Theology After Auschwitz

I’m gearing up to re-read Moltmann’s The Crucified God with some friends next month as a group study and am intending to blog my way through it this time. In CG Moltmann articulates a theology “after Auschwitz,” which means processing through the question of  “How can we speak of God in light of such unspeakable tragedy and inhumanity?”  We could very well add to this our own experiences of suffering today, both personal and collective.   How do parents speak of God after the loss of a child? In what way can we say that God is present when natural disaster strikes, killing thousands? Or when humans, made in God’s image, commits horrible acts of violence against other humans?  How do we speak of God when genocide is still a very present reality in some parts of the world?  Is this what God had in mind when he created the world?

As a German who came of age under the Nazi regime, the Holocaust was a particularly framing event for Moltmann. He was conscripted into the German army (along with his entire class) at the age of 17 and soon found himself defending his hometown of Hamburg during Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign in which some 40,000 died including one of his close friends who was torn apart by gunfire right in front of him. This opened the questions “Why am I alive and not dead like all the others?” and (even though he was not raised in a Christian or even theistic home) “Where is God?” 
He surrended to the allied troops at the first opportunity that presented itself, and later found himself in a POW camp where he was confronted with the full horror of the crimes that his country had committed against humankind. It was also there in the POW camp that he was introduced to Jesus and given his first opportunity at theological training. (for a brief introduction to his background check out this audio from the 2009 Emergent Village Theological Conversation or this video he did for Trinity Wall Street; both are excellent. I would also highly recommend Moltmann’s autobiography,  A Broad Place, to anyone interested in hearing more of his story.)
In a particularly memorable portion of CG, Moltmann draws from powerful Holocaust memior, Night by Elie Wiesel:

A shattering expression of the theologia crucis which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God’s humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:

The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment for a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference.
(Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p 273-274)

 (As an aside, I first read Night after reading CG, and I somewhat wish I had read it first to better understand on a personal level the situation Moltmann was speaking into. If you haven’t read Night, stop what you are doing right now and read it. Oprah said that it is “required reading for all of humanity.” So what are you waiting for?)

And so Moltmann develops his understanding of the Pathos of God, bringing the sometimes-fuzzy Christocentrism of Barth into the clarity of its cruciform center: The cross reveals what God is like. And God is not indifferent to suffering in the world, but rather fully enters into it. “God suffers and God helps,” as Miroslav Volf puts it. Anything we say about God has the cross as its foundation and criticism. If our theology is not meaningful at the foot of the cross (or at the incinerators of Auschwitz or at a lynching tree in Alabama) then maybe we should think twice about our message. 
Again to quote Night:

In Holocaust we see godforsakenness at an unfathomable scale, reducing all our attempts to explain why and how such things could happen if God is all loving and all powerful (i.e. theodicy) to the level of Job’s comforters. What is left to be said but to ask the open question with those experiencing the night of suffering: “Where are you God?” Or perhaps echoing the cry of the Crucified One, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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