Listening to Dietrich Bonheoffer’s Life – Part IV

Yad Vashem Hall of Names

The Hall of Names containing Pages of Testimony commemorating the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. David Shankbone via Wikipedia

Envision the following thoughts as if they were all hanging together on a single string of pearls:

“Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”).

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” (Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel).

“There is one case, when a pilot – and we don’t know why, and why that particular pilot and not others – quite obviously saw, when flying very low, that a train was carrying victims, and he bombed the engine, and the train stopped. As a result, some people, at least, managed to escape. So there is proof that they [the Allies] knew, but they didn’t react. They knew… they didn’t know… they refused to know.” (Yehuda Bauer, Director of the International Center for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, in an interview on January 18, 1998, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem).

Sometimes it’s in the simple stringing of seemingly incongruous pearls of wisdom that whole chains of new insight are discovered.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of the critical connection between listening and love as it concerns our behavior toward our fellow man.

Elie Wiesel speaks from the victims’ side of the equation, of the horror of the world’s silence, the brutality of indifference and the spiritual vacuum that forms when the biblically mandated connection with the “other” is broken off.

Professor Bauer’s anecdote illuminates the tragic demonstration of collective indifference on the part of the Allied leadership toward the systematic murder of the Jewish people, even as entire Jewish communities and villages were being isolated, rounded-up, ghettoized, then transported great distances in boxcars to be wiped off from the face of the earth.

In the interviews I’ve read, Professor Bauer seems to emphasize this principle of “symbolism vs. practicality” as it applies to the effect of resistance efforts during the commission of the Final Solution. This concept stresses that it was the symbolic lack of resistance that fed the Nazi appetite and increased the appetite to kill, not the practical effect of real active or armed resistance in confronting the Nazi appetite to kill, that had the greater impact on slowing the spread of Nazi aggression against the Jews. The symbolic lack of resistance was the heavier factor of the two, as the Nazis possessed all the forms of control—intellectual, legislative, military—of the situation at least up to the time of the invasion of the Allied forces on D-Day.

This principle brings into view the idea that, if there had been either some strategically-placed or more spontaneously-produced resistance efforts by the Allied powers directly targeting the carrying out of the Final Solution, such efforts would have had precious impact on the overall effect of saving Jewish lives. But as there were few, if any, formalized, intentional, strategically placed acts of resistance – either propagandistic or militaristic – showing direct concern on the part of the Allied leadership for “the Jewish problem” as it swept across the entire European continent, the Nazi appetite for anti-Semitic genocide only grew. As it turns out, “the Jewish problem” was exactly that, a Jewish problem – not an Allied or American, or even a Gentile or “Christian” problem. It had been decided in the upper echelons of Western leadership that the war being waged by Hitler against the unarmed Jewish population—a war-unto-itself being carried out on the basis of ideological, anti-Semitic hate—was not to become part of the armed war between the Allied and Axis powers.

Ironically, the true, preventative “solution to the Jewish problem” – from a positive perspective – would have, could have, been, the collective “Christian” apprehension of its own Jewish core-identity from the very beginning, long before Hitler and the Third Reich came into existence. For at the furthest tip of its deepest root-end, the self-taught, triumphalistic mindset of “neutrality” on the part of heavily christianized Western society can ultimately be attributed to the “popularized” anti-Jewish Christian theological mindset over time, that the Jews were simply “them” and Christians, simply “us.”  This collective attitude, framed and fortified by the false theological accusation that those who are “they” had collectively killed Christ, and, as a result of that act of deicide, those who are “we,” that is, those who had accepted Christ, had been awarded possession of all that “they” once had been: God’s “chosen people,” heirs of all of God’s rich promises to Abraham. When institutional Christianity anointed itself the “New Israel,” it effectively condemned Judaism and the Jewish people to two thousand years of occupying the role of “them;” and not only a benign, non-threatening “them,” but an obsolete, highly expendable, problematic “them” that only lent more credibility to, and passive acceptance of, the Western ideological impulse toward their social exclusion, or, as in the case of the Third Reich, their ultimate demise.

In short – intentionally or unintentionally – the Jewish people were thrown to the wolves, so to speak, or, put more euphemistically updated: thrown under the bus. How else can one explain such complete denial of the obvious, urgent need to rescue so many sacred, innocent lives – so many children, parents and grand-parents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles – except to push the thought of them categorically out of the way by locking them up in the ancient, long-hidden, hermeneutically sealed container labeled “the other?” Didn’t some of the “former chosen-ness” that had been “theologically transferred” from Israel to the Church, count for anything?

Deep, dark, and malevolent spiritual, intellectual, and emotional dynamics were at work in the genesis of the hellacious catastrophe known as the Holocaust. We now know what for so long we did not want to know, but must have subconsciously expected: that ill-conceived, falsely postulated, separatistic anti-Jewish Christian theology played a vital role in the spawning of the horrific darkness that befell the Jewish people of Europe in mid-20th century of Roman time. But, thank God, times, hearts, and minds, have begun to change through the horrible process of discovery. Change that adds another dimension to the beautiful, if tragic, sound of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, transforming it into a kind of unfinished symphony.

We, as Christians, may play a significant role in finishing the unfinished symphony initiated by Bonhoeffer, and others,  if we, first, “listen” to the behavior of our Christian brothers and sisters in their failure to rise up against the forces of darkness last century, but also, try to hear the beautiful strains of music emanating from the Jewish witness to the God of Israel, that we must incorporate into the substance of our own musical approach to the same God if we truly desire to worship Him in spirit and truth. This, we can only learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters, whom, tragically, we did not view as our elder siblings before Auschwitz.

If we do, in fact, listen to the sound of our “other” siblings, hearing the voice that was always meant to be our own, we might finally begin to realize a critical factor in the spiritual power behind Holocaust education: that what is history to “us” as Christians, is memory to “them” as Jews, and, that by intentionally taking up the cause of history among ourselves, we intentionally take up the cause of the defense of memory for them. Which, of course, represents the common cause of taking up the defense of our own history, our own memory, whether we’re willing  to admit it or not.

Part V: unleashing the power of the renaissance…