John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M., Ph.D, "The Shoah: Its Challenges for Religious and Secular Ethics," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 3:4 (1988) 443-455

Abstract by Jerry Darring


With the Shoah, we have entered a new era in which we can consider and carry out in a guiltless fashion the extermination of the human race. The Shoah embodied a new and different perception of the God-human relationship, and with their death camps the Nazis declared loud and clear that "God was dead as an effective force in governing the universe" (p. 444). The post-Holocaust task for religious ethics is to find ways in which we can affirm the new sense of human freedom at the same time that we channel that freedom in the direction of constructive rather than destructive purposes. We will need more than a mere repitition of biblical precepts.

A number of Jewish theologians have struggled to come to grips with this issue, among them, Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Irving Greenberg, Rabbi Arnold Wolf, and Arthur Cohen. Taken together, their work gives Christian ethicists a basic context within which to work. But Pawlikowski does not find in them a conviction that "the newly liberated person ... must begin to sense that there exists a judgment upon human endeavors that goes beyond mere human judgment" (p. 449). The old sense of judgment based on divine punishment must give way to norms rooted in an experience of love and unity, and for this to happen we need worship experiences that provide us with genuine encounters with a loving God.

We must also have an enhanced appreciation for the significance of history, and along with this return to history there must be "new explorations into human consciousness, especially the extent to which consciousness harbors the roots of power and evil" (p. 452). Pawlikowski concludes his article with a discussion of the issue of power as it has been raised by the Shoah and dealt with by Holocaust theologians. He ends with a question: "shall we develop post-Holocaust ethics on the basis of personal survival alone ... or must ethics now be grounded in the stress on solidarity with those who have been marginalized by the oppressive political forces of our time?" (p. 454).