Where was/is God in the Holocaust

a sermon based on: John 20:19-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio April 12, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We come together in this Sacred space to worship and praise God, to revel in the mystery of creation, to discuss our faith, to even raise doubts and ask questions and try and find answers

Many times we celebrate that which is good in creation, but sometimes (like today) we also ponder–  even mourn– that which is not good–and we face our doubts about where the light of God is in the darkness places of life. Today’s sermon faces such doubts as we consider one of the darkest place in history – The Holocaust. Where was God  in the awfulness of that dark, dark time in history?

The Holocaust is a part of our service because today marks the beginning of the international “Week of Remembrance” of the Holocaust.

Many of us in this room were alive during the Holocaust or were born shortly after it occurred. To my never ending amazement the Holocaust ended only a dozen years before I was born. So the Holocaust is not some ancient bit of history, but was an all-to-real event in the modern world.

To make it perhaps even more real, today’s worship leaders – Darlene and I– have Jewish heritage in our blood. . . . meaning, had we been born less than two decades early in Nazi occupied territory we and our families would have been victims of awful discrimination, maybe even murdered in the “final solution.” It’s hard to even say or hear those words and imagine that personal terror in our families.  But you don’t have to have a drop of Jewish blood  to have been affected by the Holocaust.

Whether old or young or somewhere in between, the Holocaust that ended sixty-five years ago has shaped all of our lives and it will continue to shape the lives of future generations . . . so we take time to remember–TO NOT FORGET.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has a lengthily definition of the Holocaust– a part of which I want to spend a little time reading to help us remember TO NOT FORGET. The Holocaust was:

the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. “Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in . . . 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma, the disabled, and . . . (Poles, Russians,  etc.).

Other[s] were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II.

By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the “Final Solution” . . .

Although Jews . . . were the primary victims . . . other victims included some 200,000 Romas. And at least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients . . . were murdered in the so-called Euthanasia Program.

As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe . . . [b]etween two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of . . . maltreatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor . . . where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.

From the earliest years . . . German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents . . . and religious dissidents . . . Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.

Sobering words.

In seminary our Biblical Theology class toured the Saint Louis Holocaust Museum and attended a lecture by a concentration camp survivor. In my opinion, Holocaust museums contain actual evidence of evil and hell itself.

There is no liking the topic of the Holocaust. It’s dark and ugly and just mentioning the name “Holocaust” sets off vibrations in the mind of hate and evil of the worse kind.  The Holocaust is awful because it was NOT the work of an otherworldly devil afoot, it was not from an otherworldly hell. It was all from this world. The result of humans doing awful, evil, things to humans . . . very hard things to face.

Theologically it is quite difficult because we tend to picture God as big and powerful and in charge of things, able to stop that which God wants to stop. “Where was that God during the hellish time of the Holocaust?” is a fair question. But our inclination is to turn and run from the issue . . . we fear there’s no answer.

Today’s scripture has Thomas doubting Christ’s presence. Thomas had a right to question it under the context of the story, Rome had murdered Christ for practicing religion. Dead, Jesus was supposed to be gone from their presence. In our context, what could cause more doubt about Christ’s presence, God incarnate in the world now than the Holocaust? Arguably nothing.

In that seminary trip to the Holocaust Museum all of us wannabe pastors not only faced that question, but the professor made us face a scary theological statement addressing children. I am not going to repeat his more graphic statement. But the gist of it was that no theology is credible unless it is credible in light of “minors” being victims of the worse of the Holocaust. 1.  Meaning we have to grabble with the darkest part of depravity and God’s location in it.

The best starting point for a credible theology in light of “minor” victims is our squirming discomfort with the horror of the thought. That very thought vibrates with a profound disturbance that shakes us to our core.  Many of us are probably feeling that shaking right now. It is God who is doing the shaking.  God calls us to what everyone in this room knows, that children deserve protection from harm, not exposure to it.  The call to protect children all the time is innate, planted by God; it is a part of God.

As I toured the Holocaust museum the photos of the young most of all broke my heart, as did the survivor, Mendall Rosenthal’s, poignant recollection of his youth spent in concentration camps.

We are hardwired by God in a protect-the-young way that makes it very hard for us to objectify and make children faceless “others” and thus God’s image in humanity is easier to see –or harder to hide from– in children, in any child’s face.  Children in their innocence and vulnerability, and in their suffering, most especially have God’s (and our) attention. Jesus evidences  this in his embrace of children. (Lk 18:16; Mark  9:36-37).

Theologian Terence Fretheim (TF) notes God’s connection to suffering is to feel it with us. He writes “God . . . having entered into [our] suffering . . . experience[s] what [we] are having to endure . . . God enters into the hurtful situation and makes it [God’s] own”(TF 128).2  This is especially so with the suffering of the young and so it should not be surprising that through hellish evidence of children suffering in the Holocaust that I felt God’s presence so strongly, or that the idea of them as victims shake us all up.

God was clearly there with the young ones. And the Holy Spirit remains deeply ingrained in the Holocaust photos and images and memories – and in our responses to them.

Of course God is not, just there in the images and stories of the young. God’s presence vibrates in the faces and stories of all the victims. It is just more pronounced in the vulnerability and innocence of children (cf., Lk 18:16; Mark  9:36-37).

There is a photo from the Holocaust entitled “Leave-Taking Before Deportation” that is in our bulletin. In that picture the presence of God is captured in both a child and a parent sharing a tender moment while being separated by a fence as they are about to be cut off from one another presumably forever. In the photo the family sits on the ground in the worse possible situation, yet we can sense love. Love in the mom as she plays with her young child on the other side of the fence. Love in the child as he dotes on his mom oblivious that she is soon to be absent. God is in that captured moment in so many ways. In the Love being shared. In the suffering, and in the grief, that resonates right off photograph. Dr. Fretheim puts it like this, grief  “is always what the Godward side of judgement looks like” (TF 112). Even as we mourn for that family, as we think about them now we can feel God in that mourning because “God mourns with those who mourn” (TF 135). God grieves with us.

It is not just the sorrow of humans that causes God grief, “God is anguished over the consequences of all aspects of the created order affected by devastation” (TF 133, underlining

mine). It necessarily follows that God’s anguish extends beyond the victims of the Holocaust to even the very broken Nazis. And God’s anguish extends to collaborators  and those who did not oppose Nazis, as well as to Nazi opponents and its enemies . . . and even to all of us who now live in the ripples of the Holocaust’s aftermath.

See, God can be found in the vibrating disturbances of the distress, disorder, disbelief and despair that we feel when we consider the Holocaust . . . in the photos and stories of its millions of victims. God is right there vibrating in Holocaust horrors telling us in no uncertain terms we are not supposed to do this to each other . . . and that we must not let it happen ever again.

We are appalled and we are repelled by the Holocaust, and that repulsion is God’s love at work beckoning us to a better world, a world that never again has a Holocaust.

Make no mistake about it God was there during the Holocaust crying out for humanity to stop it.  It just took humans awhile to stop turning a deaf ear to God’s cries and to listen and to do something.

And God was with the victims. Mendall Rosenthal, the survivor at the museum, had, and has, every reason not to believe in God.  But as we sat and listened to him talk he told us that he experienced God in the concentration camps. Amazingly he experienced God in a living evil drenched hell. 3

If we think about it, we know that we too have experienced God being with us in our own horrors and pains, so it should come as no surprise that God would be present in the worse possible place, the Holocaust. Because God suffers with us, as well as for us. 4

All of this raises a really tough question: If God was present in the Holocaust, how could God have been there and not have stopped or immediately vanquished the evil? Because God is Love (1 Jn 4:16), really, really love. And love does not force its way, but allows those who are loved choices.  As the object of God’s love we have the choice to follow God’s call– or not. We are not forced to. If we did not have a choice it would not be Love, but puppetry and worse enslavement. 5  So logically God’s love cannot require or impel humanity to do things. 6 God does not do work in the world by forcing us to do things. We can opt in or opt out. Jesus’ Way, Christianity at its best is about teaching us to opt in. Right?

If we think about we can actually see from our own experiences that God does not forcibly bend anything to comply. From human choice to natural laws we do not experience God magically interfering with the world or with worldly affairs by waving a wand.

God did not zap the Nazis into oblivion with cosmic thunderbolts because that is not how the universe or God work. We might hear stories to the contrary, but the evidence before us overwhelmingly suggests that God’s not in the business of forcing-us-do-things-God’s-way.

But the God of love, does act in the world. How? God appears throughout the Bible acting through humans (TF 79-106) and we can understand that is still how God operates.  God acts through human agents. See “The world is not only dependant upon God; God is also dependant upon the world. The world is not only affected by God; God is affected by the world both in positive and negative ways” (TF 35).

God’s response to the Holocaust and the Nazis and people letting evil happen was to call and call and call for human responses to it. God, love, was screaming for a response.  And finally . . . finally . . . humans heard and answered with acts like humanitarian aid, resistance movements, Allied opposition, rescue efforts and the prayers of the world. In other words, God acted through human response to God’s call to stop the Holocaust.

God did not stop the Nazis with a thunderbolt, that is not how God works. But God could – and did- vanquished those evils through the hands and feet, and ears and mouth, and pockets books, and prayers, and energy of humans beings.  God’s presence in the Holocaust was incarnate in the calls to stop it and in those who answered that call with action. And God is in the end result . . . God did not stand aside and leave evil unvanquished.

You see, what we do matters to God, not just as our Creator but as our partner in creation, and the one who calls us at every moment to the best we can be! As Dr. Fretheim puts it  “Where there is world there is God; Where there is God there is world”(TF 38).

We can consider God’s presence “in terms of a continuum” from low intensity at one end to great intensity at the other end. “Thus God is believed to be continuously present, yet God will also be especially present at certain times . . .” (TF 61-62). I like to think of this continuum as a musical crescendo, that hairpin-like symbol (<) that indicates the growing intensity of the presence of sound in a musical score. Just as there is always the vibration of music under a crescendo, the intensity, is not the same; so it is with our experiences of God, sometimes we barely perceive God, other times God is all we can perceive.

Now God longs for the wide open loud end of the crescendo, that intense vibration. But sadly there are those, who like the Nazis, try to mute God – try to silence the Sacred vibration. But, the God who sides with the oppressed and the marginalized – the God experienced in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and in our lives  – repeatedly responds to such intentional diminishment with loud and discordant clanging in creation.

Such vibrations from God’s clanging during the Holocaust are still felt and heard today– as a loud resounding thunderous cacophony – calling us forever away from allowing it to happen again, and forever toward love in and to the victims, and all who might be victims should such evil happen again.  Which is why we take time and painfully remember that it happened, so that we can hear and know God was there– is there– and we can respond to God’s loud clanging call to us to stop the likes of it and never, ever, let it happen again.

May all of humanity heed that call for ever and ever. AMEN


*This is based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2010

1  McCann, Clint, Biblical Theology course lecture, September, 8, 2004.

2 This quote from Fretheim is not stated with particularity to children.

3 Mr. Rosenthal’s on September 7, 2004,  in response to a question about his spirituality during imprisonment and torture pointed up and exclaimed repeatedly that he always felt “someone was watching over me.”

4 I find this one of the great metaphors of Jesus’ suffering a descent into and ascent out of hell.

5 McCann, Clint, Biblical Theology course lecture, September, 13, 2004.

6 McCann, Clint, Biblical Theology course lecture, September, 13, 2004.