A God Who Suffers and Why the Crucifixtion Might Be the Least Important Part of Jesus’ Story

The Holocaust was a major obstacle for modern Christian theology. The body count was too high, the treatment too brutal, the target too specific, the apathy too apparent. What answer could possibly be given for a God that allows atrocities on the scale that occurred in concentration camps, often at the hands of Christians? This was not war. It was the murder of six million Jews and three million others who were from minority groups or were sympathizers. They were defenseless. The answers to the questions for why certain things happen to certain people were no longer adequate. Nobody could reason away that such abuse was God’s Will or was for the best; those regular platitudes Christians mistakenly offer so often as solace, not realizing the weight it places on the victim, become apparent in their inadequacies in this situation. It would have been impossible for the symbol of the cross to not raise questions and dilemmas about God for Christianity.

Traditional theology teaches that, “…God does not will suffering directly. Rather, having created a world with its own natural laws, a world, moreover, where human beings have free will, God allows or permits disaster to happen… Even when suffering is unjustly inflicted on the innocent, God allows it out of respect for human freedom. No matter what happens, God will bring good out of evil in the end.” (Johnson, 51) But this kind of modern theism almost takes God out of most of the story; placing the Trinity only at the beginning and the end. It reinforces this distant, uninvolved Creator that shook off the dust once the work of creation was complete. Furthermore, it creates the perception that if things aren’t fair now, it is okay because God will make it alright in the end. This can be dangerously manipulated to justify the act of doing nothing, of promising reward in the next life instead of seeking justice for God’s creations now.

That answer was, not surprisingly, inadequate to many. The inhumanity that occurred within the concentration camps (and the US unwillingness to be involved until forced, the Japanese internment, the brutality on all war fronts, the Rape of Nanking, nuclear bombs, etc.) made people all over the world question their understanding of Christians and their Trinity. Christian theology and the cross had to take into account the suffering of the people in a way that did not have God as a distant, top of the pyramid Lord indifferent to the suffering of man. Additionally, presenting God as someone who sacrifices His own undeserving Son would translate extremely poorly to those who lost loved ones in the War and in camps. It makes no sense without the context of the resurrection (which was often a theistic after thought). Atheism provides an unfortunately reasonable response to an indifferent God that creates Christians who are okay with torturing and murdering millions of men, women and children. Not surprisingly, faith in God is not at its all-time high in countries that went through the World Wars. And yet there is an even better answer to the issue of the crucifixion in ideas like Dorothee Solle.

Dorothee, a German Lutheran theologian who visited Auschwitz, is described in Quest for the Living God as coming “…to the realization that rather than being a dominating force or an ineffective form of love, divine power is a creative, noncompelling, life-giving good. This is power that flows through relationships bringing others to life, power as love.” (Johnson, 64) To her, God isn’t this omnipotent God, whose main attribute is power and whose primary concern is over who wields power and who submits. God also isn’t impotent love, dying helplessly on the cross, weaponless and without any power. God instead elects to sacrifice and suffer with humanity, and the full story of the cross is in the resurrection because it brings hope to those in the world who themselves are a member of the crucified. ”None of this Christian theologizing is meant to remove the terror of the Holocaust from the Jews… But the God who shared in the suffering and death of the cross and brought the power of life to bear in the resurrection of Jesus Christ was there, suffering in the death camps.” (Johnson, 64)

There were, as mentioned, other theological paths that could be taken following WWII; this is just one solution. However, if the idea isn’t the distance, absence, or indifference of God then another option is that God was present in the concentration camps, beside those who suffered or even suffering with them and hope rests not in endless suffering but in a God that resurrects those that suffer injustice. This is, right now, an aspect of God that resonates with me. A God that takes sides, whose power within his human story lies in his teachings, his life and in his power to be resurrected out of an unjust death and yet to be present with us always. In other words, the Trinity, who I’ve come to see most simplistically as The Giver, The Gift, and the Giving. But more on that later…

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