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Rescuing the Rescuers in Philip Hallie's Ethical Sublime
"Only stories or visions of transcending personal isolation and indifference can move me . . . hope, joy lie only in the transcendence of self-absorption—in expansion."
THROUGHOUT HIS LIFE, Philip Hallie expressed strong distrust for abstract philosophy. He wanted his own philosophy constituted of flesh and blood, and he believed in the centrality of narration in ethical writing. The personality of stories, the irrefutable nature of the individual's account had to form the essential basis in the teaching of ethics. It is no surprise, then, that in his posthumous Tales of Good and Evil, Help and Harm 1 Hallie leaves us with a series of powerful stories, biographical and autobiographical, as the final expression of his lifelong agonizing struggle to come to terms with his own ethical beliefs. There are no general proofs here. No abstract principles. No definitions of goodness and evil. Only stories that depict the being referred to by e. e. cummings as "manunkind" mysteriously achieving the "realizable ideal" of rescuer of strangers.
Given Hallie's major work on the rescuers of Jews in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed. The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There, 2 it seems appropriate that he begin this particular account of "tales of good and evil" in that same [End Page 231] village. Thus, the first biography he presents is that of Magda Trocmé, the wife of the pastor of the Protestant Church in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, André Trocmé, who, with his fellow pastor Edouard Theis, is said to have inspired the rescue mission in the village. Hallie underscores the communal nonviolent effort by clergy and villagers alike in this "city of refuge." While he admires both André and Magda as practitioners of the "great virtues," he more readily identifies with Magda's secularism than with her husband's piety. He celebrates her generosity, her refusal to turn anyone away from her door, her "quiet habit of efficacious compassion," and her terse explanation as to why the rescuers in the village did what they had done: "What do you mean? It had to be done, that's all."
As much as Hallie related to Magda's secularism, he was unable to identify fully with her because he felt tainted by the killing he had done as an artillery man in the United States Army during World War II. "I was a helpful killer who violated the negative demand against killing ["Thou shalt not kill"] in order to obey the positive one to spread life. But Magda and her villagers! Their ethical purity was beyond me. They obeyed the negative demands of ethics by hating and hurting no one even while they obeyed the positive demands of ethics by saving [thousands of refugees]." Compared to Magda and the villagers, Hallie clearly saw himself as someone operating in the grey zone.
With the introduction of Joshua James and the community of Hull, Massachusetts, we ascend from Hallie's personal quagmire of moral ambiguity to the realm of the "ethical sublime." Here the author relates the story of James, whose mother and sister died at sea in 1837 when he was 11 years old, and who would go on to a career of life-saving activity on the Massachusetts coast. James founded the Life-Saving Rescue Service, an organization that evolved into the Coast Guard (or more specifically The Search and Rescue Service of the Coast Guard). He spent his entire life in Hull (1826-1902) and over the course of nearly sixty years saved hundreds of sailor's lives and tens of thousands of dollars worth of property.
Many coastal villages around the world, Hallie explains, profited greatly from shipwrecks. Their cargoes and the stuff the ships were made of were highly valuable to the generally poor people who inhabited such villages. Yet the village of Hull, the smallest village in the state, having roughly...