We’re continuing this guest series from my good friend, Matthew Simpson. Matthew is a life-long Episcopalian who graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg , Virginia, with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. His focus during his studies at University were on various topics such as Qur’anic Studies, Confucian Thought, Post-Holocaust Jewish Theodicy, and Christian Existentialism. He is currently a student at in the Diaconal Studies Program at General Theological Seminary in New York City, and in the four-year process to be ordained in the Sacred Order of Deacons in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. He is currently a member of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
In case you missed it, here is the link to the first post in this series. Enjoy!
Through this series of blog posts, I have led us down a path that is not comfortable. We have seen Scriptures that make us question our understanding of God’s justice. My whole purpose for this is that before we develop a theology regarding suffering and evil, we should empathize with the human experience of suffering and evil. This theology must be felt before it is thought: If we do not feel a very real sense of the tragedy, the loss, and the despair for the suffering in our world, we cannot be in a position to develop a theology on it. For our next stop on our journey, I want to bring us now to one of the darkest points in our human history, and in a lot of ways our theological history. I want to bring us to Holocaust.
Why Holocaust? I wish we could say it was an anomaly in human history. I could have talked about the systematic annihilation of the native peoples of this land by the United States. I could have talked of the death marches of Mao Zedong, the gulags of Stalin, the fields of Pol Pot, the slave trade of Colonial America… so why this? Theologically, the Holocaust strikes a little closer to Christians, because when we are talking about the victims of this abomination, we are talking about the “chosen people,” the people of the Covenant. These are God’s people too, so then why this? How could this happen? How could God let this happen?
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”1
This quote from Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel always moves me. He speaks of the experience of a person of genuine and innocent faith encountering the unspeakable horror of human evil. He, and other Jews were sent to camps to die, and the world remained silent… Worse; so did God. Six million (can we even comprehend the loss of one innocent victim?) Jewish people were murdered, more were victimized. Were the survivors lucky? All the times that I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., what strikes me is what is missing from our statistics. In the museum, when you walk the journey of the years leading up to the Holocaust, you see a people that are hated and systematically oppressed; bit by bit, their freedom, possessions, dignity, and humanity are stripped away from them. Only after that horrid degradation are they hauled away like cattle to be slaughtered. “Arbeit macht frei” — is there a crueler phrase to welcome you to a death camp?
What of the Germans? Were all Germans evil; or just a majority of them? What is the power or the psychological force that gets so many humans to agree to the systematic slaughter of other human beings? And of course we know in history it was not just Germans; Spanish Conquistadors, Christian Crusaders, American Settlers, Japanese soldiers… and the list continues… all had their fair share of perpetuating oppression and death. Humanity has an unfathomable capacity for evil. And when I remember all that we have done, all the violence, all the evil we continue to do… I can only hope that God is somehow better and greater than these terrors that can bring me to my knees in despair and grief.
Is God Abusive?
Finding ourselves in the muck and mire of God’s apparent abandonment, and human sin, what are ways to try to theologize ourselves out of this mess? Can we? Should we? There has been a post-Holocaust movement in Jewish Theology that tries to answer, or at least address these impossible situations. In Rabbi David Blumenthal’s book, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, he addresses one way in which to approach theodicy:
“To have faith in a post-holocaust, abuse-sensitive world is, first, to know — to recognize and to admit — that God is an abusing God, but not always.”2 Rabbi Blumenthal does not say God is Abusive, but that abusiveness is an attribute of God. God is also merciful and loving, but God is abusive.
Rabbi Blumenthal compares the phenomenon of child abuse, with which he has much experience working with victims, to how God treats God’s people. He argues that God’s cycle of consolation, punishment/violence, reconciliation back to consolation and punishment mimics a cycle of abuse one sees in child abuse and in abusive relationships in general:
“I have crushed, and I shall heal; there is no escape from My hand.” (Duet. 32:39)
“And if you do not listen to Me in this and you go rebelliously with Me, I shall go in the rage of rebellion with you, punishing you sevenfold for your sins… You shall eat the flesh of your boys and consume the bodies of your girls…” “As He rejoiced over you to show goodness to you and to multiply you, so will He rejoice over you to destroy you and to annihilate you…” In the morning you will say, ‘Would that it were evening’ and in the evening you will say, ‘Would that it were morning’ because of the fear which you will feel in your heart and the sights which you will see with your eyes.” (Lev. 26:27, 29; Deut. 28:63, 67)3
Rabbi Blumenthal also discusses a great deal the phenomenon of child abuse and how it relates to Theodicy. In addition to the silence during the slaughter of God’s chosen people, how can God allow the violation of such innocence around the world? Particularly when abuse happens so often in environments that are supposed to be safe (homes and churches/faith communities). Where is the justice? And how can the victims (the victims are almost always forgotten) possibly heal from the perpetual brokenness that comes from this victimization. Though we choose to evade it, often we bear in our own society the marks of abuse. Child abuse often leads to mental illness, poor cognitive development, and behavior problems, but we choose, as a society, to clump it together as bad choices. If one is abused, how can one be taught healthy choices? Today still there is human trafficking resulting in slavery and the rape of women, boys and babies; and God’s silence continues. Is not God abusive? Or at least negligent to Creation?
How can we pick up the broken pieces of our lives? How can we mend the damage done of ages past? What do we do with all of this? Is all suffering unjustified? Sure some suffering happens because of our personal choices. A gay man gets HIV for being promiscuous; but what if his crime was simply looking for love in all the wrong places? Does he surely deserve the suffering of AIDS and the stigma and judgement that goes with it? A hopeless and abandoned woman getting an abortion too deserves her suffering, does she not? And what is all this when we compare it to a child dying of leukemia, a still-birth, a young father diagnosed with cancer, or 21 children being gunned down at their school? Wars continue, children are abused and in our own lives we see pain and struggle in ourselves and those around us.
I think it is healthy at some point in our contemplation of suffering and evil to be “lost.” I find that getting “lost” can be helpful occasionally, and vital if there is ever to be any real hope to be found. In our journey we see the safe and established formula “God rewards the righteous, and causes sinners to suffer” may be true at times, but it is certainly not true much of the time. For those who hold to “Prosperity Gospel,” the Book of Job and any basic observation of the world and of history will obliterate its foundations (not to mention any critical look at the life, suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth).
So where do we go from here? For Christians, we must now go to the Incarnation for any hope (if there is any). But for now I will leave you with a Jewish Prayer to the God who abuses:
“May God Who is our Father and our King; Who injures, destroys, and harms beyond reason; Who loves graciously, and is compassionate, and cares—
May God turn His Face to you so that you can see Him.
May His Face smile upon you, and may you know that.
May God share with you His anguish and His shame at His own hateful actions.
May God bless you, and may you receive His blessing.
1: Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. S. Rodway (New York: Bantam Books, 1960; repr. 1982), p. 32.
2: Blumenthal, David R., Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, p. 248.
3: For further Scripture readings Blumenthal uses as examples: Isa. 42:24-43:4; Isa. 51:17-23; Jer. 13:25-26; Isa. 3:16-17; Hos. 2:12, 21-22; Ezek. 16:6-8, 36-42.
4: Blumenthal, David R., Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, 285.