John T. Pawlikowski, "Worship after the Holocaust: An Ethician's Reflections," Worship 58:4 (1984) 315-329

Abstract by Jerry Darring


The Holocaust represented an attempt to create a new person, a super being virtually unlimited and morally unchallenged in his use of power. The result was unbelievable human perversity involving "the creation of mobile killing units and execution centers modeled on modern industrial plants which processed their victims with conveyor-belt efficiency with a high premium placed on the elimination of waste and the creation of by-products from the human remains as well as the establishment of branches of leading German firms such as I.G. Farben and Krupp in the vicinity of the gas chambers and crematoria to make some profit from every last ounce of life in the inmates" (p. 317). The Nazis opened up a new era in human possibility, demonstrating clearly that such religious concepts as divine punishment and hell were waning in their influence.

Christianity will have to find ways to affirm the new sense of freedom dawning in humankind, and that is where the liturgy comes in. "Unless you can begin to create liturgical experiences that will lead to a genuine experience of a compelling God together with a consciousness of such realities as sin, freedom, dependence, solidarity, vulnerability and oppression, we have little chance to influence human decision-making. And the absence of such influence will leave the human condition increasingly in a situation in which there exist fewer and fewer constraints on the use of human power which technology is enhancing day by day" (p. 321). In our efforts to make possible a personal encounter with the living presence of the Creator God, the liturgy is of primary importance because of its communal setting, its greater link to Christian tradition, and its potential in directing the encounter towards genuine moral ends.

Auschwitz reveals the need for symbolic communication. The Nazis understood this need, and that is why "public liturgy became vital for the implementation of the Nazi scheme for society" (328). Our own liturgy should develop such themes as hope, a sense of community, a sense of human co-creational responsibility for the earth, and the dignity of nature itself. The latter two themes are important because the God-human relationship has changed. "The God whom we used to invoke in the liturgy to intervene and correct the ills of the world by himself died in the ashes of the Holocaust. God will not intervene to stop such perversions of authentic human freedom. Auschwitz has taught us that God will not, perhaps even cannot, effect the full redemption of that part of his being that he has graciously shared with humankind unless human beings assume their appointed role of co-creators" (325).