Robert E. Willis, "Auschwitz and the Nurturing of Conscience," in Henry James Cargas, When God and Man Failed: Non-Jewish Views of the Holocaust, New York: Macmillan, 1981, pp. 147-167

Abstract by Jerry Darring


How accountable should the church be held for the Holocaust? Roy Eckardt stated in 1974 that the Holocaust was no more than a consummation of the practice sessions of crusade, inquisition, and the like. Willis thinks that is too harsh, but he does believe that the response of the Christian community to the Holocaust was "the most explicit embodiment to date of the limited power of the Christian story to shape conscience and behavior in a morally appropriate fashion" (150). In view of this, "the church must allow its conscience and those of its members to be nurtured by the Holocaust to a new embodiment of the relationship between story and moral agency" (150).

Our moral biographies must be understood in terms of the stories, symbols, and metaphors generated by the communities of family, nation, and church. Sometimes the stories mesh, and other times they do not, and for the Christian the transcending story is unfolded within the Christian community. Christians are "deputized" by God to be responsible for the things over which God is Lord, but they have a tendency to fall into self-deception. We have an obligation to be constantly vigilant to note those areas where the tendency has taken root. This is what happened with the triumphalist stand taken in Christian theology, a stand built on "the assertion of the covenant unfaithfulness of Judaism and the Jewish people, and their subsequent rejection and replacement by Christianity" (154). Willis concludes that "If, after Auschwitz, it is still possible for Christians to cling to the pretension that their story undergirds a responsibility for the conversion of Jews, then it is questionable whether we can learn anything from the events of history" (155).

One way to overcome self-deception is through external views. The Holocaust should play such a role, for "what is presented there is the dreadful irony of a community, long accused of the crime of deicide, embodying totally the image of crucifixion claimed by the church as the most potent symbol of God's love and the meaning of discipleship," and "when Christians allow the horror of Auschwitz to penetrate their consciousness steadily and without flinching, then they are enabled to receive a new training in Christianity" (158). This will force us into a radical reopening of the question of the relationship between God and evil. Willis reviews Franklin Sherman's discussion of God after Auschwitz, but says that Sherman avoids "the challenge of making credible, after the Holocaust, any appeal on the part of Chritians to the efficacy of the cross, and the image of sacrificial, voluntary suffering it presents. At the very least, it is an image which must, for the time being, be embodied in the life of the Christian community, rather than merely proclaimed" (160).

The Holocaust looms as a mystery for the Christian thinker, challenging us to exorcise those elements in our story which contribute to and sustain a presumed superiority or antisemitism. Auschwitz can also be seen as the final exposure of the dangers found in the privatization of religion. Auschwitz is also "the parable par excellence of human vulnerability," for it raises more than the question of Jewish survival: "The death camps point to the question mark hanging over the collective future of us all, for they expose our penchant for falling back on various kinds of 'final solutions' to the problems that confront us, with their attendant evils" (162).

Finally, Auschwitz can instruct Christian consciences about the ongoing durability and existence of Judaism and the Jewish people. Israel raises the question of whether or not Christians can affirm the right of the Jewish people to exist in this particular way, a way that fulfills the dream contained in the Jewish story but has no place in the traditional Christian outlook: "Jewish identity and existence despite Christianity; the land restored and made fruitful despite the destruction of the temple; the possibility of hope beyond despair; the burden of precariousness removed, to a degree, by the freedom to be; and the having of a place within which being can receive form and extension through time" (165).