Encore Archive

Welcome to Encore, the place where you will find the latest thoughts and reflections by CLAL faculty and associates on topics of the moment. Each week you will find something new and (hopefully) engaging here!

To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.
To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.

The Holocaust and the Duty to Forgive

Stanley Hauerwas (Sh'ma 10/198, October 3, 1980)

(What follows is a substantially abridged version of a sermon I preached at Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago on Holocaust Sunday which also happens to be the Sunday after Easter. Therefore, I at once had to deal with the resurrection and the Holocaust. I have asked that the sermon be published as a sermon in Sh'ma even though I knew some of the concerns in the sermon might be of little interest to Jewish readers. But the conclusion of the sermon - that Jews must forgive Christians for their complicity in the Holocaust - makes sense only in the light of my attempt to interpret the texts I was obligated to preach on that day. (Job 42:1-6, Acts 5:12a, 17-22, 25-29, John 20: 19-31) For anyone to make such a suggestion may appear nothing short of obscene and therefore I thought it particularly important for me to receive criticism from Jewish readers. I took forward to learning from your response.)

Resurrection, as the felt absence of God, seems particularly powerful when we must face, as we must this Sunday, the Holocaust. All those who used to celebrate the absence of God as providing the space and arena for human freedom have run aground on this reality. We live in a world where six million Jews and other "non-desirables" were put to death by people not too unlike you and me. How are we to explain that one, for like evil itself, every explanation seems to trivialize the reality. Who can blame God for exiting from this kind of world? I do not particularly want to be involved with it either.

But I am involved with it. I am the inheritor of the history and benefits of a civilization that brutally and cold bloodedly put six million people to death for no other reason than that they claimed to be God's chosen people. And like Job we cry out for an explanation -- how and why could this happen to your own and why and how could it be perpetrated in a culture formed by those who claim to worship the same God as the Jews? And like Job all we feel we get back is claimed power and incomprehensibility made all the more unsatisfactory by being packaged in magnificent poetry. Job claims he now despises his doubt because where once he only had heard God now he sees him, but that hardly seems satisfactory. Claims of power hardly seem appropriate for the question raised by the Holocaust.

And that makes us particularly sympathetic with Thomas and his demand to "show me." Like doubting Thomas (John 21:25), especially after Auschwitz, we want to see some marks that God has not abandoned us in the mess. For Auschwitz seems to be the surest sign we have that is exactly what has happened. Where is God in this -- or even more radically if God is in this how can we possibly continue the presumption that he is worthy of worship?

Christian faith demands forgiveness.

We think we might be better believers in spite of the commendation for those that believe without having seen, if we could just get some better evidence. We want to know if Jesus really was who he claimed, or if he even claimed to be who we think him to be.

That the issue is not evidence is clear from the incompatibility of the evidence with Thomas' confession. For after Jesus shows him his hands and side, Thomas exclaims, "My Lord and my God! " That is an extraordinary deduction from nail marks. But what Thomas saw in those nail marks was not evidence of resurrection, but that the resurrected Lord is not different from the crucified Messiah. The presence of such a Lord is the presence of the Lord whose exaltation is the cross on which comes our forgiveness. For what does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord other than he has the power to forgive sin even to giving us that power.

That Thomas was able to see that the resurrected Lord is not different from the crucified Messiah came from the fact that he had first learned to follow Jesus as his disciple. And like Thomas, if we are to understand the significance of those holes, we must also learn to be trained to be his disciples. But such training entails that we learn to be in the presence of a Lord whose power is that of forgiveness and thus creates a community of forgiveness. For if we have received the Holy Spirit, his continuing presence, he tells us we have the power to forgive sins. And we have such power because through his cross and resurrection we know we have been forgiven. No small matter to be sure, for it is exactly the power of God that allows us to allow ourselves to be forgiven. No smaller matter to be sure, for it is exactly that power of God that allows ourselves to be forgiven -- much more than to forgive.

We want a God of power- not forgiveness

Note how different this presence is than that of the incomprehensibility of the God who speaks from the whirlwind -- what is incomprehensible not the power, but the power that forgives. So in effect the schooling that Thomas must undergo is not unlike the schooling that we must undergo in the face of Auschwitz. Like Thomas we seek a God of power that will make the horrible reality of the Holocaust come out right, but all we find is a God whose presence and power resides in his steadfast graciousness. Such a presence is easily trivialized but when properly accepted it has a power that scares the wits out of the world. For the world does not seek to be forgiven, but to be in control by pretentiously assuming it has the power to forgive.

For preaching this message of forgiveness we find Peter imprisoned. All that Peter said was "The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness ofsins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those that obey him. " (Acts 5: 29- 32) For that we can end up in prison as we find what we, and the world, want is not a God with a power to forgive, we really want the God of Job -- the God of sheer power. We want a God that makes it possible to insure "never again" when faced with Auschwitz and all we get is a God that calls us to be forgiven. For that in short is the heart of the Gospel -- namely that we have been forgiven for the Holocaust. Resurrection is not God's retreat from us, but rather the clear sign that nothing we can do can alienate us from his steadfast will to forgive and love us and thus to make us into a people capable of forgiving and loving.

Who is responsible for the Holocaust?

But wait a minute! This is not the message we want when faced with Auschwitz. There are at least two substantive objections to putting the matter this way. First many feel they do not need to be forgiven for the Holocaust. After all, there have been worse genocides in history. All this talk about the uniqueness of the Holocaust is but another way the Jews are reasserting their uniqueness. And of course there is some truth to that, but indeed that is exactly why the Holocaust is so significant -- it happened to the Jews in the midst of an ostensibly Christian civilization.

But even that, many feel is not a peculiarly significant fact. After all, we did not do it. We Christians in America did not do it. Indeed we fought to undo it. The attempt of many to claim responsibility for Auschwitz, is but a masochistic attempt to secure moral identity by irrationally claiming guilt in a morally confused civilization. And again there is some truth to such criticism, but not very much. We simply cannot avoid, as Christians, recognizing that we prepared people for the Holocaust for centuries. Who can listen after Auschwitz to the Johannine crucifixion account on Good Friday with its constant referent to "the Jews did this" and "the Jews did that" without feeling uncomfortable. Yet we have to go on reading those passages as they remind us, we are in fact "the Jews" to which the text refers. And thus we are reminded why we need forgiveness for the Holocaust - namely because we have failed to be the church our very scripture has been turned into an ideology for vengeance.

An even more substantive difficulty with talking about being forgiven for the Holocaust comes from the survivors of Auschwitz. For surely from their perspective Christian talk about forgiveness in connection with Auschwitz is nothing less than obscene. What gall and pretention. First the Christians kill and persecute the Jews and then they turn around and claim that God has forgiven them of such heinous crimes -- not only forgiven them, but now they can learn to forgive themselves. The Jews should rightly feel that such forgiveness is surely cheap grace, but nonetheless that is what we must say. To say anything less would be to obey men and not God and thus be robbed of the Holy Spirit we have been given through the resurrection.

Christians must ask forgiveness of Jews

Indeed, Christian complicity with the Holocaust was due to our forgetting our task was to obey God and not men, that our task was not to form a civilization where we would be safe from being thrown in jail for preaching God's forgiveness, but rather our task is to be a community of the forgiven. For such a community knows that God chooses not to rule the world by power divorced from love but rather comes to us as the crucified Lord who remains ever ready to forgive -- even the Holocaust.

I do not pretend that this message can be or should be easily accepted by Jew or Christian but it is the message of the Gospel. But I am afraid the claim is finally even more offensive than this. Indeed I hesitate to say it and certainly would try to avoid it if I were not under the discipline of these texts. For the resurrection not only means that we Christians have an obligation to accept forgiveness for the Holocaust, but we must ask the Jews to forgive us. If we do not do so we cannot help but be caught in the eternal game of I am guiltier than you and thus fail to face our common destiny.

Questions of whether the Jew should be converted pale next to this. For our task is not to make Jews Christians, but simply to ask them to forgive us. We must do that because we believe that we worship the God who in Christ has asked nothing new that had not already been asked of the Jew and the non-Jew. Just as the Jew has so often been forced to see God in the face of the stranger so we must ask the Jew to see their God in us, the Christians -- a God who asks of them and of us that we be capable of forgiveness. The reality of the Holocaust cannot be made to go away by continuing to weigh up guilt and responsibility. Such exercises, while not completely pointless, often come close to being obscene. Rather what we and the Jew must both do is to remember. But without forgiveness we Christians are tempted simply to forget or deny; and Jews are tempted to lose their humanity in humiliation or vengeance. But if we are forgiven we have the chance to remember and to make this terrible event part of our common history as we each look forward to the day when God's kingdom will come and we can embrace as brother and sister.

In the meantime, we can celebrate his presence -- the presence of his Spirit among us -- by learning how to allow ourselves to be forgiven. We cannot very well march up to our Jewish neighbors and ask them to forgive us if we have created no other significant ties with them. With some imagination we can think of ways to let them appreciate how we -- as "Easter people" -- live by a new life not in triumph but in our openness to the suffering that has been theirs and is part of our history as well. In this way, we can begin a new journey together -- with this week as a new beginning.

To join the conversation at CLAL Encore Talk, click here.
To access the CLAL Encore Archive, click here.