Robert McAfee Brown, "Holocaust: The Crisis of Indifference," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 32 (Spring-Summer 1977) 131-135

Abstract by Jerry Darring


This article is adapted from Brown's address given at a joint meeting of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary faculties in October 1976. Brown discusses the difficulty of treating the Holocaust, but he says: "We must do so as a way of seeking to ensure that an event such as the Holocaust can never happen again. We must confront the painful reality that there is that in us which means that it could happen again--and those who deny that possibility engage in what we must call a self-denying prophecy, i.e., they create a moral climate in which we might let down our moral guard sufficiently for another Holocaust to occur" (132).

Both Jewish and Christian writers have been reacting to the Holocaust, and there are at least two widely-shared responses. The first is the question of who should be held responsible for the Holocaust? The second is the crisis of belief forced on us by the Holocaust: Who can believe in a God in whose world such things could happen?

Brown then addresses the issue of Jesus as messiah, pointing out that for Jews the question is: the world is so evil, why does the Messiah not come? For the Christian, the problem goes: the Messiah has come. Why is the world so evil? This leads him to speak of how his reflections on the Holocaust have influenced him: "I seek constantly to be redeemed by this increasing Jewish presence in my life, from cheap Christian triumphalism, from our so-easy claims about the "victory of the cross", from resurrection statements too glibly made, that avoid the grim chimneys of Auschwitz, to the six million faces I may not be allowed to refuse to confront" (134).

He concludes with comments occasioned by the presence in the room of Eberhard Bethge, a member of the Confessing Church and a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bethge had recorded this statement by Bonhoeffer: "Only he who cries out for the Jews has the right to sing Gregorian Chants." Brown related this to a statement made by Leo Baeck, the Berlin rabbi imprisoned by the Nazis: "It is difficult to say which has been more pernicious in the course of time: the intolerance which committed the wrongs or the indifference which beheld them unperturbed." The message, Brown says, is clear: indifference is intolerable.