Monday, February 10, 2020

The Holocaust and Christian Theologies of Sin and Forgiveness: Imperative Need for Christians to Listen to Jews

Elizabeth Johnson, The Quest for the Living God (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)

Ruth Krall's recent sounding of various ecclesial responses to the sexual abuse of minors and how they raise profound questions about theologies of sin and forgiveness has made me think about the valuable contribution of Jewish thinkers to Christian theological reflection about these matters. Ruth's essay includes a paragraph surveying some Jewish thinkers on the topic of sin and forgiveness.

What I've been thinking about after reading Ruth's essay and the good commentary it has elicited is how it appears to remain problematic for many Christians when one proposes that Christians may learn valuable lessons from non-Christian religious traditions. (Please know that I am not addressing any particular contributor to the discussion that followed Ruth's essay — these are my own thoughts provoked by the essay and the good analysis of it that followed.)

It's curious that, in the Catholic context, a kind of triumphalism impervious to the contributions of non-Christian religions (and, indeed, of non-Roman Christian churches) persists so strongly today, since Vatican II's Nostra aetate dismantled that triumphalism when it explicitly recognized that the various religious of the world are paths to God, and non-Roman Christian churches are led by the Spirit just as the Catholic church is.

Unfortunately, in the latter decades of the twentieth century, aggressive triumphalism reasserted itself from the highest levels of the church, with papal statements characterizing Islam as a religion of violence, and with a renewed culture of Catholic exclusivism claiming that Catholics alone possess "the" truth and the rest of the world including non-Catholic Christians will be damned if they do not accept "the" truth at the hands of the Catholic church. If you doubt that this aggressive, exclusivist, and very ignorant Catholic culture is alive and well today, tune in for a day to discussions on Catholic Twitter.

One of the biggest casualties of the revived triumphalism in the Catholic church is the fruitful dialogue between Catholicism and Judaism that had begun following the Holocaust — a much-needed dialogue in which it is imperative that Christians learn from their Jewish brothers and sisters. Particularly, as Ruth notes, in the area of theologies of sin and forgiveness, since it was Christians, after all, who murdered Jews by the millions in the Shoah, and that fact alone indicates that something is deeply awry in many Christian understandings of sin and forgiveness….

As Karen Armstrong, a former Roman Catholic nun, writes, 

Since Auschwitz, the civilized West had become the culture that had massacred its Jewish inhabitants, and this act of genocide tarnished all our other achievements.  If we had cultivated a vicious hatred of both Judaism and Islam for so many centuries, what other mistakes had we made and what other misapprehensions had we nurtured?
~  Spiral Staircase (NY: Random House, 2004), p. 257.


Perhaps in our broken world, we can only envisage an absent God.  Since September 11, I have found myself drawn to the powerful mythology of the Jewish Kabbalah, which imagines God as originally a sacred emptiness; sees creation as a massive error, the world shattered and dense with evil; and offers no easy solution…. The events of September 11 were a dark epiphany, a terrible revelation of what life is like if we do not recognize the sacredness of all human beings, even our enemies.  Maybe the only revelation we can hope for now is an experience of absence and emptiness.  We have seen too much religious certainty recently.
~ Ibid., p. 303.

As Sister Elizabeth Johnson tells readers of her magisterial book on the theology of God, Quest for the Living God, which was condemned by the U.S. Catholic bishops, these questions of sin and forgiveness and what Judaism has to contribute to Christian understanding of these questions are, more broadly, questions of theodicy. The Shoah raises agonizing, profound questions about where God is in the world in which we live today, and about how to speak of a living, compassionate God in a world in which people of Christian faith could murder millions of their Jewish brothers and sisters (see the excerpt from her book at the head of the posting).

This historical event makes it absolutely necessary that Christians shut up and listen to Jewish religious leaders and Jewish thinkers regarding these matters — including about theologies of sin and forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhöffer was murdered by the German state for, among other grounds, asserting this. It is a conclusion that Roman Catholic priest-theologian Johann Baptist Metz drew from his experience growing up in a Catholic village in Bavaria in which a death camp was located near the village — where Catholic villagers went to Mass each Sunday, prayed and sang, and never said a word about the death camp on their doorstep.

Metz writes in his classic essay "Communicating a Dangerous Memory" that these formative experiences left him with a profound "God question." In this essay, Metz explicitly cites Bonhöffer as he drives to the same conclusion that Bonhöffer reached with his theology of costly and cheap grace: for Metz as for Bonhöffer, what made far too many Christians willing to accept and even participate in the mass murder of their Jewish brothers and sisters is that many Christians practice a what H. Richard Niebuhr would call an inculturated form of Christianity, one captive to the culture around them and molded to make the fit between their faith and the surrounding culture very comfortable.

Johann Baptist Metz, "Communicating a Dangerous Memory," in Love's Strategy: The Political Theology of Johann Baptist Metz, ed. John K, Downey (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 1999), p. 141.

In the post-Holocaust period, one of the most important groups to whom Christians need to listen in order to break the mold of that comfortable inculturation that resulted in Christian complicity in the Holocaust is the Jewish community. The Jewish community has much of critical importance to teach Christians about God, about sin, about forgiveness — and it is perhaps for explicitly suggesting this that Elizabeth Johnson was stringently criticized by the U.S. Catholic bishops, who singled out the section of her book dealing with the Holocaust for scathing criticism.

That alone should indicate to us how important this discussion is and how imperative it is that those of us who call ourselves Christian learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters in the post-Holocaust period. We. Do. Not. Have. All. The. Answers. 

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