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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Teaching Moral Choice

We have a new rule in our Men’s book club — the host for that night gets to pick the book. That’s why last night we got together to discuss a book none of us had heard of before, Philip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. This is an older book, first published in 1979, but also a very powerful book. On one level it is about a village in France that saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. But in another way the book is written as a kind of meditation, a biographical investigation, into why they did that. Why centers on the charismatic Protestant pastor in the Protestant Village, Andre Trocme. Trocme was a passionate, volcanic, personality who was also a totally devoted to the idea of nonviolence. As he would not shed blood he also would not permit others to be harmed. But the book is not satisfied with that answer — there is Magda, Trocme’s essentially unreligious but equally determined wife, for whom saving lives was not a matter of ethics or theology but just human necessity. And, repeatedly, the book says the answer must also be in the entire village — in the choices people there made as individuals.

The book struck a particular chord for me, from the title on, because — at least as I came to think when I worte Witch-Hunt — the Salem Witch Trials came to an end because of precisely the phrase used in the title of this book. I did not know until I read it that “Lest Innocent Blood” is a phrase from Deuteronomy. In Salem you were safe so long as you confessed to being a witch and named names — those could all be people long dead or who had already confessed themselves. You did not have to directly harm anyone else, but you did have to confess. Mary Easty did that and was safe. But her conscience bothered her. She came to feel she could not lie, she could not in effect confirm the ongoing trials by pretending to be something she was not. So she wrote a letter to the judges saying that she had lied, she was not a witch. Over and over she repeats, that “lest innocent blood” be shed, the trials must stop. As she knew, the letter led to her execution. But the letter circulated, and it — combined with her fate — caused Innocent Mather, Cotton’s father, the leading cleric in New England, to speak out against the trials — and the ground to a halt.

The story of the French village, like Mary Easty’s story, turn on moral choice — what can we accept and what can we not tolerate. What is that ethical line of collaboration that we cannot cross? One of the men at the meeting last night had served in Vietnam. He said he knew of the horrors some units were inflicting on the Vietnamese, but the ethic of his group was to not allow that to happen. What makes one unit burn homes and another not? One village risk their lives to save strangers and another not? One woman to speak out at the cost of her life and another not? Our discussion last night was lively, personal, and intense. There are so many times in school when we cover areas that relate to moral choice – in a way, what is Social Studies but a series of moments of ethical and moral decision making that we teach students with the hope of sharpening their modern sense of citizenship. If you teach high school kids, please consider showing them Hallie’s book along with, say, The Crucible, or Schindler’s List, or, for that matter, Claudette Colvin.

Comments

  1. I’m going to add Hallie’s book to the teetering piles that fill every room here. Maybe I can persuade my book group to read it! Thanks.

  2. Mark Flowers says:

    Marc – have you read Shankar Vendantam’s The Hidden Brain (Spiegel and Grau, 2010)?

    In various parts, he goes on at length about the ways in which humans, as social animals are deeply connected to collective decisions. That is, two groups comprised of people of essentially the same moral caliber can make diametrically opposed decisions based on small factors–eg, one person in the group standing up to decide one way or the other.

    One example he uses is of a group of people who witnessed a horrible crime, all of whom individually would have been willing to do something to stop it, but because no one stepped foreward, none of them did anything.

    It’s a fairly scary concept – that our moral choices may be compromised by our need to be part of a group – but very important when talking about things like the Salem Witch Trials, or for that matter when talking about heroic actions like those of the French village you describe.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    I have not read it, although it would seem that the group power could work equally well in reverse, encouraging people towards acts of moral courage they might not take on their own — as was the case in France