him to forge their future together.

Mandela wanted white South Africans to treat him and his people with dignity. So he treated the whites with power over him with respect and even grace. Once, he introduced his prison guards to a visitor by calling them his “guard of honor.” When one of the most foul-tempered guards was transferred to another prison, he awkwardly wished Mandela and “you people” good luck. Mandela’s charm and courtesy paid off, as he convinced everyone from his warden to President P.W. Botha that he could be trusted to lead a post-apartheid South Africa without vengeance.

Mandela embodied that trust most clearly when South Africa hosted the World Cup. Wearing the national team’s jersey and hat, he ran onto the field followed by white players lustily singing black South Africa’s national anthem. He used rugby to charm a country into a future it couldn’t have imagined otherwise.

In Le Chambon, the villagers discovered that resisting evil in a small way opens up opportunities to resist in a greater way, Hallie concluded. One small act against destruction invites another. One “illegal” taking-in of an endangered child brings more. This is why the villagers’ actions were so unthinking. They could have never planned to offer refuge to twice as many people as lived in the village. But the villagers could envision taking in one person. And then another. Mandela used his time with his prison guards to practice winning over his oppressors and then continued to his country’s highest office, winning the admiration of the world in the process. Single acts against destruction can become a tidal wave.

It can be dangerous to draw analogies between the evils of Nazism or apartheid and today. Not every day is a day of absolute emergency, and few enemies are as obviously evil as the SS or apartheid’s defenders.

But goodness is another story. It has a remarkably consistent character. Whether it appears in the presidency of South Africa or the parsonage of a small village in an occupied country or in the work of leaders today, goodness is beautiful. Whether that beauty is local or international in impact, it starts with small acts against destructiveness, small talk about seemingly trivial things, and deep respect for other human beings. And it can end in unimaginable transformations.