Preaching the Good News After Auschwitz

The Responsibility, Judgment, and Risk of Homiletic Thoughtfulness

Jeffrey Metcalfe

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

–       Elie Wiesel, Night[1]

Night, smoke, bodies, silence, flames, and ashes: these are the words that describe a shattered faith and a murdered God. Seven times Wiesel tells us life after Auschwitz can never be the same, that he shall never forget. Yet the question remains: can we? Or, perhaps more accurately as church leaders, have we?

As preachers, we are called to proclaim the Good News to God’s people, and in seminary we learn at length the mechanics and dynamics, the principals and the practices that enable us to make that proclamation a delight to our hearers. Seldom are we encouraged to contemplate the profound responsibility this proclamation entails. Never are we asked whether, after the atrocities committed in the heart of Christian Europe, such a proclamation can still take place.

What does it mean for us to preach the Good News after Auschwitz?

This is a question that practical theology has by-and-large ignored. Indeed, most practical theologians teaching in seminary today, whether homileticians or church leadership specialists, stand in ignorance of the importance of the question itself: they have forgotten. This not only undermines the integrity of their disciplines, it threatens our ability as a church to preach the Good News in a world in which the furnaces of the crematoria have grown cold, but not inexistent. For as we have witnessed in the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, and Rwanda – to name just a few – the fires can always be rekindled.

In what follows, I shall argue that preaching the Good News after Auschwitz requires exercising a homiletic thoughtfulness composed of a tripartite structure of responsibility, judgment, and risk. I shall begin by drawing from the sociologist Helen Fein’s work, which helps make clear the preacher’s responsibility by correlating national rates of Jewish victimization during the Holocaust with church leaders’ willingness to speak out publically on behalf of the Jews. I shall then turn to an examination of the judgment such a responsibility demands and the risk it entails by looking at the Righteous Gentile Bernard Lichtenberg, whose preaching stands as a lasting example of homiletic thoughtfulness.

This short account – even if successful – will not be able to fully come to terms with what it means to preach the Good News after Auschwitz. However, in a world and in a church that suffers from forgetfulness, that it may be able to preserve and learn from even a shard of memory concerning that darkest of nights, may be enough.

Responsibility

In her work Accounting For Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust, Helen Fein correlates the national death rates of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust with a variety of factors and conditions in order to account for national variances in the rates of victimization. Her results are astounding and important, especially for the church. For as Fein notes, “Church protest proved to be the single element present in every instance in which state collaboration was arrested,”[2] and, “Church protest was absent in virtually all cases in which state cooperation was not arrested.”[3] Moreover, “Church protest was also the intervening variable most highly related to the immediacy of social defense movements that enabled Jews successfully to evade deportation.”[4] That is to say, in every case in which citizens of a nation successfully resisted the state’s attempt to deport Jews to the death camps, church leaders and preachers spoke out against the deportations, and where they did, movements of resistance would more often immediately arise to counter the states efforts. In contrast, where church leaders did not speak out, collaboration was common.

Notice here the significance of Fein’s conclusion for preaching. Her data suggests that a determining factor in the rate of victimization of Jews during the Holocaust was the church’s willingness to publically denounce the injustice of the state, and to speak out on behalf of the oppressed. Indeed, “the greater the church resistance, the fewer Jew’s became victims.”[5] For preachers, this suggests a profound responsibility, it clearly links a national community’s ability to resist the unjust actions of a state with the church’s exercise of its public voice, of which preaching is perhaps the most common expression. Stated more starkly, where preachers spoke out on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust, lives were saved. Where they failed to do so, movements to help Jews resist deportation to the death camps were much less likely to arise and less likely to succeed.

Thus, a homiletic thoughtfulness must begin with a felt responsibility for the fate of the oppressed, regardless of their race, religion, or their socio-economic status. Preaching the Good News after Auschwitz must start with the knowledge that the preacher is responsible for the lives of others, and that indeed, preaching can be a matter of life and death.

Judgment

However, Fein’s work also notes the importance of timing in the exercise of the church’s public voice. “The majority of Jews evaded deportation in every state occupied by or allied with Germany in which the head of the dominant church spoke out publically against deportation before or as soon as it began.[6] However, the longer it took for such a denunciation to be made, the less effective it would be in arresting the unjust behavior of the state.

This suggests the importance of judgment in homiletic thoughtfulness. If an injustice is being committed by the state upon a vulnerable group, and the preacher understands her responsibility to that group, she must be prepared to judge the injustice accordingly, and to act upon that judgment immediately. Insofar as she fails to act before or as soon as the injustice begins, the ability of her preaching to make a positive difference will be severely diminished.

A good example of such judgment can be seen in Bernard Lichtenberg, who was the Provost of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Berlin, during the Second World War. On Novemeber 10th, 1938, the evening after the Reichskristallnacht, Lichtenberg stood up in the pulpit in St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and preached against the persecution of the Jews by the state, saying “the temple outside is in flames. And it, too, is a house of God.”[7] From that evening on, Lichtenberg would then use a portion of his time in the pulpit and prayer desk each evening to speak out and pray publically for the Jews. In his own words,

When I saw the devastation, which the police were watching passively, I was outraged by the vandalism, and I wondered: What can be done here when something like this can happen in an orderly country? And I said to myself: Only one thing can help, prayer. And that evening I prayed for the first time: Let us pray for the persecuted non-Aryan Christians and for the Jews.[8]

As Lichtenberg understood before Auschwitz, preaching the Good News requires the homiletic thoughtfulness of judgment, which the preacher is responsible to exercise on behalf of the oppressed around him. After Auschwitz it is a lesson made all the more important.

Risk

Lichtenberg was murdered by the Nazis. After being denounced for speaking on behalf of the Jews by two visiting students at Vespers, he was charged and convicted of chancel abuse and of being in violation of the defamation law.[9] He spent two years in Tegel prison, before being deported to the concentration camp Dachau, a journey he never completed—he died on route.

Lichtenberg perfectly highlights the risk involved in homiletic thoughtfulness: not only can exercising responsibility and judgment in our preaching make our parishioners unhappy with us, in extreme circumstances, it can even get us killed. Lichtenberg knew this risk, and yet he took it anyway, every night, for three years, until the regime imprisoned and then killed him to make him stop. He did so because he knew what was at stake was not merely his moral integrity: it was an entire race of people. In light of the destruction of that people, he knew the Good News could only be proclaimed in that people’s liberation. And indeed, if we can preach the Good News today – after Auschwitz – it can only be because of preachers like Lichtenberg – Righteous Gentiles – who were willing to take the risk.

Is it a risk we would be willing to take today? If, as Hannah Arendt has argued, one of the most heinous crimes of modern history was made possible through sheer thoughtlessness,[10] then as preachers we had better stop and think. We had better take our responsibility seriously, exercise our judgment unambiguously, and prepare to take risks courageously. Only then will we be able to say “we too shall never forget,” and only then will our proclamation of the Good News speak meaningfully to a world still haunted by night, smoke, bodies, silence, flames, and ashes.

Jeffrey Metcalfe is a deacon in the Diocese of Quebec. While he completes his theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, he serves as the assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer. He is a co-editor of Catholic Commons.


[1] Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day, translated by Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008), 52.

[2] Helen Fein, Accounting For Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust (New York: The Free Press, 1979), 67.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. The first set of italicized words are original to the text, the second have been added.

[7] Bernard Lichtenberg, quoted in Annemarie S. Kidder, Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2012), 129.

[8] Ibid., 145.

[9] Kidder, Ultimate Price , 144.

[10] See Hannah Arendt, Eichmann and the Holocaust (Toronto: Penguin Books, 2005).

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