It is estimated that at least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around ninety percent of them Jewish. Approximately one in six of all Jews killed in the Holocaust died there. It’s true that these numbers are small when set against total losses in the war, or even against the number of people killed at the orders of Stalin or of the Japanese authorities. But Auschwitz serves as a chilling reminder of the dehumanising, industrial nature of the Nazis’ final solution to the Judenfrage (the “Jewish question”).
Seventy years on, Auschwitz still stands as a potent symbol of humankind’s capacity for unspeakable evil. And, along with an entire catalogue of other horrors down the ages, it raises huge challenges to many of our trite, cosy and comfortable ideas about God.
To all those who boast of faith in a health-and-wealth-giving, prosperity-inducing God, Auschwitz – or rather the Holocaust as a whole – laughs in their faces. When set before the gates of Auschwitz, in the shadow of the chimneys, amid the smoke and the stench and the pathetic screams rising from the gas chambers, the shallow, self-indulgent theology that passes for orthodoxy throughout much of the western church can only shut its mouth and shuffle its feet in embarrassed silence. It simply has no answers.
This is how Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel described the monumental theological problem posed by the Holocaust in his acclaimed memoir Night:
“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because he kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?”
We may baulk at Wiesel’s words, but unless we are prepared to at least try to wrestle with the questions he validly raises, our theology is worthless. We have no business making glib pronouncements about God’s love, revelling in trivial so-called answers to prayer or, indeed, proclaiming God’s absolute sovereignty unless we are prepared to first wrack our brains, rend our hearts and rethink all our best theology in the light (or rather the shadow) of Auschwitz.
The fact is that popular evangelical theology will not wrestle with these questions. It cannot, because it is a cheap, plastic fake that would crack and break apart in the attempt. In the post-Auschwitz age, there is no place for happy-clappy, superficial theology and the idols around which it turns. The only theology that has any right to be heard now is a theology in which God is found not in comfort, success and self-actualisation but in the gas chambers, on the gallows and in the mass graves. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “only a suffering God can help”.
It is time for the false gods of popular western Christianity to be exposed and dethroned and all their cheap trinkets smashed to pieces. Let us not forget the victims of the Holocaust as we continue on our merry, comfortable way, hand-in-hand with our always-smiling God. If instead we stop, abandon all our theologies of glory and listen, we may just hear, amid the cries of the dying, the voice of the Crucified.
[ Image: Yam Amir ]