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The Extent of the Holocaust as a Christian Problem

Introduction

The phrase “a lesson to be learned and a tragedy to behold” is an adequate description of the horrors and lessons that humanity has learned from the genocide of the Jewish population during World War 2. On the issue of the Holocaust as a “Christian Problem”, two different views contend over the extent of church culpability over the events that transpired. There is the view of the church which states that historical precedent has shown the deep relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The events of the Holocaust are considered a regrettable lapse in judgment on the part of the German Christian population and as such should be remembered as a way to strengthen the ties between Christianity and Judaism to prevent such an event from happening again. It is through this that the church’s interpretation of the Holocaust as a “Christian Problem” is a view based on the need to create awareness, foster better relations with the Jewish population, and as a call to repentance for actions that occurred through Christian neglect1. On the other hand, there is the view of Eckardt that presents the idea of the Holocaust being the result of three distinct factors: that it was the culmination of the church’s teaching of contempt, the culmination of the church’s absolute theology, and finally the culmination of modern man’s self-liberation from the shackles of God and morality2. Eckardt posits this compelling question to indicate church culpability in the Holocaust: “how was it the Holocaust able to come about when it carried out by a nation that was considered to be highly civilized, with 95% of its population having been baptized and with the German population continuing to maintain its church affiliation within the heart of a predominantly Christian Europe”3. She answers this question by suggesting that it was religious zealotry taught by the church to the German population that planted the initial seeds of the Holocaust4. For Eckardt, the Holocaust being a “Christian Problem” is based on the notion that the teachings of the church led to the Holocaust and there is a distinct need to learn from what happened and radically change certain aspects of Christian theology so as to prevent another Holocaust from happening again in the future. It is from this argument that the essay of Eckardt and its view that the Holocaust is a “Christian Problem” becomes relevant to what is happening in the world today. In it, she posits the question of whether our own children will be found among the murderers at another time, in that the lessons learned from the Holocaust will be for nothing and that it will repeat itself all over again at another time and place yet originating from the same cause as before5.

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The Extent of the Holocaust as a Christian Problem

The debate being presented is between the views of Eckardt and the church regarding the extent of culpability between the actions of the German church and how this relates to the origins of the Holocaust. An examination of the document “We Remember: a reflection on the Shoah” bears no mention of the culpability of church teachings in the Holocaust, what is mentioned is the “unfortunate actions of the Christian community in Germany” on how the church did try to do something but as a result several of its members were subsequently killed6. There is no mention of church teachings inciting anti-Semitism, no mention of the actions of the church pastor who condemned the Jewish population and called the Holocaust “the ordained divine will of God due to the blood of Christ spilled by the Jews”7. In fact, the entirety of the document states no actual culpability on the actions of the church itself or its teachings but gives the notion that the Holocaust was the result of social and political influences and motives rather than the result of church teachings planting the seeds of anti-Semitism8. Eckardt disproves this notion of the church when she indicates how prior to the start of the Nazi regime the German church had actually embarked on a campaign to vilify the Jewish religion which conforms to her notion of the church’s “teachings of contempt”9. During the 1920’s to the early 1930’s the German Protestant church had actually released numerous church “weeklies” (newsletters) which portrayed the Jewish population as being a “wicked and corrupting force” within the Christian German nation10. Religious sermons given by pastors, priests, bishops, or archbishops all contained a similar message indicating that the Jews were the murders of Jesus Christ and that they had cursed themselves upon his crucifixion. In fact, in 1936 a Protestant bishop was quoted as saying that the Jewish people were a “divinely ordained scourge for all nations which lead to hatred and persecution”11. The main point that Eckardt is trying to imply is that it is the culpability of the church in the origins of the Holocaust that makes it a “Christian Problem”. Throughout the recorded history of the church, it has been religious zealotry that was taught to various populations that have been the cause of numerous bloody conflicts and acts of inhumane cruelty. From the Crusades to the Salem witch hunts and various other historical incidences it has been religious zealotry, the Christian feeling of a spiritual superiority, and the claims of the church to possess the only sure means of forgiveness, grace, and salvation that such incidents happened in the first place. In terms of Christian culpability to the Holocaust, the views of Eckart are justified in that it was in part due to the German church and the fact that they focused more on internal church affairs rather than external problems that public opinion never wavered in the face of the atrocities of the Nazi regime12. On the other side of the debate, the church states that despite the message of Christianity of love for all, especially one’s enemies, sentiments of anti-Judaism did rise in numerous Christian quarters in various instances throughout history. This is in part due to the unjust interpretations of the New Testament alleging the culpability of the Jewish people towards the death of Christ, a view that the modern church does not support13. During the 18th century and at the height of Christian power in Europe those who were not part of the Christian religion were often looked on with mistrust and discriminated against. Forced conversions were prevalent and at times the populations of religious minorities were used as scapegoats during times of famine and war resulting in massacres of their populations by overzealous Christian sects14. It is due to instances such as these that the church has elaborated in the document “We Remember” of the need to coexist peacefully with other religions yet it still does not accept any culpability whatsoever in terms of its teachings being the primary reason behind such conflicts. For the church the “Christian Problem” is not with its teachings but rather in improving the ethics and morals of its members. When taking into consideration the assumptions of Eckardt, it can be assumed that the Holocaust for the church is merely another historical precedent that emphasizes the need for peaceful coexistence rather than evidence of problems in its manner of teaching its theology to its members.

What Changes are required in Christianity?

While the assumptions of Eckardt and the church’s point of view are similar in that they define the Holocaust as a Christian problem, Eckardt states that there is a need for the church to experience a form of metanoia, to move beyond the ideas notions and teachings that brought about the Holocaust to prevent it from happening again in the future15. On the other hand the church tackles the problem using an entirely different tact and set of assumptions, for the church it is the improvement of the morality of its members, the need to foster better relationships between various religions and to look towards a future of peaceful coexistence that the church considers the appropriate path to undertake. In other words the church does not want to accept culpability for the Holocaust; it will continue to advocate their truth as the only truth and will continue to state the importance of church teachings as the true path to salvation. Eckart argues that there is a need for the church to interfere more with external activities rather than concentrate more on internal affairs for It was this negligence by the church during the 1920’s to the 1930’s that brought about the Holocaust in the first place 16. For Eckart what is needed is a distinct change in the way Christian theology is taught wherein aspects related to salvation, superiority, righteousness and other similar facets which encourage feelings of superiority have to be downplayed in favor of teachings related to cooperation, understanding and coexistence. What must be remembered is that despite the feelings of the church towards Jews during the Holocaust and the years preceding it Jesus Christ himself was Jewish. He was part of the Jewish tradition and involved himself in many of their practices as such it makes little sense to condemn a religion that your own savior was a part of. Attitudes related to superiority or as the church being the only path to salvation actually caused people to consider other individuals to be less than human due to their feeling of superiority17. It was this dehumanizing factor that helped to contribute to various atrocities throughout history with the Holocaust being the culmination of generations’ worth of disdain. Based on this and the assumptions of Eckardt it can be seen that there is a definite need to change the way in which the church teaches its theology in order for people to move beyond thinking of superiority and start thinking of peaceful coexistence. In the article “We remember: a reflection on the Shoah” it is shown that the church believes peaceful coexistence is possible through changing the way in which people think and interact with each other especially those from other religions. This essay would like to point out that what is needed is not only a change in those who are part of the church but of the church itself. A certain degree of metanoia is needed to look beyond scripture and tradition and instead look toward flexibility in the way in which the church interprets its prescribed doctrine. One recent example of such a change is when Pope Benedict the 16th apologized to the victims of child molestation by Catholic priests; a first for the church when such actions were usually met with silence and back room negotiations. A more proactive church is needed, one which is not afraid to interfere with the actions of the state to safeguard the morality of the population.

Assessing the Views of Eckardt

There have been many interpretations over the cause of the Holocaust, Eckardt’s view is but one of many however it is unique in that it uses religious teachings as the basis for its explanations. For Eckardt the German church and its teachings were an important aspect towards establishing the mindset needed to cause a population to accept the atrocities that were done to the Jewish community in the name of creating a master race free from the stain of Judaism18. In assessing Eckardt’s view it seems that her description of Christian culpability in the Holocaust goes far enough in that it creates enough compelling evidence to argue that Christian teachings by the German church were in part the reason behind the atrocities committed however Eckardt fails to adequately explain how such teachings combine with the sociopolitical climate at the time. It must be noted that the rise of Hitler to power came when Germany was paying off wartime reparations due to its defeat in World War 1. As a result the German people and the German economy suffered as result of a supposedly unjust set of reparations. Hitler used the Jewish population as a scapegoat for the suffering of Germans and later in his career further enhanced this view by using the teachings of the church to show how Jews were less than human. While this paper could elaborate on various other reasons behind Hitler’s rise to power the fact remains that when Germany was suffering the Jews were merely used as an excuse, it can even be stated that if Germany was not suffering under the burden of wartime reparations at the time the Holocaust would probably never have happened.

Conclusion

As far as Christian culpability is concerned it did play a part in the philosophy behind Hitler’s actions but in no part was it the direct cause for the Holocaust itself19. As for Eckardt’s view regarding the changes required most of it is entirely plausible and the church is actually pursuing most of the initiatives indicated however it is unlikely that all of them will be carried out within the next decade or so.

Bibliography

BBC.“Merkel says German multicultural society has failed.” BBC, 2010.

Commission for Religious Relations.”We Remember: A reflection of the shoah”. Vatican Documents(1998). Web.

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Eckardt, A. “The Holocaust, the Church struggle, and some Christian reflections”. Faith and Freedom(Great Britain, Perigamon Press, 1987): 31 – 44.

Sullivan, Andréw.”Mortal Sin.” New Republic 226, no. 3(2002): 38. EBSCOhost.

Van, Biema and others. “A repentance, sort of.” Time 151, no. 12 (1998): 60. EBSCOhost.

Footnotes

  1. Commission for religious relations, “We Remember: A reflection of that shoah,” Vatican Documents (1998). Web.
  2. Eckardt, A, “The holocaust, the church struggle, and some Christian reflections”. Faith and Freedom. (Great Britain: Pergamon Press, 1987), 31 – 44.
  3. Ibid, 33.
  4. Eckardt, A, “The holocaust, the church struggle, and some Christian reflections”. Faith and Freedom. (Great Britain: Pergamon Press, 1987), 31 – 44.
  5. BBC.”Merkel says German multicultural society has failed.”BBC. Web.
  6. Commission for religious relations, “We Remember: A reflection of that shoah,” Vatican Documents (1998). Web.
  7. Eckardt, A, “The holocaust, the church struggle, and some Christian reflections”. Faith and Freedom. (Great Britain: Pergamon Press, 1987), 31 – 44.
  8. Ibid, 32
  9. Ibid, 32
  10. Ibid, 33
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Commission for religious relations, “We Remember: A reflection of that shoah,” Vatican Documents (1998). Web.
  14. Ibid.,
  15. Ibid.,
  16. Ibid, 35.
  17. Sullivan, Andréw. “Mortal Sin.” New Republic 226, no. 3 (2002): 38. EBSCOhost.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Van Biema, David, Greg Burke, and Jodie Morse. “A repentance, sort of.” Time 151, no. 12 (1998): 60. EBSCOhost.

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