The Plateau by Maggie Paxson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“With all of our chances– and all of the moral tools we’ve derived from any number of spiritual, religious, and philosophical orientations– we haven’t learned. It’s like we still don’t even recognize the moral hazard of deciding we are anything– any nation, any race, any religion, any gender– before we are a human being. Even when we must know, in our deepest places, that the oneness of humanity is an absolute truth, we behave as though we don’t” (309).
Anthropologist Maggie Paxson has written a book unlike any I have read before: an exploration of peace that is part anthropology, part memoir, part history, part religious meditation. She begins by asking what made the people of the Plateau region of France, a place known for harboring refugees and Jews in great times of danger, do so? In the course of finding her answer, she lives on the Plateau, studies the history of Daniel Trocme who lived there briefly during WWII to harbor and teach refugee children, and befriends the newest refugees in the area. All of this sidetracks her from getting down to the nitty-gritty data of why this area is so special. Instead she veers into an exploration of humanity, religions, and nations to determine what makes one good and put their life on the line for another. I am personally okay not having charts and diagrams and boxes with numbers in them to map the bell curve of goodness. Goodness is subjective, caught in the mess of our psyches.
Paxson’s goal is ambitious. How DOES one chart peace? Especially during a time when there was no peace? Also, how does one study a population’s motives for helping others when not all members shared the same goal? There are so many stories of sacrifice made by people all over Europe who helped shelter and feed and welcome into their homes Jews and other displaced peoples that I don’t think the answer lies in one area. It lies in ourselves. Paxson gets drawn into the lives of those in the past and the families seeking shelter on the Plateau now. She learns who they are and what caused them to flee their homelands. She explores how religions and the ideas of nations (which replaced kingdoms which served religions) have failed humanity. Deeply religious herself, in a secular field, she questions how religions can lead one astray– especially when every religion intones that we must love one another. Not being religious myself, I found this interesting as she discusses how the “why” one is religious impacts how much they love their neighbor and how they can use that same religion to shun him. Those who strive for peace, place humanity front and center– just because somebody else made them an enemy because they are of a different race, religion, political persuasion– doesn’t make them your enemy, too. When the time comes to act, who will we be? Will answer the call as whatever we label ourselves– white? Christian? American? Or will we be humans responding to human needs?
There is a tremendous amount of pain in this book. I learned more about the Holocaust that I had not known before; I learned about the atrocities happening in other countries; I learned about how much pain and death and suffering arise from ultimately arbitrary means. I again learned that being good will not save you, and it instead makes you a bigger target. Their is a lot hope here, too. We can in our small and big ways help others and do what we can. This seems miniscule in light of the horrors of the world, but think of the amount of good and how many people are saved when we act selflessly. In the words of Jesus, “Ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Paxson reminds us that it is not who we say we are that defines us, but what we do.
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The Plateau by Maggie Paxson