Christian Responses to the Holocaust

"I told our Lord that I knew it was His cross that was now being placed upon the Jewish people; that most of them did not understand this, but that those who did would have to take it up willingly in the name of all. I would do that. At the end of the service, I was certain that I had been heard. But what this carrying of the cross was to consist in, that I did not yet know.

"One cannot desire freedom from the cross when one is especially chosen for the cross."
--St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein, Jewish convert)

In truth, Christian responses to the Holocaust in public have not been wide-spread. Neither have they been possessed of a measured complexity. This is not to say that most contemporary Christians are guilty of anything like Holocaust denial; rather the Shoah, as horrific as it is, represents a historic nightmare and, therefore, something removed from their current experience. Those Christians who have thought longer and harder about it form a continuum of attitudes:

  1. Historical Awareness. At the very least, Christians should be aware of what happened and that many who claimed to be Christians were either openly anti-Semitic or at least complicit in Nazi atrocities. This awareness does extend to those "righteous Gentiles" who did resist Germany's deportation of Jews. It also means for some a distancing of true Christianity from its distortion in liberal German and Nazi doctrines. Allan R. Brockway has stressed this in one way, while evangelical Stephen T. Davis has done so in another.
  2. Historical Responsibility. Many would go further and suggest that contemporary Christians bear a responsibility of acknowledging Christian involvement in a history of anti-Semitism and should work to remove vestures of poor theology or hidden prejudice that promote hatred of Jews. However, some, such as Eugene Fisher, have tried to nuance this responsibility or involvement, noting the differences between Christian apathy and Nazi racism, or Catholic self-protection versus active collaboration.
  3. Theological Revaluation. Others would suggest that Christian theology itself must be revised, that the Holocaust calls into question traditional claims about God, salvation, and human history. This revaluation can take a number of different forms: from the belief that Judaism constitutes a valid path to God, to a revision of the doctrine of God to a more limited, absent, or mysterious being. 
  4. Theological Interpretation. Some suggest that the Holocaust should be understood using classic Christian and theistic categories.  For example, some credit the Holocaust with Satanic inspiration or as an example of human free will and evil. Others, such as Richard Harries, point to the hope of the eschatological end of all things as compensating for Jewish suffering. Some would bring a stronger stress on the Christian concern with justice.
  5. The Suffering of God. One of the strongest theological responses has been an emphasis on God as suffering with the Jews. Many suggest that the love of God in the cross or atonement theology is a way of making sense of Jewish suffering in the Shoah. Examples include Paul Fiddes, Marcus Braybrooke, Franklin Sherman, David Tracy, and Marcel Jacques Dubois.
  6. Theological Conversation. Others, such as Frank Longford, stress how Jews and Christians should listen to each other with a sensitivity to different theological stresses. For example, Christians and Jews have different understandings of prayer, forgiveness, and the nature of God. 
  7. Cooperative Rebuilding. Some such as Paul van Buren argue that the message of the Holocaust is for Christians and Jews to now work together to bring the kingdom of God to earth in all aspects of life, especially the needs of the poor and the dispossessed.
  8. Dialogical Relationships. Some suggest that Christian missions must no longer seek to convert Jews but enter a period of dialogue and discussion. After the Holocaust, Christian credibility has little to stand on in its claims to absolute truth, or at the very least, anything like triumphalism is in bad taste. Gregory Baum has reflected on these matters, as has Johann Baptist Metz.
  9. Messianic Compassion. Others maintain that the exclusive claims of Christianity can not be given up and that Christians should continue to offer the gospel as the only real hope; however, this must be done in ways that make sense to Jewish people. Messianic Jew David Stern is one example.

Discussion Questions

  • In your own opinion, how should Christians respond to the Holocaust?
  • Do you find any of the views above more or less convincing? Why?
  • How important is the history of the Holocaust and its historical contexts to Christian reflection? Explain your answer.
  • What theological, moral, or biblical ideas should guide our thinking in this area?
  • What can Christians learn from Jewish reflection on the Shoah?

A plague commerating three "Righteous Gentiles"