This piece was developed during the second Bartimaeus Institute Online (BIO) Study Cohort 2016-2017. These pieces will eventually be published in a Women’s Breviary collection. For more information regarding the BIO Study Cohort go here.
By Chelsea Page
“Seek the reign of God and God’s justice, and all things will be given to us below.”
“Resister.” Marie Durand carved this word in stone in the wall of the Tower of Constance, the fortress where she was imprisoned in southern France in the 1730s. She had grown up in a Huguenot (French Protestant) household where “Praise” was carved above the fireplace and the plea for divine “Mercy” above the door, through which French soldiers could return at any time. To these words she added the prayer “Resist.”
The Catholic king of France viewed Protestants as political insurgents. When Marie was seven years old, her mother and uncles were taken away from a Protestant wedding that was raided by French soldiers. Marie’s older brother, a pastor, continued his work underground. She and her father resumed a life together at home, quietly and passively resisting the government through the clandestine practice of their religion. Her father taught her to read and educated her in faith, despite the risk. Her mother was presumed dead, like countless Huguenots before them during periods of Catholic persecution.
Marie’s father was caught when she was eighteen. She married, but was removed from her husband and imprisoned a year later. Her brother was captured and executed shortly thereafter. The youngest prisoner in the fortress, Marie soon became pastor to the thirty other Christian and non-Christian women there, all of whom were expected to die from starvation, cold, and heat. Marie cared for their needs, taught the psalms, and wrote letters to advocate for better conditions, and to smuggle needed food and supplies into the prison. Fifty of these letters survive.
Marie believed that the Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty or sole authority taught that all unjust human authority must be resisted. Kings trying to legislate conscience was idolatry. Marie and her people viewed all persecution and degradation of human dignity as a usurpation of God’s judgment. Tyranny and execution were attacks not just on them personally, but on their core beliefs: the equality of our sinfulness before God; God’s unilateral decision to redeem all people despite our sinfulness; God’s promise to be the sole source of goodness; and God’s choice to put the divine image in all people. Human judgment was therefore blasphemous, and should not be obeyed blindly. In 1766, Marie was released, after 36 years. She returned to her childhood home, where she died ten years later.
In 1935, French antifascist activist Andre Chamson took up Marie’s writings, and used her call to be a “Resister” as a challenge to Protestant pastors to struggle against Nazism, as well as to confront their own anti-Jewish theology and dismantle Christian complicity in the persecution of Jews. In the same mountainous region from which Marie Durand came, where French Protestants had been persecuted since the 1500s, French freedom fighters defied the German occupiers, writing “Resist” on the French flag.
Catholic priests also took up Chamson’s call, as well as Protestant pastors like Andre Trocme, saving thousands of Jews during the war through nonviolent refugee activities. This story was immortalized in Trocme’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, the story of the Protestant village of Le Chambon. For him and other Huguenot descendants in his parish, God’s law surpassed French, Vichy, or Nazi law, and demanded that all human life be defended actively, because it was precious to God. They went beyond Germany’s Protestant “confessing church” to defend not just religious freedom for their own church, but also human dignity. Inspired by Durand’s call to resist, they put their theology of God’s sovereignty—and their family legacies of historical persecution—into practice, nonviolently resisting all tyranny, including their own Christian hegemony over Jewish citizens and refugees in their land.
For further reading: Kristine A Culp,“Always Reforming, Always Resisting,” in Amy Platinga Pauw and Serene Jones, eds, Feminist and Womanist Essays in Reformed Dogmatics (Louisville/London:Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).