Can Christian faith stand up to intense unfair suffering?

I’ve been writing an article about the human tendency to suppress uncomfortable truth, and how that suppression affects teaching situations.

Shoshana Felman wrote two decades ago that two aspects mark every educational situation: things we want to know, and that which we absolutely cannot let ourselves know.

As research, I watched the nine-and-a-half hours of Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust film.

This blog entry is me trying to figure out how God could be fair.

The film centers on interviews with survivors and perpetrators of the Polish Nazi 1942-45 death camps, with contemporary on-site footage. The viewer is led to imagine the scenes that the witnesses describe.

Lanzmann’s Shoah is definitely not a mini-series. The filmmaker gives one break at the half-way mark. No photographs or 1940s film footage appears. Shoah is all testimony.

Holocaust deniers point out that the film’s philosophy allows that strictly literal truth is not its only concern.

Myself, I found the testimony compelling from beginning to end.

Self-deception by culprits to bystanders – even most victims – is in the film in every nook and cranny.

Then I went ahead and read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shadows on the Hudson.

Singer tells the story of the grown children of Eastern European Hasidic Jews who are somehow in America.

Their strictly-observant mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, grandparents, were reduced to ash by the Nazi murderers.

Can the children still believe in their parents’ God?

How can the God of Abraham be worshipped with integrity?

In dramatic form, Singer’s book does the metaphysics. Five-hundred-plus page-turner pages work out the possible character of God in the lives of the characters.


Why is America and Europe fascinated by the Holocaust? After all, there is a Holocaust industry.

What accounts for the Holocaust’s continuing reception by media outlets and in the public?

How weird was the Holocaust really?

Is German racism more or less horrific than Rwandan racism or Serbian racism? Is it the cruelty of Nazis who play with infant skulls? Is it the Nazi practice of having fathers dig graves for their families? Shooting one in three in a lineup?

What happened in the Holocaust has happened since.

In Europe, Serbs, Croats and Romanians outdid German cruelty in the same period – check it out.

Westerners expect African and Balkan barbarity.

Is it a reverse racism that advanced white European Germans should never have been capable of such viciousness?

They were so advanced: Look at their Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller.

As Singer’s characters say, there have been Nazis since forever. Look at Genghis Khan.

Is the Holocaust fascinating because the modern German industrial approach made huge-scale killing possible?

Left-wing progressives planned and carried out catastrophes. In China, Russia, Cambodia – and not against others, but against their own people who thought or lived in “non-revolutionary” ways.

Any of us discover irrationality in ourselves at the highest level of refinement. Ask Woody Allen.

But recognizing that any human is a potential barbarian does not vindicate God.

Could a good God allow horrors to happen?

Maybe, as Singer’s characters sometimes say, he allowed human free will and this means the possibility of catastrophes.

The Hebrew Bible already shows the faithful recognizing, “We were like sheep to be slaughtered.”

There is no shortage of Hebrew psalms anticipating or working through some horror or other.

“Sing us the songs of Zion,” say the Babylonian captors, against the backdrop of a God who has ripped his people from the land of promise.

Yet monotheism means that the one true God controls time and space.

In the final analysis, he at least allows all that happens.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

Maybe he is not good. Maybe he is not all-powerful.

Apologists could reply that life on Earth is nowhere near as bad as it could be. Human life is sustained all the time and we are mostly unaware. Disasters are aberrations.

I flew onto a runway recently. The plane made it from 35,000 feet at 600 miles an hour, with all tires intact. A miracle! To one passenger, anyway.

That there might be even more disasters is an abstract thought, not gripping.

A Holocaust is big enough to raise the question about God.

The walking dead of Singer’s books and short stories must have it right.

Post-Shoah, his characters cannot without such a god, and cannot live with him either.

If God is good, could he allow a Holocaust horror?

If an irrational, unbelievable, literally incredible return to a traditional Judaism is impossible for Singer’s characters, the answer must be a flat “No.”

The Holocaust was so massive and so vicious that the only right response seems to be silence.

The injustice to his own people does in worship of a god uninvolved in such suffering.

Without a God who enters into suffering – somehow – his chosen people bear the pain.

Does a crucified Son of God somehow vindicate God’s silence?

Isn’t the resurrection –a space-time historical event – God’s once-and-for-all hopeful answer?

The skeptic says that the Christian answer has not proven more livable over the centuries. Christian horrors are on display: Crusades, residential schools. From the beginning forced conversions were acceptable.

A skeptic could say that violence is in Christian faith at the very root. Take the Joshua/Judges command to annihilate the Canaanites, always taken as part of the Christian Bible.

Another skeptic might add: A millennium-and-a-half of European Christian anti-Semitism made the Nazi work possible.

Most of occupied Europe was complicit – even after one grants heroic exceptions.

The recent Kristen Scott Thomas film “Sarah’s Key” nails this, not to mention Ophuls’ “The Sorrow and the Pity” from 1969.

Claude Lanzmann’s documentary – and Raul Hilberg’s research on which it was built – make complicity crystal clear. In the Polish interviewees the anti-Semitism is barely concealed.

A believer in Christ can only affirm: Christianity too stands under the cross.

Perhaps Christianity stands under the cross most of all.

Christians should start by admitting abject failures in all branches of the faith as our own failures, from the get-go.

Christian life must be a repenting life. Now, more than ever.

If repenting tends to go to seed in the second generation, that is a call for strenuous catechesis and evangelism – at least.

The unfair suffering of others – and our complicity – is a call to admit again that Christian morality is only worth the living faith it draws on.

Anyone’s righteousness is only filthy rags.

God is not unfaithful.

Singer’s characters see the options to be mysticism or nihilism. “We don’t know what’s out there,” or, “Life has no meaning.”

Renewal at the foot of the cross is an option considered once, in mockery of a born-again character.

The only way to reconcile the justice of God with his complete final power is this: Only a crucified God as enough.

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote as much. Bonhoeffer’s tortured reflections that led to a religionless or churchless Christianity must have pivoted on the vindication of God.

The triune God is just – despite what we see in our own lives, in current affairs, in history.

That’s why the Cross is a deep enough symbol to sum up the whole faith.

The alternatives are bleak.

God came. Suffered. Rose again.

Hold onto it.

June 5/July 1, 2013