Holocaust Memorial Museum Reflections: Theodicy and Systemic Opposition

We are pleased to be sharing, over the coming weeks, a series of three reflection pieces on the State of Formation visit to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum this March. Each one is a collaborative piece from two of our Contributing Scholars

The two related issues of theodicy and the problem of evil more generally were brought to mind during the recent trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The question of why such an event was allowed to happen, both from a theological standpoint as well as from a socio-historical view, remained in our minds as we walked through the exhibits and participated in the discussions with our fellow Contributing Scholars. We came up with a list of three questions, which both of us have answered separately.

How do you and/or your tradition understand the issue of theodicy/problem of evil? 


Eli: The first question deals with how our respective traditions understand the related problems of theodicy and the problem of evil.  For me, the explanation for theodicy I have always found to be the best explanation is from the book of Isaiah, in which G-d states: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the LORD.” (Isaiah 55:8) While this quote does not directly relate to the issue of theodicy, I have always felt it is applicable, due to the fact that as humans we cannot ever fully understand the way G-d interacts with the world and for what reason certain things happen. This does not mean that I do not think that trying to find reasons and ways of understanding is not productive, rather I mean that trying to find an ultimate reason is impossible. I feel that is definitely applicable to the Holocaust and other genocidal episodes, as we can only hope to understand what happened in historical and social terms. Theological understanding is helpful, but such knowledge may never truly be possible. During and after the Holocaust, there were many Jewish people who tried to understand how this event was able to happen from the position of trying to understand why G-d was seemingly absent during it.

There is also the entirety of the book of Job, which is primarily about G-d testing Job, at the behest of ha-Satan, literally “the opponent,” or “the adversary,” in order to see if Job will still have faith in G-d after all the trials to which he is subjected. In the Jewish tradition ha-Satan has the role of the prosecuting angel who also tries to tempt people to do evil through the Evil Inclination (Yetzer Ha-ra) which is present in every person, which is an idea presented in the Talmud. The book of Job is required reading for people who are mourning the death of a loved one, since it deals directly with questioning G-d and being tested, but ultimately being rewarded for keeping the faith, as well being a source of comfort as Job was comforted by his friends. This was the genesis of the idea that people are supposed to visit the mourner to provide comfort during the mourning period. I feel that in many ways, since the Holocaust as well as other more recent genocidal attempts, both the Jewish community but also the wider world is in a period of perpetual mourning for what was lost, even though life must go on and those who were lost must be remembered and the perpetrators brought to whatever justice is possible.

Micah: The Holocaust is an event in history that flips modern understandings of sin and justice completely upside down. In the Baptist tradition in which I was raised, the story of the Holocaust forces impossible questions. How can a good God allow such evil? If God can allow such evil and be in control, then is God worthy of worship? While I think those are valuable questions that can lead to some important conversations, they don’t particularly shed much light on what to do with evil in the world. The natural reaction is to ask why and to put rationality behind irrational events. The story of the Holocaust doesn’t fit into an interpretative box. When you try to do that, you come out with some terrible renderings of theology that usually end up implicating the wrong party. I think theology is much more helpful in forming a response than any type of explanation. However, as our group walked through the Holocaust Museum, the farthest thought in my head was how to theologize such a story. As I walked through the exhibits I continually felt as though I was being implicated myself. Behind the Holocaust lies an intersectional mess of propaganda, stereotypes, and nationalism that laid the tracks for mass genocide of neighbors, friends, and co-workers. I understand evil to be an ever-present potentiality behind the structures that guide us. The Holocaust serves as a reminder that nobody is immune from this type of evil. As an individual who has not faced much oppression, who is usually in a position of privilege, I have to be committed to placing myself in the shoes of those who have power in these kinds of stories. In the story of the Holocaust and as a Christian who had a message of ‘we are the oppressed’ peddled to me for most of my life, I want to place myself as the Jew, as the one who was in the right. However, I often find myself in the position of the Aryan, in a place of power, not knowing the full extent of my actions, or knowing them and looking the other way. Understanding the problem of evil, for me, is an extremely personal process, but it is one that requires commitment to understanding where I fit in the story.

Why do you think it was so easy/quick for people to turn on their neighbors during the Holocaust (as well as more recent genocidal episodes)?


Eli: This bring up the related question of why it was seemingly so easy for people who had lived with the Jews, either before or after the emancipation of the Jews in various European countries, to turn on their neighbors and participate in their persecution and genocide. Socio-historical explanations include the widespread resentment of the crushing demands placed upon Germany after World War I, which led to the very high unemployment and other social issues plaguing inter-war Germany. Scapegoating has always been a human tendency in times of trouble, as it allows for people to deflect the blame for their situation to another cause which is then seen as the true source of the problem. Why the Jews in particular were blamed can be understood as a product of the anti-Semitism that was present in European culture more generally, although I think this is in some ways too simplistic. This fear of the Other is another human tendency, whether that Other is a member of a different religious, political, or ethnic group. This is applicable to the fact that while the Jews were by far the main target during the Holocaust, many other groups were targeted because they were seen as less than human for a variety of reasons, including mental or physical impairments, adhering to different political ideologies, or were criminals or deviants due to their being homosexuals.

Another factor could be that those who participated directly or indirectly in some way in the Holocaust – one can argue that anything short of some sort of active resistance can count and/or should count as participating – were also waiting for such a time when they would be able to take over the possessions of their neighbors, and the situation during the Holocaust was the time they felt gave them free reign to do so. This idea was a major point in the exhibit “Some Were Neighbors,” which dealt with various instances in which their non-Jewish neighbors had profited in some way from the deportation of the Jews to the camps. In some cases, the people actively sought to have their neighbors taken away so they could take possessions from their houses as well as elsewhere. These episodes prove that the idea that the average person was not aware of what was going on is not true, as they knew that the Jews would not be returning. Some of the people involved seemingly felt no guilt at doing this, or participating in auctions of goods that were left behind or confiscated from the deportees. These instances show how easy it is to justify such behavior once those being persecuted are dehumanized and demonized, since this functions as a way to distance oneself from those who are seen as less than oneself. This idea also applies to other genocidal episodes after the Holocaust, such as the Rwandan genocide, in which neighbors also turned on neighbors.

Micah: Continuing with the idea I brought up earlier of placing yourself in the story, I think it is too easy to assume that the German people woke up one morning and simply decided to commit one of the worst evils in all of history. Clearly there was much more going on. I think it is effective here to ask yourself what it might take for you to eventually think it would be okay to commit a similar act. It turns out, if you’re like me, that it would not be a rational choice you could ever make. The German people were living in a morphed reality, one that saw the Jews as the solution to a handful of problems. In the eyes of the German people, the Jews were robbed of their humanness and made into symbolic idols representing the failings of the Weimar republic and Germany after WWI (I use the term idol not to suggest that Jews were esteemed, but rather as an ideal type to show how the Jewish people took on an image that represented what the Germans wanted to see). Jewish neighbors were emptied of their humanity and instead filled with everything that was wrong with Germany. In this way the Jews became both the problem and the solution. One of the images that struck me the most at the Holocaust Museum was the room of shoes that had been collected in stages prior to the gas chambers. All I could think of was the bodies attached to those shoes. Bodies who had personality, who were unique, who had stories, who cried and laughed, who had best friends and crushes, who loved and lost. How could you see such an image and not think of those things? I kept asking myself how it would feel to see the shoes of my partner, my friends, and my family in that pile. There are countless layers of stories, experiences, nuances, and love that connect all of those people to me. Those elements can never be rediscovered in history. The power of evil when perpetuated in social systems results in the radical separation of humanity from human. How could one look at such an image and not be struck by its silence? The Germans were exterminating their problems, which the Nazi regime had decided were the Jews. What proceeded was the radical detachment of humanity from human, for it is much easier to murder an idol than it is to murder a human.

I say all of this in an attempt to make use of the Holocaust. Many friends, including myself before the tour, recognize the Holocaust for an evil that should never be repeated again, but that response is not enough. The same potential for evil lies behind much of the rhetoric and systems that are in place today. You see it in the commodification of gender and religion, in the case of the current refugee crisis, and the ideal American is continually reified as white and Christian in order to maintain control. The civil religion of America is one that relies on the same type of villainizing used by the Nazi party. When I use the term civil religion I refer to many of the social expectations and norms that many Americans implicitly follow. A great example of this is the American idea of patriotism. There are not many things in America that gain national respect like being a veteran. This type of civil religion is reinforced through ritual like any other faith. The worship ritual being the standing and placing of your right hand over your heart. Each political candidate is spinning their own version of American civil religion. You can hear it in their speeches and in the people they indict for America’s problems. To ignore the fact that systems like this weren’t affecting the German people is to deny our own reality as well. Assuming that the Germans were inherently evil people from the beginning ignores most of the story of the Holocaust. It is much more painful and difficult to place yourself in the story as the oppressor. However, doing so allows for an understanding of the Holocaust that implicates systems that can be critiqued even today rather than writing off a generation of people as evil.

In relation to the above question, what do you think can be done to counter this in the future? 


Eli: Trying to counter this dehumanizing tendency both in general but specifically in times of economic or other social hardships is a major issue, both in the present but also for the future.  I feel that if people truly believed that people everywhere are deserving of human rights and decency, simply due to the fact that we all share the common bond of humanity, this would be a better world. I am proud to be able to be involved in creating such a world, in which no matter where we are from, what language we speak, our political ideologies, religious belief or lack thereof, our sexual preferences, and any other factors that make people different from one another, we all recognize that we share the same world, and therefore we should all work together rather letting our prejudices keep getting the better of us.

Micah: The problem with systems of evil is that unselfish concepts like love, grace, and peace have no currency within them. Writing a letter to McDonalds to object to their meat practices, citing the un-loving nature of the system, is a misunderstanding of the system itself. The goal never was to love, the goal was never to be fair, the goal was to make cheap dollar menu McDoubles. As long as that process remains unharmed, and the McDouble industry is strong, critiques of love and fairness might as well be grains of sand thrown at a castle. So how do you combat evil systems that systemically leave no room for concerns that don’t further themselves? I’m afraid the answer is not clear. The Jewish people victimized in the Holocaust could do nothing more to show their humanness, and the evil actions of the Nazi party. The horrendous events of the Holocaust weren’t carried out in a vacuum, there was resistance, cries of anguish, and desperate attempts to avoid the fate of so many. The justice the Jewish people sought had no currency in the scheme of nationalism that had laid its roots in the hearts and minds of the German people writ large. Systems that function to strip the humanity from a group of people are clearly not affected by that which they systemically remove, namely, the emotive actions of humans.

However, it is important to note the potentiality behind all systems for such ignorance. The ignorance of systems can work both ways, good and bad. I want to advocate self-awareness as a way of countering evil systems. In the 21st century there are plenty of historical accounts of genocidal activities from which we can learn. Take even the fundamentalist movement in the American south. What was once mainline religion one hundred years ago is now, at least in part, participating in a system of hatred and condemnation. I don’t want to say here that systems within their own context are perfectly fine, but I want to point out the potential behind systems that aren’t allowed to dialogue, to adjust, and to think critically. Writing to post WWII Germany Christians, Paul Tillich tried to point out the potentiality of evil in faith in his book Dynamics of Faith. He pushes for an awareness of what concerns become “ultimate,” citing the recent failure of German nationalism. According to Tillich, every act of faith is a centered act of the whole person. In other words, the way you act, and the systems you participate in, are lived into fully by each action you take. What this creates is an awareness of the connection between action and system. The better systems can be understood, the better we can be aware of the ways we as individuals and communities live into them, and either perpetuate or fight them. As a person of power and privilege, I have to place myself as the German oppressor in the story, because that is the way I fit into the story now. Not because I am constantly attempting to oppress Jews, but because I more likely than not have a choice in the systems that have very real consequences for other groups of people. This plays out in economics as much as it does in theology. The theological constructs we perpetuate affect actions taken and the lens through which we see the other. The Nazi villainizing of Jews turned Jesus into an Aryan, much in the same way American culture has made Jesus a white, heterosexual male. Religious traditions have to carry this same sort of systemic awareness in order to suppress and combat the potentiality that lies behind them. There has to be room for dialogue and room to rethink the images and ideals religious traditions and communities are living into. Awareness is not an easy and convenient way to combat evil, but we have to continue to suppress the potential evil with the same power that it assumes once actualized. Understanding each individual’s place in narratives like the Holocaust is a first step down a road of constant thought and reflection, one that I have just begun.

Image Courtesy of NorthJersey

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