Remembering Prof Jürgen Moltmann

Posted Mon, 06/10/2024 - 11:13 by Lazzaro

Prof Jürgen Moltmann (8 April 1926 – 3 June 2024) was one of the most influential Christian theologians of recent times, and his work was noteworthy for its engagement with Judaism and post-Holocaust theology. On March 4th, 2020, just weeks before the first Covid lockdown, CCJ was honoured to host Prof Moltmann speaking on ‘Jewish and Christian theologies after Auschwitz’ (see text below). The audience was gathered from alumni of our Holocaust education programmes, members, and supporters. The event was one of the last speaking engagements of Prof Moltmann in the UK.

Pictured: Prof Moltmann at dinner with CCJ staff, including CCJ Chair Bishop Sarah Bullock and Honorary Secretary Fr Patrick Moriarty

Jewish and Christian Theologies After Auschwitz

Jürgen Moltmann


On 23 August 1941 in Belaya Tserkov, a town in the Ukraine not far from Kiev, ninety Jewish children were shot, thrown into a pit, and buried there. Some of them were tiny babies. The oldest of them was seven or eight years old.

August Hӓfner, who ordered the children to be shot, was at that time an officer in the SS, in Task Force IVa. In 1964, during an interrogation, he gave the following account:

The army had already dug the pit. The children were brought in a tractor-drawn truck. I had nothing to do with the technical details. The Ukrainians stood around trembling. The children were taken down from the truck. They were stood up above the pit and shot so that they fell into the pit.

The horror remains

The horror does not wear off with time. The remembrance does not fade. Every attempt after more than seventy years to historicise the mass murder of Jews by us Germans founders when it is confronted with the abyss of horror. Nor has the horror lessened by any comparison. Every attempt to set off Auschwitz against the Gulag, or Hiroshima, or Srebrenica, is stillborn when it is brought up against the abyss of horror. People belonging to our own country, people no different from ourselves, were the perpetrators. ‘Command is command’, they said. And are we sure today that it couldn’t be us? What was a reality once is always possible again. What happened in Belaya Tserkov and in Auschwitz we shall never understand nor forget. We Germans must keep that misery.

Our question about God in suffering and God’s question about guilt

The suffering of helpless children from which there is no way out, and which has no meaning, makes people cry out for God and despair of God. ‘If there is a God, why this suffering?’, ask the one. Where was Israel’s God when his children were thrown into the pit? Where was the Christian God when people belonging to Christendom turned into these cruel monsters? After Auschwitz can we go on believing in an almighty, good God in heaven? After Auschwitz, can we still trust in human beings and ourselves?

The question asked by sufferers themselves is not ‘Why does God permit this?’ It is more imminent than that. The question is ‘My God, where are you?’, or, more generally, ‘Where is God?’

Then there is a third question about God, which we often suppress with the help of the first. It is God’s question about men and women. It is not the question about the victims. It is the question about the perpetrators and those who have to live in the long shadows of Auschwitz. We hear the internal voice which asks, ‘Cain, where is your brother Abel?’ and ‘What have you done?’.

We shall now listen first to a few Jewish voices after Auschwitz in order to learn from them. Out of the many of my generation I have picked out three: Richard Rubenstein and Emil Fackenheim and Elie Wiesel. After that we shall listen to the first approaches to a Christian theology after Auschwitz in Germany.

Jewish theology after Auschwitz: is Israel’s God ‘the Lord of history’?

The shock of Auschwitz went so deep that it was decades before the few who escaped could talk about it. The great ‘after Auschwitz’ discussion was probably first set on foot by Richard Rubenstein with his book After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Modern Judaism, which appeared in 1966. I have met him personally several times, but I have never understood why with that book he made common cause with the God-is-dead movement in the Protestant theology of the United States. But I took the questions which moved him very seriously.

On the one hand his concern is the theological question whether the God of Israel is also the Lord of history, so that it was God who tried to exterminate his own people in the gas chambers.

And on the other hand, he grapples with the practical question of whether he should give his children a Jewish upbringing, so that they may live as Jews in this world in which Auschwitz was possible, and will be possible again, or whether he should save them from his fate.

Rubenstein decided ‘to live in a meaningless, purposeless Cosmos rather than believe in a God who inflicts Auschwitz on his own people’. Rubenstein puts on record as his personal creed after Auschwitz: ‘I am a pagan’. He wants to leave the God of history, to whom Israel in exile had been delivered up, and to return home to ‘the gods of earth’.

Emil Fackenheim (with whom I have often talked about this) has replied to Rubenstein’s second question in his book God’s Presence in History (New York: 1970): ‘Hitler failed to murder all Jews, for he lost the war. Has he succeeded in destroying the Jewish faith for those of us who have escaped? … And what of us … when we consider the possibility of a second Auschwitz three generations hence? Yet for us to cease to be Jews (and to cease to bring up Jewish children) would be to abandon our millennial post as witnesses to the God of history’. ‘In faithfulness to Judaism, we must refuse to disconnect God from the Holocaust.’ ‘If all present access to the God of history is wholly lost, the God of history is Himself lost’, he writes. But then all that remains is the cry of total despair: ‘there is no judgement and no judge’. Hitler would then not only have murdered a third of the Jewish people, but the Jewish faith too—would have slain not just Israel but Israel’s God. Anyone who after Auschwitz declares that God is dead, and renounces his Jewish faith, is giving Hitler a posthumous victory over the Jews and the God of Israel which he was unable to achieve during his lifetime.

At this point Emil Fackenheim speaks imploringly: ‘The Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. They are commanded to survive as Jews … Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish’. ‘It is precisely because Auschwitz has made the world a desperate place that a Jew is forbidden to despair of it’, Emil Fackenheim wrote at the end of his book.

Elie Wiesel’s famous Auschwitz book Night appeared already in 1958 in France, with a foreword by the Catholic philosopher Francois Mauriac, and from 1960 onwards it increasingly influenced the ‘after Auschwitz’ discussion in America and Germany. Here we shall look only at the one, so often quoted, scene which no reader can ever forget. Two men and a child are hanged in the concentration camp before the eyes of the assembled prisoners. The men cry ‘Long live liberty!’ and die quickly. The child is quiet.

‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting.

 … The two adults were no longer alive … But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive …

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes …

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’

Elie Wiesel describes a horrifying reality, but he describes it in highly symbolic terms. The child is described as ‘an angel with sad eyes’. The three murdered victims and the setting sun remind us of the death of that other Jew on Golgotha. The answer to the question ‘Where is God?’ comes through ‘a voice within me’, like the voice of God in a prophet. What does the voice disclose? God is not absent. He is present. God is not hidden. He is there, visible to everyone in the dying child. Any other answer would be blasphemy.

Is God himself the victim? Does God die there, once and for all, in the innocent child with sad eyes? That is the way Elie Wiesel has often seen it: ‘I shall never forget the moments which murdered my God and my soul. I shall never forget the flames which consumed my faith for ever’, he wrote.

Or is God the one who suffers and dies with and in the children of Israel, and is he yet the Eternal One? Elie Wiesel has frequently given this interpretation too. It goes back to the rabbinic idea of the Shekinah: God’s indwelling in his people by virtue of his self-humiliation. Through this self-humiliation the Eternal One whom the heavens cannot contain becomes the companion on the way and the fellow-sufferer of his people on this earth. I got this idea from Franz Rozenzweig’s The Star of Redemption.

Where that child hangs on the gallows God hangs on the gallows too. Where that child suffers torment, God himself is tormented. Where that child dies, God himself suffers the child’s death. Even in the hell of Auschwitz God was there—but not as the Lord of history: as the victim among millions of victims. Elie Wiesel took comfort from this rabbinic idea about God the fellow-sufferer—God himself shares our suffering. But he discovered the double burden too, since with our human suffering we have to endure God’s suffering as well. For that reason, the answer of that ‘voice within him’ remains for Elie Wiesel ambiguous. ‘He hangs there on the gallows’—that means that Jewish child is not alone, not forsaken by God; God suffers with him. ‘He hangs there on the gallows’—but that means that that child and we who have to look on endure the unending suffering of God on which every naïve belief in God breaks down and shatters. Elie Wiesel’s summing up is this: ‘We cannot understand it with God. And we cannot understand without God.’

Christian theology after Auschwitz in Germany

One of the first in a German theology which consciously thinks and speaks ‘after Auschwitz’ is Johann Baptist Metz. The open theodicy question is his topic. ‘Auschwitz touches us all’, he says, ‘The incomprehensible thing is not just the apotheosis of evil and not just the silence of God. It is the silence of human beings: the silence of all those who looked on, or looked away, and by doing so delivered up this people in its deadly peril to an unspeakable loneliness.’ That is why, he goes on, we Christians in Germany can never go back again to the time before Auschwitz. ‘But strictly speaking we can no longer get beyond Auschwitz by ourselves, but only together with the victims’. A future after Auschwitz ‘with the victims’ means first of all listening to these victims when they begin to speak.

But what can we say about God after Auschwitz? For Metz, my friend, Auschwitz shattered every theology of history, because in the face of the murdered victims of Auschwitz there can be no Christian ‘theodicy’, no justification of God, and no ‘meaning in history’ either. To want to justify God in the face of ‘the pit’ would be blasphemy. So the question ‘And where was God on that 23 August 1941?’ is a question we cannot answer and also never forget. We must live with the open theodicy question until the end when we confront God with this question and God must answer us.

The suffering God: where was God the Almighty when the horror in Auschwitz took place? Where was the God ‘who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth’ in the mass murders in the gas chambers of Auschwitz?

The rethinking of God began in Germany by a theologian who was hanged in a concentration camp on 9 April 1945 because of his active resistance against Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1944, in his Gestapo cell, he discovered that ‘only the suffering God can help’. Christ helps not by virtue of his omnipotence but by virtue of his suffering and his wounds and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53: 4). It is true that generally accepted religious feeling points human beings in their need to God’s power in the world. But the Bible points them to God’s helplessness and suffering in that world. The human being is called to suffer with God’s suffering over the godless world: ‘Christians stand beside God in his suffering.’ With this sentence Bonhoeffer answered Elie Wiesel’s question of a double suffering: the human and the divine.

The Almighty is holding a hand above. This is not the Biblical experience of God. God says and does things above and below. In this way had Israel experienced God’s presence in the desert. What kind of images do we find for the bearing God? There is a feminine insight: as a mother carries her child at her breast unto the land which you promised to their fathers (Numbers 11: 12). Or a masculine too: The Lord himself bears you as a man bears his son all the way you went until you came to this place (Deuteronomy 1: 31).

We pray to Christ: ‘You who are carrying the sins of the world, have mercy with us’. We can also pray to the crucified one: ‘You who are carrying the sufferings of the world, have mercy with us’.

God is not the powerful tyrant. In the conflict between perpetrators and victims, ‘the suffering God’ is always on the side of the victims—indeed he is himself the victim in, with, and among the victims of those who wield power. This world’s history of suffering is the history of God’s suffering too, the God who does not merely permit the evil act because he wishes all men and women to be free, but also endures the evil act in the victims. A God who cannot feel suffering cannot understand us. A God who cannot suffer cannot love either.

The suffering of Christ in the New Testament is the personal suffering of Jesus from Gethsemane to Golgotha. But it is not only Jesus’ suffering. The Apostle Paul’s apostolic suffering, his persecution, his imprisonment and his tortures and tribulations is his participation in the suffering of Christ. Whoever experiences the pit through his own suffering experiences the dying of Christ in whom also the resurrection life of Christ may be manifested. The other side of the suffering is the glory of God in the re-joining of Christ. When we suffer for and with Christ we are graced by the patience of Christ and this gives peace to the mind. The apostolic suffering is only an outstanding example of the suffering of the faithful who persevere in the face of public and personal pressures.

God’s question: ‘Cain, where is your brother Abel?’

Let us begin with a story which Simon Wiesenthal tells in his Auschwitz book The Sunflower. While he was a prisoner in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal was called to the death-bed of a man belonging to the SS, who wanted to confess to him, the Jew, that he had taken part in mass shootings of Jews in the Ukraine. He wanted to beg Wiesenthal’s forgiveness so that he could die in peace. Simon Wiesenthal could listen to the murderer’s confession. But he was unable to forgive him because, he says, no living person can forgive murderers in the name of the dead. He has neither the right nor the power. But Wiesenthal was so disturbed by this impossibility of forgiveness that he told his story to a number of European philosophers and theologians, and then published his own story together with the answers of these others.

I am personally convinced that he has neither the right nor the power to forgive the murderers in the name of the dead. And this causes me to beware German politicians who publicly ask Israel to forgive. We must live with the unforgiven sins of our forefathers of the Nazi time.

What we can do is according to the ancient penitential ritual of the church, three acts belong to conversion and a turning away from the shadows of the past into the light of the future:

First, confessio oris, private confession – today that means public confession of the collective past of our people. Truth is the first act of freedom, however painful the truth may be. Only those who deal honestly with their past become free. ‘The truth shall make you free’, says the Gospel of John.

Secondly, the attritio cordis, the contrition of the heart. Today that means what Germans call Trauerarbeit, the work of grief. The change of the heart is important, so that the rest does not remain a surface affair. And the examination of conscience that belongs here is not just a personal one; it is also a public examination of the ideologies of the past which dominate our culture and politics today. The younger generation is not guilty of Auschwitz but responsible for the shadows of Auschwitz in the present.

Thirdly, the satisfactio operum – satisfaction through good works. Today that means acts of compensation, in so far as these are still possible, and also liberating initiatives carried out as ‘signs of expiation’ among the peoples who at that earlier time were the victims of our people.

Acceptance of guilt—the work of grief—the first steps towards justice: these are the possibilities open to us as human beings, if reconciliation is expected to happen. Yet there is still a sombre remnant. Or rather, there is still an insoluble mystery between God and the guilty. It is the mark of Cain:

The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And Cain said: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said … ‘The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground …’ Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater than I can bear ….’ And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him’ (Genesis 4).