Years ago, there was a recurring segment on NPR called “This I Believe.” People from all walks of life submitted brief statements of a truth they held close. Most were positively framed: “I believe in the strength of community” or “I believe in resilience.” But one compelling credo, broadcast in 2007, shook me. It began, “I believe in a potential for brutality.”
The speaker was Yinong Young-Xu, who had emigrated from China as a teenager. He said:
“When I was 6, in the streets of Shanghai, near the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, I watched a parade of trucks carrying political dissidents on their way to be publicly executed. At the front of each truck was a young man, roped from head to toe, wearing a sign that said ‘Counter-revolutionary.’ ”
Yinong went on to say that the scene was like a traditional New Year’s celebration, except for one thing — “the city was celebrating its own brutality.”
On reflection, Yinong believed that he was fortunate — too young to be fully indoctrinated, and profoundly influenced by a kindly grandmother who reinforced the importance of kindness in him. That’s why he raised his own children to be compassionate, to aid the needy, to stand up for the downtrodden. “Most of all,” he said on the air, “I try to be vigilant. I believe I must guard against my own potential for brutality.”
We look at the world today, and what do we see? Deep and persistent racial divides. Political speech aimed at disparaging those with whom we disagree. Systemic injustice. Yinong Young-Xu was surely right: It is crucial to teach kindness to our children and guard against the mutation of our humanity.
I am trying to lean into the encouragement of a more recent NPR news segment about a million-dollar bequest from the estate of an Austrian man to a French town.
The gift came from the estate of Eric Schwam who died earlier this year at age 90. In 1943, as a boy, he had come to the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Like other Jews fleeing the Nazis, the Schwam family had found welcome and shelter there.
I first learned of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon 40 years ago when I read “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed,” Philip Hallie’s study of the community’s heroism. Hallie spent years trying to discover what led villagers to do such an extraordinary thing at such great personal risk. He found that much of their education had come from the teachings of the village church and from its pastor, André Trocmé, and his wife, Magda. Week after week Pastor Trocmé proclaimed the Word, and each week the members of the parish came to understand something of their call to discipleship and faithfulness. Over time, by nurtured habit, the people came to know what to do. When Nazis came to town looking for Jews, the people of Le Chambon quietly did what was right, sheltering their Jewish siblings from evil.
One older woman, who faked a heart attack when the Nazis came to search her house, said later, “Pastor always taught us that there comes a time in every life when a person is asked to do something for Jesus.” Another woman, when asked why she would risk her life for the sake of total strangers, replied, “For what else was I born?”
Today I am contemplating the difference between brutality and courage. The difference, I believe, lies in the teaching of compassion — the capacity to see the other as we see ourselves, to recognize our common humanity, and to reach out to the other’s hunger and pain.
Even further, the difference lies in the teaching of Christian compassion — that capacity for seeing one’s own face mirrored in the face of another and recognizing there, upon closer examination, the very face of Christ.
For what else were we born?
A member of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Outlook Foundation, Robert E. Dunham retired in 2017 after 26 years as pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He and his wife, Marla, have two adult children and one granddaughter.