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Earlier today, I heard a sermon entitled “Trust and Obey,” encouraging us to trust in God more than we trust in others, indeed more than we trust in ourselves. We were left with the assurance that if we trust in God, everything will work out. Having just watched Defiance, I couldn’t help but imagine how this sermon would have sounded to the Jews of the Bielski Otriad (Detachment) while hiding in the woods of Belarus in 1942.
This true story is portrayed as a modern retelling of the Exodus. Of course, in the Exodus when the Jews reached the Promised Land, they perpetrated genocide on the inhabitants of Canaan. Thousands of years later in Belarus, the tables are turned and the atrocities are now being committed by the Gentiles. That is, for the most part.
In the production notes for Defiance, director Edward Zwick says he wanted to counter the victimization iconography of the Holocaust. He says it is “important to add complexity to that notion—to understand that there is a difference between passivity and powerlessness, that the impulse to resist was always present.” Defiance is a very descriptive title and this act is portrayed in various ways throughout the movie from military forays staged by Jews against the occupying Germans to power struggles within the hidden Jewish community and from a people maintaining hope in a hopeless situation to individuals questioning God’s purposes and existence.
Daniel Craig carries the weight of the movie on his capable shoulders as Tuvia Bielski, the oldest of four Jewish brothers who seek refuge in the forest after their parent’s were murdered in a raid on their local farm. He is the heir apparent to Moses, running into the wilderness after committing murder in the name of revenge only to take the reluctant role of leader to a growing group of displaced Jews on a wilderness sojourn in search of the promise of peace.
There is even a dramatic crossing of the waters with the enemy approaching from behind and it is accomplished without the aid of miracles, at least not the visible kind. Finally, with the help of a socialist intellectual and socialism as a stand in for God’s law, Tuvia forms a grumbling, growing, surviving community striving against the issues of internal fighting, lack of food, harsh environment, illness, and threat from external enemies that would have been all too familiar to the Israelites during their Exodus. Tuvia says in response to a call to take up arms against their oppressors, “Our revenge is to live.”
The counterpoint is provided by Liev Schreiber in a powerful performance as Zus Bielski, the second oldest brother and a man of action. Frustrated by his older brother’s reluctance to use force other than in defense, Zus along with several other Jews join the Soviet army in order to, “kill Germans,” rather than merely survive and defend themselves. They do it well.
Some of the most poignant moments for me turn on Theology. In seeking to save as many Jews as possible, Tuvia enters a Jewish ghetto and calls the residents to follow him to “the one place in Belarus where a Jew can be free.” In response, a rabbi argues against leaving and advocates instead passively “waiting for God.”
Many of the ghetto’s residents choose to make their escape anyway, shedding their infamous yellow stars as they follow Tuvia. Then, after months of suffering when the situation looks most hopeless, the community’s spiritual leader, a teacher, offers a prayer which is striking in both its honesty and defiance, "We have no more prayers, no more tears; we have run out of blood. Choose another people. We have paid for each of Your commandments; we have covered every stone and field with ashes. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Teach them the deeds and the prophesies. Grant us but one more gift: take back our holiness. Amen."
The dire situation leads to an understandable crisis of faith on the part of the teacher and yet he finally acknowledges that his faith was saved and restored as a result of Tuvia’s actions.
The end of the movie is a predictable and violent Hollywood cliché which only leaves me wondering what actually happened in the woods of Belarus over 60 years ago. Yet, just before the credits role at the end, the total number of Jews saved as a result of the Bielski’s actions is revealed, over 1,200. But at what cost? Would it have been preferable to trust and obey as a pacifist, wait patiently for God, go as lambs to the slaughter, and perhaps pray for strength to face the horrors?
Is God honored more in questionable or unethical actions undertaken for a greater good or in maintaining ethical actions despite massive loss of life?
Is it acceptable for a follower of God to use force, even deadly force, in defense given Christ’s example? How can we continue to preach sermons entitled “Trust and Obey” promising that everything will work out if we only trust God when faced with the stark reality of God’s seeming absence during times of great tragedy?
What is a modern day Moses to do with our grumbling, hurting, impoverished, infighting, threatened, surviving community and when will our Moses come?
Brenton Reading writes from Cincinnati, Ohio where he lives with his wife Nola and their two young sons. He is a Pediatric Radiology Fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.