By Henry Green
The complicity of the church in the Nazi policy to annihilate the Jewish race cannot be denied.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “The church confesses her timidity, her evasiveness, her dangerous concessions. The church has been untrue to her office of guardianship and to her office of comfort, and thus she has denied to the outcasts and to the despised the compassion she owes them. To put it another way, the church has failed to speak the right word, in the right way, at the right time. She has just stood by while violence was being committed under the very name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, she is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The isolationism of a global community unresponsive to the abject poverty and destruction throughout Europe in the wake of World War I, the desire to annihilate the soul of the German people and the arrogance of a pride that led to National Socialism paved the way for a Second World War. This isolationist policy of neglect in the west and the nihilism of Communism in Russia to the east set the stage for a reactionary form of nihilism in Germany: The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich.
Nihilism is a rejection of traditional values and beliefs counting existence as senseless and useless. It denies any objective ground of truth and prefers destruction as desirable for its own sake without constructive alternatives.
Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary reform in Russia used terrorism and assassination. Hitler capitalized on the vulnerabilities of the German people in the 1930s, adopting the same approach of terror and violence to capture power. Lenin closed churches and marginalized the message. Hitler used churches and manipulated the message for his destructive end.
Nihilism and positivism can be seen as the flip side of the same coin. Both are anti-faith, with nihilism offering a message of darkness and destruction while positivism attempts to offer a positive image of human reason and rationalism for everything.
As we cast our vision into the darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Bonhoeffer reminds us to turn our attention to the way Jesus confronted the abyss of nothingness and the rationalism of his day.
Jesus respected his tradition and our humanity through his use of a towel and a basin of water. Looking into the darkness, Jesus rejected the emptiness by refusing to rationalize away the existence of evil.
Affirming the authority of what was holy and just, Jesus stood for belief, faith, obedience and hope as themes to counter the attitudes that give way to apathy.
On the cross, Jesus stared down the pessimism of nihilism and the overreach of a darkness that excluded God and the ethics of love.
Hitler’s Children, a documentary by Chanoch Ze’evi, offers testimony from the children and grandchildren of some of the highest ranking leaders of the Third Reich. They recount their experiences and reflect on the crimes of their “fathers.”
It is difficult to watch, but you come away with pity for the plight of these individuals. They were born into that reality and did not ask to be defined by the sins of their fathers. Yet, their perspective is instructive to our contemporary conversations.
One storyline follows the grandson of the first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss. Travelling with him was a reporter from Jerusalem, who happened to be the grandson of a camp survivor. Taking a train to Auschwitz, they met with a group of Jewish students. One of the students asked a very difficult question, “Do you feel any guilt for what your grandfather did?”
He answered, “Yes.”
Another asked, “If he were here today, what would you do?
He said, “I would kill him.”
An elderly man traveling with the students identified himself as a survivor. He approached the grandson and the two embraced. Then the survivor said: “You were not here. You have no reason for guilt.”
Tears began to flow, but the reporter from Jerusalem offered additional insight. He felt the forgiveness. Human feelings were genuine and significant to that moment, but he was still troubled. He did not want to allow sentimental expressions to wash away the evil that occurred in that camp, the evil of the Third Reich and the policies of hatred could find a foothold again in the future.
The challenging comments of the journalist helped me with my reflections on the cross for this Holy Week. Think of the vertical pole as symbolizing ethical grounding to never forget and the horizontal pole symbolizing forgiveness with the outstretched arms of Jesus.
Elie Wiesel, another famous survivor of that camp, tells the story of the boy they were forced to watch hang. One of the men standing behind him whispered, “Where is God?”
Wiesel responded in his mind: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Passover and Holy Week help us to remember, to recommit to sacrificial service and to guard against the darkness of today’s apathy. Jesus overcame this darkness, and Paul reminds us that it ain’t Sunday yet: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”