Suffering, Silence, and Holy Week

How can we pray when faced with unimaginable pain?
A memorial ceremony marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, 2018 (CNS photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

In the face of an atrocity, the comforts of prayer and piety can look not only empty but obscene. This was always true, but after the Holocaust it became a truism. Primo Levi, one of the best chroniclers of life and death at Auschwitz, was outraged by the sight of a fellow prisoner offering a prayer of gratitude just after others had been selected for immediate extermination:

I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen. Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer. (If This Is a Man)

Levi, though, did not believe in God. Those who tried to make sense of what happened in the camps by appeal to divine providence he regarded with suspicion or scorn. In “Catholics & the Shoah” (Commonweal, March 13), Peter Manseau develops a similar suspicion into an argument against theological interpretations of suffering, and Christian interpretations of Jewish suffering in particular. “There is a difference,” he writes, “between facing up to history and seeing one’s own theology play out at every turn. If the first frame of reference for the murder of 6 million Jews is the death of a Christian savior or saint, one can see how the dark spots of history might be forgotten beside the light of faith.”

The obligation to remember the dark spots of history is, as Manseau reminds us, a serious one, and it is all too easy for us to talk our way around it with a certain kind of God talk—the kind that vaguely invokes the Almighty’s hidden purposes or breezily promises eternal compensations. If a theological language makes knowledge of the Holocaust easier for us, it is almost certainly false. At the sight of someone else’s unspeakable suffering, we must be wary of all eloquence, including our own—and especially wary of our own eloquent prayers. Any alert believer will be shaken by Levi’s indignation in the passage above, for his interpretation of Kuhn’s faith is both plausible and damning. It is, Levi says, a faith that doesn’t know how to shut up when the only decent response is silence, a faith that tries to ward off despair with presumption. It may be fair to ask, with Levi, whether there is really any other kind.

At the sight of someone else’s unspeakable suffering, we must be wary of all eloquence, including our own.

To believe in God at all is to hope that there is. The kind of faith both Christians and Jews must hope for is one that makes room for the necessary silence, but the silence that they believe is necessary leaves room for lamentations addressed to God, and for the possibility of his response. That an atrocity is unspeakable may or may not mean that it is unanswerable by God. If it does, then the gospel is a decorous myth that tells us nothing important about our own suffering and death, and less than nothing about the Holocaust. It is not only that we Christians are wasting our time if Christ has not really conquered death; worse, we are trafficking in false consolation. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Furthermore, if Christ’s triumph over his own death, though real, did not reorder the whole world, then the Resurrection would be a kind of stunt: an impressive display of divine power, but not a reason for our hope. In that case, it would indeed be an error to mention the Cross in connection with any great historical evil, no matter who its victims.

But if Christ’s Resurrection was a victory not only over his own death, but over death itself, and a victory not only of mercy but of justice too, then it does change the meaning of history, and not only Christian history. This is what Christians say they believe. If they cannot believe it without first exempting the worst evils, then it may not be worth saying—to anyone. A gospel that promises truth as well as meaning must be able to survive exposure to the facts Levi records (and a gospel that is not about truth is a device for self-deception). If the good news of Easter is too delicate to withstand the bad news of history, then we are like Kuhn without Kuhn’s excuse, closing our eyes and rocking ourselves back and forth as people around us disappear.

Manseau is right about the danger of theologizing suffering into something rational or beautiful, but shrinking the gospel or the Pentateuch into something safely small is not an option. Nor can people of faith, Christian or Jewish, permit themselves to tell their nonreligious friends one thing about the scope of their creed while they tell themselves another. There is much that Christians don’t—and cannot yet—know about how the events of Holy Week bear on our own suffering, and there is still more we don’t know about how they bear on the suffering of others. That they do somehow bear on every human experience is nevertheless an indispensable part of what Christians believe.


Related: Catholics & the Shoah by Peter Manseau

Read more: Letters, May 8, 2009

Published in the 2009-04-10 issue: 

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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