Faced with occupation, does the church resist or collaborate?
Reflections on the Jersey War Tunnels. By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I have just returned from my first ever trip to the island of Jersey, where my wife and I attended a wedding and took a couple of days to explore and relax. Jersey is an interesting historical anomaly: geographically very close to France, it is a self-governing entity that is part of the United Kingdom. Visually it often looks more like France than Britain, but culturally it is English, although with many unique local traits.
In high summer the tiny island (only 45 square miles) is a paradise of sandy beaches and rocky coves, verdant narrow lanes passing meadows where the familiar local light brown milk cows graze; golf courses and hotels. Agriculture and tourism have been income earners for centuries, but in recent decades the island’s semi-independent status and it’s ability to set it’s own tax regime has enabled it to develop a sophisticated financial services industry and become an ‘offshore’ investment destination.
Photos from 1930’s Jersey show beaches and pubs thronging with holidaymakers, and farmers loading potatoes and strawberries on to carts destined for boats bound for England and France. But of course in June 1940 it all suddenly changed. The German army swept through Belgium and on to Paris in a matter of days; the British Expeditionary Force was routed, and France looked likely to surrender. The British high command made the strategic decision not to try to defend Jersey. All those living on the island (and the other smaller channel islands) were given 24 hours to decide: stay or leave. Half decided to go: 25,000 crammed on to all kinds of vessels which hurriedly set sail for the nearest English ports. The same number remained. A few days later, German forces landed and accepted the surrender of the Jersey governor.
This moment, and the next few years under Nazi occupation, is chronicled in a moving, and sometimes chilling, permanent exhibition – the War Tunnels. As well as giving a wealth of fascinating information about this dreadful period of history, the museum has some interactive elements, inviting visitors to think about how they would respond to occupation. Would I collaborate with the enemy, perhaps as a way of getting extra money or food for my family, as a way of getting back at a neighbour against whom I had a grudge, or even because I admired some aspects of the Nazi ideology? Or would I resist, and to what extent? Reluctant cooperation at the minimal level necessary to avoid punishment, or rebellion?
There are personal vignettes in the exhibition which paint a picture of how the islanders lived during those five years, and more could be said about the wider history. But there is also scope for reflection, for filling in the gaps. For most, the presence of large number of German troops, a massive programme of building of fortifications, the imposition of increasingly restrictive and menacing rules, and the daily barrage of Nazi propaganda would have been an outrage and an affront, while some locals no doubt didn’t think much about the political and philosophical questions of freedom, methods of government and morality, but just got on with the basics of life and perhaps even benefitted if they played their cards right.
There is very little in the Tunnels that hints of what life may have been like for committed Christians. Those of Jewish ancestry who remained were registered as such; some were deported and never seen again. An elderly Anglican clergyman was caught harbouring escaped Russian slaves (who had been brought in to work on the tunnels): he was sent to Germany and died in a concentration camp. There was a ban on all meetings – presumably church services continued but were strictly monitored.
So we can speculate on different attitudes which Christians might have had. Those who felt called to stay on the island and remain with their flock would have various options in terms of attitude to the occupation. What would I have done, as a clergyman or as a lay person? I could ignore the political and ideological aspect altogether, saying that my job was to ‘preach the Gospel’ (ie a spiritualised message, studiously avoiding issues of controversial or unpopular contemporary relevance) and to provide counsel and care for the parishioners. Perhaps I might feel a degree of sympathy for the German cause, reasoning that the nation had been unfairly treated after the First World War, and that as Britain itself was also guilty of some shameful episodes in its history, the role of the church on the island should be to bring about reconciliation between the occupiers and the natives.
The inevitable triumph of Nazism over the whole of Europe including Britain seemed likely certainly for a time. Like many German Christians might I have found ways of accommodating key elements of the fascist ideology into a revised version of Christian faith? This could even be justified as a good way of reaching German soldiers with the Gospel! If preaching positively about Nazism brought rewards, while warning about its unbiblical and demonic aspects brought threat and punishment, collaboration would have been much more comfortable than resistance.
Faced with this terrible crucible that was Jersey 1940-1945, I’d like to think that I would try to find ways, perhaps risky, perhaps in secret, of encouraging others to maintain and grow in biblical faith, centred on an unseen heart and mind in union with Christ, committed to his truth and to love of neighbour and enemy, a heart fiercely guarded against the evil ideology of Nazism and temptation to compromise with it. To do this there would need to be teaching not just about the ‘positives’ of life in Christ but specifically naming, describing and facing, within the church community and internally in prayer, the dehumanising idolatry of the occupying forces, and the spiritual powers behind them. I hope that I would take comfort in Christ’s promises to maintain a remnant of the faithful worldwide with whom I would share a sense of communion, and also belief in the inevitability, not of the triumph of a human idea based on hubris, but of the ultimate redemption of God’s people even after suffering, even unto death.
We emerged from the cold tunnel into bright, hot sunshine, the café and souvenir shop. History lesson over. Is there any relevance for today? There are places in the world where severely repressive governments deny basic freedoms for their people, and where Christians experience persecution. But not in Britain. We may complain about the decisions and even intrusiveness of our authorities, whether in Westminster or Brussels, but we do not have jack-booted soldiers on the streets or the fear of secret police knocking on our door at night. We are free – aren’t we?
Reflecting on the Jersey war experience has reminded me that geographical occupation by a hostile foreign power, often preceded by a campaign of terror, then imposed and maintained by physical force, remains a danger to the church in any nation. But the mental and spiritual occupation of the airwaves of thought by anti-Christian ideologies can also create a form of captivity, which may be more insidious because it can appear benign, or even not be recognised as occupation at all. The apostle Paul’s advice remains relevant:
See to it that no-one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental forces of this world, rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Islam’s ‘quiet conquest’ of Europe, by Giulio Meotti, Gatestone Institute
The new civic religion – a Christian study guide to Humanism, by Chris Sugden (review of new book by Patrick Sookhdeo), CEN