Religion and Resistance: The Holocaust and Today

We are pleased to share the last of 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. Read the first two here and here.

This past month, we had the opportunity to attend a tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, followed by conversation with some of the directors and fellows at the museum. In this visit, one common idea called out from the exhibits of shoes and hair collected from victims of Nazi concentration camps. It reverberated from the milk can unearthed in a Jewish ghetto that was found to hold the diaries, scholarly writings, sacred texts, and hymns that faithful Jews had hidden to preserve their legacy and give hope and strength to future generations. It echoed through the halls dedicated to the stories of those who had risked their lives to save those targeted by the Holocaust – and the stories of those who targeted them. It cried out from the photos of contemporary instances of genocide in Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda. It resounded in presentations given by scholars on their research of the Holocaust. And it rang clear in the story and accompanying photos of a Holocaust Museum worker’s serendipitous encounter with thousands of modern-day refugees from Syria stranded at a train station in Budapest, Hungary, an encounter that led to her joining them for hours on their 150-mile march to sanctuary in Austria. This idea is simply thus: we must never, ever underestimate the power of religion.

For both good and evil, religion has employed its considerable power and resources throughout history, and yet today, religious and non-religious persons alike oftentimes underestimate religion’s ability to change our world – at least for the better. At times, it seems as though we have more “faith,” if you can call it that, in religion’s susceptibility for collusion with oppression, and the checkered pasts of religions in human history justify this pessimism. However, religions’ pasts are just that – checkered, not monolithic. For all of the evil perpetrated under the guise of religion, we believe that there is a liberating power to and moral core within our respective religious traditions that possesses the potential to become a counternarrative, an alternative way of embodying and enacting our religions, that goes head-to-head with and, we believe, can ultimately prove victorious over the evil and oppressive applications of religion that often fill our history books and television screens. And so we reflect upon the power of our personal faith traditions – one Jewish, one Christian – and what we learned about the kinds of power they had during the Holocaust and how this gives us insight into our present state and hope for our future.

1. What role did the religion of your faith tradition play in the Holocaust?

Sarah Fein (SF): Jews are primarily considered victims of the Holocaust, and to an important extent, that is true. There is a reason Jews refer to this event as the “Shoah” (a word meaning “destruction”). It is hard to exaggerate the destruction the Nazi regime wreaked upon the Jewish community: six million, including one million children, were murdered, and countless others were displaced. Entire towns and villages were wiped out, and the Jewish populations of many countries (including Poland, Greece, and the Netherlands) were decimated. The reasons for the targeting of Jews are complex, and I encourage anyone who wishes to learn more to visit the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum.

However, the Jewish community also resisted Nazi persecution in significant ways. Most obviously, this came in the form of organized armed resistance, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April-May 1943, or the revolt at the Sobibor work camp in October 1943. Unfortunately, this form of resistance was usually unsuccessful against the German war machine. Jews also engaged in forms of spiritual resistance, which the USHMM defines as “attempts by individuals to maintain their humanity, personal integrity, dignity, and sense of civilization in the face of Nazi attempts to dehumanize and degrade them.” This included circulating secret newspapers, holding religious services, or studying Jewish texts. It was truly this spiritual resistance that allowed Jewish communities to persevere and rebuild after the horrors of the Holocaust.

Haley Feuerbacher (HF): In terms of the role of Christianity – or Christianities – in the Holocaust, the German Christian Church used their theology to justify their compliance with the Nazi regime and Holocaust, and churches became institutions for Nazi and nationalist indoctrination. On the other hand, the German Confessing Church organized itself in opposition to state control of the Church. Notably, though, the Confessing Church never issued an official decree opposing the Holocaust or the murdering of Jews.

However, certain members of the German Confessing Church such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did in fact openly oppose this violence against Jews and took actions to stop the Nazis and to protect Jews. We have stories of ordinary Christians such as watchmaker Corrie ten Boom and her family who hid Jews and participated in the Dutch Underground, decisions that they say were motivated by their Christian faith. But in the case of Bonhoeffer, perhaps the most famous theologian to challenge the genocidal acts of the Nazis, he felt as though he was contradicting his own religious beliefs in pacifism – though not his moral responsibility to and love for his neighbors – by participating in an assassination plot against Hitler.

A third way that Christianity played a role in the Holocaust was to quell any impetus for action and produce in many Christians a sense of inevitability, paralysis, desensitization, and lack of options. As we learned in our tour of the museum, the majority of Christians did nothing in the face of the genocide of their neighbors.

2. How do you think it was able to play that particular role?

SF: The Jewish community, targeted as they were by the Nazis, had little choice in how to respond to such persecution. Many European Jews could not believe the rumors that circulated about the atrocities the German state was committing, and thus remained in a state of denial until it was too late. Given the efficiency of the Nazi war machine, their options, once they realized the truth, were limited: flee, or fight (which was usually futile).

Yet there was a deep well of spiritual strength within the Jewish community, perhaps built up through centuries of persecution at the hands of the Romans, the Catholic Church, and the Polish government, to name a few. For some Jews, belief that they had a special relationship with G-d, and that G-d and the forces of good would prevail, was a source of comfort. Perhaps these two blessings from the Amidah, the central prayer of the liturgy which traditional Jews pray three times per day, rang especially true as they were furtively whispered in root cellars and ghettos across Europe:

For the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all wickedness perish in an instant. May all Your people’s enemies swiftly be cut down. May You swiftly uproot, crush, cast down and humble the arrogant swiftly in our days. Blessed are You, LORD, who destroys enemies and humbles the arrogant.

To the righteous, the pious, the elders of Your people the house of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, the righteous converts, and to us, may Your compassion be aroused, LORD our G-d. Grant a good reward to all who sincerely trust in Your name. Set our lot with them, so that we may never be ashamed, for in You we trust. Blessed are You, LORD, who is the support and trust of the righteous. (Translation from the Koren Siddur, 2009)

HF: A distinguishing characteristic of the Christian faith is that we do not believe our sacred text was handed down in one complete form by God, but was instead written by inspired humans over centuries, the products of which were voted on for inclusion in what is now basically the library we call the Bible. However, starting in the Enlightenment, Christians began emphasizing the perfection of the text as divine and inerrant in its original form. Many groups of Christians began accepting singular interpretations of Scripture, presented to them as fact by those “ordained” with the power to decide what was orthodox or not.

After its defeat and difficulty reconstructing after World War I, Germany felt itself in need of messages of hope and national pride. This need in Germany found a happy bedfellow with the German cultural tradition of high regard for authority. New Testament passages were interpreted to mean that God ordains every governing power on earth and commands our obedience to this earthly power, compartmentalized  from our obedience to divine power. This in turn spawned a sense of helplessness and inevitability amongst many Christians who might have had some moral anxieties about Nazism and the Holocaust. Additionally, theologies scapegoating Jews as “Christ-killers” and enemies of the Christian faith had long been in circulation and became increasingly popular during this time.

But then you have those Christians who protected the Jews as their brothers and sisters and who opposed Nazism. Their religiously-inspired activism is testimony to the fact that our faith and religious resources for discerning truth and morality are indeed ambivalent. The Christian opposition to Nazism continues the tradition established at our religion’s inception of being a movement of the marginalized, drawing from scriptural texts and historical precedents that attest to Christianity’s distinction from earthly powers and moral responsibility to the oppressed as a means of serving God. This motivation for social justice and activism reads God as siding with the poor and marginalized and envisions love, service, and sacrifice for the sake of the suffering to be an act of love for God and means of sharing in Christ’s suffering and glory.

3. Do you see any similarities and differences in the way that people of your faith tradition are engaging with situations of oppression and social injustice today, compared to the ways they engaged during the Holocaust?

SF: There has always been a strong tradition of tzedakah–literally “justice,” but colloquially “charity”–within Judaism. Jews have always been called to care for the “widow and “orphan” in their midst. Today, the term tikkun olam–repairing the world–is used to refer to acts of social justice, which plays at least a small part, and often a very large part, in every Jewish community’s mission.

Due to a complex intersection of all sorts of political, social, and religious forces, Jewish communities have often been isolated, even insular, and have in large part had to take care of their own. Only in the past century or two have Jews become assimilated into mainstream societies (and even today, this is not true everywhere) and thus had to grapple with, among other things, social responsibility for those outside of the Jewish community. There will always be a need to aid one’s fellow Jews where they are suffering persecution, living in poverty, or are otherwise in need. The challenge for Jewish communities who are in relatively secure positions today is how to most effectively practice tikkun olam with their non-Jewish neighbors. “Never again” does not just mean “Never again to us”–it means “Never again” to anyone. (See here for a great call to action along these lines.)

HF: There are definitely new iterations today of the same ideologies that operated in Christianity during World War II. I hear the same sorts of rhetoric flowing today about obedience to authority, the propriety of political disengagement, and scapegoating of certain groups as threats to Christianity and to our nation, the United States. I also hear echoes of the same nationalism that believes that one’s particular country of residence is a paragon of virtue and a messiah figure to the rest of the world – if they will comply with those in power and assimilate to the dominant culture. We still demonize certain religious and ethnic groups and cultivate an us-them mentality in which some Christians believe that those who believe, act, look, or speak differently than their majority – even within our own faith tradition – are threats to Christianity and to God’s plans themselves. I think at the heart of so much of the Holocaust and today’s injustices is fear of the Other.

At the same time, though, there are still Christians embodying counternarratives to this. The fact that Christianity is growing in developing nations and stagnating in numbers in Western Europe and North America testifies to the growth of a Christianity that empowers those whose lives are not marked by material wealth and status and who are often victimized by the very power that other forms of Christianity support. Christians around the world and in our own nation, motivated by their faith, are risking their own well-being for social justice in a number of different regards. We have strong participation in the interfaith movements of liberation and postcolonial theologies, and this makes me hopeful. I am also encouraged by the strong trend towards interreligious collaboration rather than just ecumenical.

4. Do you feel like your faith tradition – or maybe just your specific faith community – has a significant presence in social activism?

SF: Absolutely. One of the things I love about being Jewish is its emphasis on action. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said of marching with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama: “I was praying with my feet.”

IMG_20160412_210511Judaism is not a noun–it is a verb. You are not Jewish because you believe Jewishly; you are Jewish because you do Jewishly. And of course, one of the most quintessential Jewish actions is tikkun olam. At my synagogue in Boston, our religious school classes have held food drives for the kosher food pantry and supply drives for the Massachusetts SPCA; our young adult group participates in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service every year; and our chesed (“lovingkindness”) committee provides meals to those at transitional points in their lives (such as bringing home a new baby, or mourning a loss). My personal challenge, and something that I would love to see more of in our communities, is engagement with social justice movements that are not confined to the Jewish world, such as Black Lives Matter. When some of us are in chains, none of us are truly free.


HF: I love that you call Judaism a verb, Sarah! I am currently working with my faith community on a campaign that I call, “Christianity Is a Verb.” We are trying to encourage not just acts of mercy but acts of justice, in which our denomination, the United Methodist Church, has a longstanding tradition of involvement. I am also involved with a dynamic grassroots social movement in South Africa that is indigenously-led that advocates for justice for women in the rural areas of this country. Although this movement is not explicitly Christian, about 75% of its members ascribe to Christianity and are motivated by their faith to participate in it.

I recently surveyed a snowball sample of Christian activists of different denominations in the United States as to whether or not they felt that Christians had a strong presence in social activism in our country. All of the 25 respondents said no, though some mentioned that Christians were at the helm of some revivalistic and resistance movements like the pro-life and anti-gay-marriage movements. I know that American Christians are involved in justice work and the development of liberation theologies for today’s LGBT and queer communities, labor concerns, immigration and refugee crises, race relations, and justice systems. However, it seems as though the trend of late has been away from large-scale collective involvement in progressive or innovative justice movements in the United States.

5. What are some important resources that your faith tradition can draw upon to mobilize its members for activism and resistance to injustice? What do you feel ought to change or be developed for a continued or increased activist presence in light of some of today’s justice issues?

HF: I think that one of the best sources Christians have at our disposal is our connection with Judaism and the primacy it gives to justice and faith as action. One of the favorite texts of the activists I surveyed was Micah 6:8, which says, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Both Jewish and Christian theologians have worked with the Hebrew Bible to develop theologies of liberation that inspire us to work towards justice for all, and according to the New Testament, the Jewish prophets were a major inspiration for Jesus’ teachings and actions. This is where I believe the ambivalence and openness of the Christian Scriptures to interpretation is helpful – we are able to constantly produce more nuanced and liberative interpretations of the texts. I think that a commitment to love in action, solidarity with the oppressed, and a commitment to self-giving, peace, and equality is primary and informs our readings of these texts.

I also think that we can draw upon historical examples of persons of faith who have challenged injustice and made social action the manifestation of their faith. Finally, I think that people of all faiths and creeds around the world who are committed to compassion, peace, and liberation of the oppressed are excellent correctives to our own theologies and actions, teach us insights into the Divine and into our fellow humans, and are vital partners for building a better world.

In the United States, we often use our idea of separation of church and state as an excuse to not engage with activism and justice, yet we fail to recognize how religion is being used insidiously to prop up unjust political, social, and economic systems. Finally, I think we should improve relationships with members of different faiths, races, nations, classes, and cultures so that we can get to know the wisdom, humanity, and divine image in our neighbors so that we can develop together a peaceful global community, free of fear of the Other.

SF: Haley speaks above about Micah and the other prophets as a source of inspiration for Christians to pursue social justice, and I think this is a common bedrock of Judaism and Christianity. I am not a theologian, let alone a liberation theologian, but I find it hard not to be moved by Isaiah’s call to “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice,rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16, NRSV), or be stirred by Amos’ urging to “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph” (5:15, NRSV). Additionally, Jewish tradition has the model of the tzaddik, a truly righteous person who can serve as an intermediary between the community and G-d. The Talmud (Sukkah 45b) teaches that in each generation there are no less than 36 tzaddikim in the world at a time, but no one knows the identity of these people. I like to imagine that each person has the potential to be one of these 36 “hidden righteous.”

6. How did your visit to the USHMM impact your thinking about these issues?

HF: One of the main things I took away from this visit to the USHMM was how necessary it is to not look away from the pain and the suffering. I am convinced that these horrors do not always occur because huge groups of humans decide to be inordinately evil but because we have bought into theologies or policies or practices that either leave us comfortable, leave us feeling powerless, or leave us feeling scared of the alternative. And so we turn away from what reminds us that the way things are is evil and that our benefit from the way things are, our participation in the way things are, or our failure to do nothing about the way things are is, in fact, evil. As English philosopher Edmunde Burke said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men [sic] to do nothing.” Once we turn our heads from that which makes us uncomfortable, we are actively working to distance ourselves from any action we could do, turning away from the reminders of a common humanity between us and those who suffer, and severing any sense of responsibility for the pain. We are always either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Feeling responsibility for the problem, no matter how small, is not a bad thing, for I cannot change that to which I have no connection. I can only change that which I have some measure of control of, responsibility for, or investment in. And so I have to keep looking and feeling that shared pain and horror and allow it to drive me to do something, because we can always do something.

SF: The exhibit “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust” really struck a chord with me. Under the pure, calculated evil of Hitler and the Nazi elite, the banal evil of friends and neighbors of Jews and other targeted groups often gets lost. The question of how the murder of so many millions was allowed to happen usually leaves me shaking my head in despair, unable to respond. This exhibit attempts to categorize the many reasons (which of course, often overlapped) why people so often looked the other way as their friends and neighbors lost their homes, business, and eventually, their lives: these reasons included “fear, indifference, antisemitism, career, community standing, peer pressure, [and] chances for material gain.” 

Many Holocaust museums, including the USHMM, rightly celebrate the “righteous Gentiles” who hid, protected, or helped people targeted by the Nazi regime to escape. However, it can be hard to imagine oneself as capable of such righteousness. We like to think that we would risk our lives to save others, but the truth is that it rarely happens that way, and deep down, we know that. Instead of ignoring that fact, “Some Were Neighbors” forces viewers to confront the fears and biases that could prevent them from acting in a truly righteous manner. Once the thing is named, we can begin to break down those barriers to righteousness and make choices that will help develop our inner tzaddik.


Our visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum made visible, in so many ways, the horror that can result from rigid dogma and authoritarian leadership. Unfortunately, these characteristics can also be found in the worst of religious communities. Thankfully, such communities are also capable of producing a commitment to social justice and repairing the world that can outshine any hatred. Both Judaism and Christianity share important features such as prophetic texts and righteous role models which inspire their adherents to pursue justice–often at great personal cost. In the darkest days of the Holocaust, faith served as a beacon of hope for those whose world seemed to be collapsing in on them. Today, those of us in religious communities are called to enact social justice and resist oppression wherever we may find it. It is clear that this is not an easy task. But for the liberation of our fellow human beings, it is worth the effort.


All photographs are courtesy of Sarah Fein.

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