Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87 on Saturday. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he was a Holocaust survivor who wrote extensively of his experience in the camps (he spent time in Birkenau, Auschwitz and Buna, and was liberated from Buchenwald).
Wiesel's first book, written in 1955 after ten years of silence concerning his experience, is called Night. It is his story of life in the camps. It is a horrifying read, but also a must read, perhaps ever more so as the distance of time begins to fade the memory. The Holocaust is an event that cannot be forgotten. The future of the world depends on it.
I first read Night in a European History class in college. I am certain I have read it more times than any other book, and it changes my life every time I do. It has profoundly affected my understanding of and relationship to God. In truth, I believe the Holocaust is the event that changed Theology for ever, although that change has been mightily (and, unfortunately successfully) been resisted, particularly by Christians.
How has it changed theology? For two major reasons, I think.
First of all, the Holocaust confronts the church with the truth that anti-semitism and anti-Judaism have been a cancer at its core almost from the beginning. I do not believe the Holocaust is conceivable without this cancerous distortion which has over history produced more pogroms and holocausts of differing proportions than can be counted. To believe not only that the Jews killed Jesus, but that they have remained personally responsible for this atrocity throughout history is our sorry legacy as Christians. There can be no atoning for it, except in perpetual humility and constantly renewed deference to God's chosen people.
Second of all, our understanding of God has to be affected by this massive challenge to any facile understanding of God's goodness that the Holocaust brings. Perhaps the most-quoted passage from Night comes in a dialogue between a fellow prisoner and Wiesel after they witness the hanging of a young boy along with two adults at Buna. The thousands of prisoners at the camp were forced to watch this horror, and then pass by one by one to see the victims up close. Wiesel writes,
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive...
For more than a half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look at 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 this gallows..."
That night the soup tasted of corpses.
For me this profoundly moving passage has meant that over and over again I have to allow my easy understandings of God and how God relates to the world has to die over and over again. There can be no easy resting on God's omnipotence, goodness and triumph over evil. There must always be the question, "Why?" Nearly everyone has the experience of asking, "Why?" when personal or global tragedy strikes. The Holocaust means that it is always a legitimate question; there is no disobedience or heresy in asking it. It is a question with which we must frequently wrestle, and it is a question we must take care never to answer definitively? To do so suggests a control and an understanding to which we can never attain.
There is also a strong sense that suffering must be allowed into the heart of God, and, in Christian terms, into the life of the Trinity. I know that I am treading on potentially heretical ground here, something called "patripassionism," the claim that God the Father suffered when God the Son suffered, a notion theologians have deemed to have been impossible for centuries. An omnipotent God cannot suffer. Any God that makes sense to me after the Holocaust, and after the suffering of individuals, including my own, that I have experienced over time, has to know suffering at his very heart. Creation itself requires it, if we make any claim that God is both responsible for it and remains a partner in it.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler, participated in a plot to assassinate him, was jailed and eventually hung for it, wrote from prison that "only the suffering God can help."
Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God inn the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only a suffering God can help. (Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, enlarged edition edited by Eberhard Bethge (1971), p. 361.)
I am an Easter Christian, but not one which can ever experience Easter without Good Friday. Easter is our hope. Good Friday is the world in which we live. There can be no Easter triumphalism. In Easter we say the powers of death have been defeated, that now nothing can separate us from the love of God. Easter proclaims God's ultimate future in which we can trust, and it is the power to live through Good Friday, but only through, not around.
Some random thoughts on the death of Elie Wiesel.