Weapons of the Spirit
Malcolm Gladwell discusses the power of faith and explains his reawakening to it in these excepts from his post about researching and writing his latest book, David and Goliath. His post, How I Rediscovered Faith, appears on the Relevant Magazine blogsite. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s full post here.–Ed.
By Malcolm Gladwell.
When I was writing my book David and Goliath, I went to see a woman in Winnipeg by the name of Wilma Derksen.
Thirty years before, her teenage daughter, Candace, had disappeared on her way home from school. The city had launched the largest manhunt in its history, and after a week, Candace’s body was found in a hut a quarter of a mile from the Derksen’s house. Her hands and feet had been bound.
Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city.
“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.
Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
Vulnerability and Power
I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say those things. A sexual predator had kidnapped and murdered their daughter, and Cliff Derksen could talk about sharing his love with the killer and Wilma could stand up and say, “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.” Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?
Weapons of the Spirit
The Derksens live in a small bungalow in a modest neighborhood not far from downtown Winnipeg. Wilma Derksen and I sat in her backyard. I think some part of me expected her to be saintly or heroic. She was neither. She spoke simply and quietly. She was a Mennonite, she explained. Her family, like many Mennonites, had come from Russia, where those of their faith had suffered terrible persecution before fleeing to Canada. And the Mennonite response to persecution was to take Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness seriously.
“The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on,” she said. It had not always been easy. It took more than 20 years for the police in Winnipeg to track down Candace’s killer. In the beginning, Wilma’s husband, Cliff, had been considered by some in the police force as a suspect. The weight of that suspicion fell heavily on the Derksens. Wilma told me she had wrestled with her anger and desire for retribution. They weren’t heroes or saints. But something in their tradition and faith made it possible for the Derksens to do something heroic and saintly.
The final chapter of David and Goliath is about what happened in the small town of Le Chambon during the Second World War. Final chapters are crucial: they frame the experience of reading the book. I put the Le Chambon story at the end because it deals with the great puzzle of the weapons of the spirit—which is why we find it so hard to see them.
The local Huguenot pastor was a man named André Trocmé. On the Sunday after France fell to the Germans, Trocmé preached a sermon in which he said that if the Germans made the townsfolk of Le Chambon do anything they considered contrary to the Gospel, the town wasn’t going to go along. So the schoolchildren of Le Chambon refused to give the fascist salute each morning, as the new government had decreed they must. The occupation rulers required teachers to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, but Trocmé ran the school in Le Chambon and instructed his staff not to do it.
Before long, Jewish refugees—on the run from the Nazis—heard of Le Chambon and began to show up looking for help. Trocmé and the townsfolk took them in, fed them, hid them and spirited them across borders—in open defiance of Nazi law.
“Nobody Thought of That”
Where did the people of Le Chambon find the strength to defy the Nazis? The same place the Derksens found the strength to forgive. They were armed with the weapons of the spirit. For over 100 years, in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had been ruthlessly persecuted by the state. Huguenot pastors had been hanged and tortured, their wives sent to prison and their children taken from them. They had learned how to hide in the forests and escape to Switzerland and conduct their services in secrecy. They had learned how to stick together.
They saw just about the worst kind of persecution that anyone can see. And what did they discover? That the strength granted to them by their faith in God gave them the power to stand up to the soldiers and guns and laws of the state. In one of the many books written about Le Chambon, there is an extraordinary line from André Trocmé’s wife, Magda. When the first refugee appeared at her door, in the bleakest part of the war during the long winter of 1941, Magda Trocmé said it never occurred to her to say no: “I did not know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.”
Seeing God’s Power
I was raised in a Christian home in Southwestern Ontario. My parents took time each morning to read the Bible and pray. Both my brothers are devout. My sister-in-law is a Mennonite pastor. I have had a different experience from the rest of my family. I was the only one to move away from Canada. And I have been the only one to move away from the Church.
What I understand now is that I was one of those people who did not appreciate the weapons of the spirit. I have always been someone attracted to the quantifiable and the physical. I hate to admit it. But I don’t think I would have been able to do what the Huguenots did in Le Chambon. I would have counted up the number of soldiers and guns on each side and concluded it was too dangerous. I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.
I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.
Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness. “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.”
Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.