Robert McAfee Brown, "The Holocaust as a Problem in Moral Choice," in Henry James Cargas, When God and Man Failed: Non-Jewish Views of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan, 1981, pp. 81-102

Abstract by Jerry Darring


Brown begins with a review of Jewish and Christian responses to the Holocaust. He notes two widely-shared problems in these responses: the problem of who is responsible for the Holocaust, and the problem of who can believe in a God in whose world such things take place.

Next Brown presents an analysis of the novels of Elie Wiesel, showing what they have to say about human relationships. Then he applies those same conclusions to the roles human beings have frequently attributed to God (96-97). God is victim of the Holocaust, unable to survive as a God worthy of the name, so that indeed 'God is dead'. God is executioner, for the all-powerful God, the one ultimately responsible for everything, must have willed the Holocaust, or decreed it, or at the very least, permitted it. God is mad, making unreasonable demands of us that would force us to be in grave difficulty with the world. God is spectator, aloof and removed from where we are, who knew what was going on and did nothing. God is participant in the struggle with evil, driven to tears by the sufferings of the people and indeed joining in their sufferings. Brown says that both Jews and Christians "acknowledge that a spectator God would indeed be a moral obscenity; that, somehow, to talk of love must mean to talk about participation and sharing" (98), and thus, it would seem, the participant model is the one finally turned to by Wiesel.

Humans have also been victims, executioners, despairing, spectators, or participants. Whatever our response, it should include the chronicling of the event so that it will not be forgotten. We should also relate the Holocaust to other events: "It may be that the fires of Auschwitz are powerful enough to illumine otherwise dark corners of our moral landscape, making us aware of present acts of human demonry we would not otherwise see" (100).