Richard and I went to a lecture tonight at Swansea University. Given to a packed theatre by Dr. Margie Tolstoy, who teaches at Cambridge, it was entitled “Jewish and Christian Responses to the Holocaust”. As chaplains, Richard and I also had an opportunity to speak with Margie (as she insisted on being called) before the lecture.
One of the observations she made, in critique of Moltmann, is that Christian theologians have a habit of playing the Jesus card (my words, not hers) rather too quickly when it comes to the Shoa. The paradigm case is the way we have colonised Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical memoir Night, particularly the harrowing scene where a young boy is hanged in the barracks of Auschwitz:
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging here on the gallows….”
That night the soup tasted of corpses.
The problem is not that we Christians reproduce this passage, written by a Jew, in teaching and preaching - I have used it myself many times, not least on Good Friday; after all, the New Testament itself purloins Isaiah 53 for Christological purposes. No, it is that perhaps we deploy the passage too quickly, or too glibly, that we fail to pause and submit to it in silence, a deafening, dissonant, and guilty silence, acknowledging that not just for Wiesel himself and his fellow Jews but for Christians too the horror of the Holocaust was a faith-shattering experience. Perhaps we gulp down the putrid soup too fast to taste it, to avoid puking, or even push it to one side, to get to the dessert of our finely formulated theologies of the atonement.
As Flora Keshgegian observes, in an essay on Dorothy Soelle’s theology of suffering: “The process of dealing with traumatic suffering requires that the victimised let go of the need to find meaning in relation to it. They also need to accept the absoluteness and irredeemability of the losses. Only then, in the mystery of the human thirst for life, can life be engaged with a measure of hope.” And if so for the victims themselves, a fortiori for grandstand commentators.
And thus Dr. Tolstoy agreed with me that theodicies are not just misguided and inherently futile projects, they are, in a sense, downright evil, as in purportedly explaining horrendous suffering, they explain it away.
Very interestingly, Richard and I both commented on the defensiveness, even the hostility, of a good section of the audience at the lecture. Which, I wonder, kind of confirms my point.