Jewish and Christian Responses to the Holocaust

by Kim on January 28, 2008

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.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }


John Meunier 01.29.08 at 4:15 am

Is this why Job clangs so hard against our ears?

We want theodicy? We want God to explain why Job suffers. We want evil to have a purpose or a reason that can be neatly understood. When we do not get it, we get upset and grumble about the poor manners of the people telling us there is no answer to our questions.


Rachel 01.29.08 at 6:13 am

I think at the end of the day all we can do is remember that “surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” The Bible doesn’t tell us why God allows suffering, but it tells us what he did about it. If it weren’t for a God who suffered in solidarity with human beings, I would probably have ditched Christianity by now. The significance of the cross is that it doesn’t “explain away” suffering…it reveals a God who saves through suffering. A theologica crucis forces us not to swallow that soup too fast.


DH 01.29.08 at 3:49 pm

I agree with Rachel except for the “if” question she mentioned. I still believe suffering can be explained to a point. When I look at Job I DO get an explaination for the suffering he faced. God allowed Satan to test Job because He knew how solid Job’s Faith was in Him and God knew that no matter what Job faced Job would still have Faith in God. When one looks at Job we forget that he only faced 10 years of suffering and that 1/3 of his life after the suffering was 10 times greater than the period before the suffering. Many people tend to use Job as an excuse to question God too much,etc. as opposed to the obedient response “tho I loose everything still yet I will praise Him.”

There are multiple reasons and some are unanswered as well: 1) we live in a sinful and evil world and so bad things happen, 2) God’s desire to strengthen our Faith through testing 3) God’s desire to break ones heart to accept Christ through allowing suffering not unlike Pharoah for those who have hearts like Pharoah 4) God’s desire for others who observe the suffering to come to Christ not unlike when people accept Christ at a funeral 5) God’s desire to strengthen the Faith of those who observe a suffering saint who still has Faith. It encourages us to do the same for God in proper obedience 6) God doesn’t want us to know until we get to heaven. However we know that God has a purpose but it isn’t readily available to us due to our futile mind.

I don’t see these explainations as “down right evil”. I see these things are directly mentioned in God’s Word and the purpose is to show that God is in control and that His ways are greater than our ways and that our understanding of good and evil is downright evil (things which we say are evil are actually good and some things we say are good are actually evil). If something like what happened to Job happened today in this post-modern world people would be saying what happened to Job was evil. God says it isn’t evil in that God had a purpose to strengthen the Faith of Job from what it was already and to show those who observed what Job faced who blamed Job that God’s purpose is greater than man’s understanding. For man’s understanding of these things are actually evil. “There are none who doeth good no not one.”


Shaun Connell 02.01.08 at 11:00 pm

Wow. That is an incredibly moving bit. I do agree that understanding mass murders could never be realized through a discussion of theology — but that does not mean it should never be used. No museum display can capture the emotion and the essence of the story, but that does not mean it should not be attempted.


Natasha Beljin 03.06.08 at 9:57 pm

This entry was incredibly helpful in formulating my ideas for a paper that I should be writing right about now. It’s not the best paper in the world, but I think the central idea is fairly interesting. Anyway, sorry, I am ommitting the center. The point is that I think it’s incredibly important to have in one’s pocket what I’ve called a “lenten hermeneutic.” It is kind of self explanatory and it is basiclaly exactly what you are talking about, but it is about sitting in the confusion of Holy Saturday and not leaping ahead to Sunday as we always want to do. Lent is a fascinating subject because it requires us (at least those of us in 24/7 America) to completely rework our understanding of time, and our understanding of truth even. So thanks for the post.


Kim 03.07.08 at 12:19 am

Hi Natasha,

Thanks for your comment - and good luck on your paper. Develop your idea and surely you’ll be in with a shout for an A - or an A- anyway!

For your bibliography, you must encounter a book a mentioned in my Sione Weil post ’s comments earlier today: Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Eerdmans, 2001). It is a stunning exploration, profound, eloquent, and very moving, of what George Steiner called “the immensity of waiting” which is Holy Saturday - and all its implications both for our understanding of God and for our living in the world, fallen and graced. A classic for sure.

Take care,


Kim 03.07.08 at 12:22 am

Sorry about the typos - too much blogging today! “Sione” is almost Welsh. Simone Weil. And I mentioned it, not “a”!

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