Food for Thought-Living Lent in the Shadow of Auschwitz



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We live in a momentous time for Christians.  Ours is an era that has brought religion and ideology to the forefront of political and social debate around the world.  In the far corners of the globe, Christians are confronting violence, oppression, and war in embodied authenticity and commitment to the Gospel.  However, for all the positive changes facilitated by Christians, there is still much mistrust and contempt between Christianity and the other great Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Judaism.  While the conflict with Islam may be the most visible, playing itself in American campaign speeches as well as the back streets of Baghdad, many Christians find relating to Judaism both problematic and confusing.  Though some Christians see the post-1948 Israeli state as the lineal extension of the Old Testament Kingdoms and as a bulwark of democracy in an autocratic middle east, they still see Judaism and the Jewish people as ignoring the most important aspect of the Christian faith:  the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited Hebrew Messiah.

On many occasions, I have listened to devout evangelicals and firm supporters of Israel’s place in the Middle East; ask openly, “Why don’t they get it?”  These people will often ask, that given the overwhelming weight of “evidence” they interpret from the Old Testament, why is not clear to our Semitic brothers and sisters that Jesus was who he claimed to be.  That’s how it started in Germany, a holocaust survivor once told me.  “Why haven’t we figured it out?”  From there, the conversations deteriorate quickly into rants against the evil of the Pharisees, the heartlessness of the Jewish establishment in rejecting Jesus, and finally a desire to set the record straight, usually by reaffirming a desire to share the Gospel with the whole house of Israel.  In mere seconds, the Israelites have become “the Jews” and a group in dire need of conversion and immediate salvation.  Can this be wrong?   Can Christians ever be wrong by setting their sights upon a particular group, especially a group with whom we share so much in common?  I think so.

It is a question of motivation.  What are the motivations driving the desire to evangelize?  What is it that lies at the root of our understanding of Judaism that leads us to believe that these chosen descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the like are seemingly cut off from the salvation offered by the same God we claim to worship.  It seems unbelievable to many Christians that the Jewish people who, given the benefit of 2000 thousand years of Christian history and Biblical scholarship still choose not to accept Jesus as the Messiah.  These Christians see Judaism’s collective refusal to accept Jesus as the worse kind of spiritual transgression-willfully turning their backs on their personal savior.

What I have outlined here is nothing new.  It is simply a broad outline of centuries of anti-Semitic thought and as I believe, how many Christians mask anti-Semitism in the guise of evangelistic zeal.  Sadly, many of these opinions and ideas are so embedded in Christian teaching, preaching, and doctrine that Christians (lay and clergy alike) are unaware of what they are saying or the full implications of holding and sharing such beliefs.  It is this dilemma, especially in the post-September 11th world, which raises many important questions for Christians.  We must begin to ask these questions if we intend to address the latent anti-Semitism still existing in our world and churches today.

We need to question our theology.  To paraphrase the German Roman Catholic theologian Johan Baptist Metz, if the theology we teach, the preaching we proclaim, or the texts we interpret are such that they could remain unchanged after Auschwitz, then we must be on our guard.  Only last year, events were held around the world to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  This event, coming so close to the beginning of the Christian season of Lent, has prompted many Christians (and Jews) to ask these questions once again. The Lenten season is an especially appropriate time for Christians to ask such questions.  Lent is a time devoted to intense spiritual questioning and repentance.  It is a time when modern Christianity is forced to confront (on a yearly basis) it’s own culpability in the passion narratives as well as our own view of modern Judaism observed through the prism of 1st century Judaism.

What are the questions that Christians should ask?  We could begin anywhere.  How do we love, embrace, and respect those who are different from us when we are convinced of the rightness of our own theology?  How do Christians offer a reasoned explanation of their own faith without denigrating another belief system?  How can we understand that many of the same sentiments Christians express toward Judaism today were the same ideas that were used and manipulated to eventually justify orchestrated genocide.  How do we confront the shameful reality that anti-Semitism was not only condoned in the church but also legitimized in doctrine and theology for most of Christian history?  When will we begin to use an authentic Christological hermeneutic rather than an implied anti-Jewish hermeneutic when interpreting Biblical texts?

It is not the responsibility of the church to explain the holocaust.  In many ways, it is an unexplainable evil.  However, we must live and teach in a world where the crimes of only 70 years ago inform our theological task today. Our message, particularly as we approach Easter, cannot remain the same, should not remain the same, in light of events such as Auschwitz, Bosnia, or Rwanda.  Some may argue that these issues have been brought to the fore because of the recent rise in Christian themed films (Risen, The Young Messiah); beginning with Mel Gibson’s 2003 “Passion of the Christ”.  I argue that the importance of being truthful about the role of second temple Judaism in the execution of Jesus does not stem from the accuracy, inaccuracy, or timeliness of a movie.

While our questions may begin to form in the Chief Priest’s courtyard 2000 years ago, it is those same questions, passed down through history, which culminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz that we have not yet adequately framed or begun to answer. Martin Buber described this tension this way:

“In this our time, one asks again and again: how is a Jewish life still possible after

Auschwitz? I would like to frame this question more correctly: how is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? … One can still “believe” in a God who allowed those things to happen, but how can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word? … Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Call on Him, for He is kind, for His mercy endureth forever?”

Dare we, as Christians, ask the survivors of Auschwitz (or their descendants) why they don’t get it?  Or is it the Church, that doesn’t get it? Is it Western Protestants, who still like the story Jesus told in soothing Shakespearean English yet with vaguely anti-Semitic undertones who are missing something?