TRIGGER WARNING: Holocaust, Shoah, execution by hanging
DAY FOUR’s material is…oof.
I read Night by Holocaust survivor Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel last year (independent of AfL). Doing justice to the piece would require an entire year of blog posts, so here’s my brief, inadequate review:
It’s impossible to quantify the significance of this deceptively slim volume. Wiesel narrates a depth of darkness that answers the question “where is God?” — and leaves the reader with an ache in heart and mind that will take years or even a lifetime to process. This is a book I personally believe everyone should read. But caveat emptor: it will leave you changed, if you allow it.
For AfL2020 Day Four, Peter Rollins reads a section of Wiesel’s Night with a background audio of “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” 2nd movement, by Henryk Gorecki.
The selection of Wiesel’s work is the description of a hanging Wiesel witnessed during his concentration camp incarceration. (He was imprisoned at Buchenwald and Auschwitz, but I don’t remember where the hanging took place.) Three people were executed that day: two men, who were heavy enough that their necks broke; and one child, a boy, who took more than half an hour to die.
With Wiesel’s words and Gorecki’s music in my mind, I can’t hardly handle even writing the previous sentence.
The text of Gorecki’s “Sorrowful Songs” 2nd movement, sung by a haunting soprano, comes from a message written on the wall of a WWII Gestapo cell. It is the perspective of a child separated from a parent.
In his own commentary, Rollins notes:
Music and writing destabilize the usual separation between sacred and secular, between belief and nonbelief. There is something simultaneously pious and profane about their cry. …A profound suffering that, in its immanent protest, expresses something Wholly Other.
One of the things Rollins points out in some of his other writings and speakings is that it’s absurd to try to find meaning in the Holocaust. Its horror, its base evil, its horrific despair, and its utter heart-anguish defy meaning. It’s an insult, an unadulterated offense — both to the Holocaust victims and to the universe itself — to try to find meaning in Shoah, the utter destruction, The Disaster.
Disaster, the “bad star.” The fabric of the universe itself cries out against the reality that this atrocity happened, could ever have happened.
Trying to find meaning it it? Absurd. It is Wholly Other.
On to the pairing of Wiesel’s memories and Gorecki’s music. Together, they insist and proclaim that doubts and questions of faith (can) come from a deeply spiritual place. Doubts and questions are not anti-spiritual or even unspiritual. Gorecki’s “sorrowful song” is the weightless, airy sound of dominant melody carrying the faintest undertone of dissonance: the perfect acoustic imagery for the deeper wisdom of not letting religion’s assertions stand unassailed.
In other words, if you refuse to just swallow the party line, and if you refuse to fool yourself into believing you’re not swallowing it, then you are in tune with how the universe moves.
The moment in Rollins’s reading of Night that strikes the deepest chord in me is the moment when Wiesel describes being forced to walk past the three bodies hanging from nooses. The two men are already dead, but the boy still struggles. His eyes bulge. His face is purple. And one of Wiesel’s fellow prisoners cries out,
Where is merciful God now? Where is he? For God’s sake, where is God?
Wiesel, staring at the boy’s face, answers, There. In that angelic, bloated, tortured face. God is here, hanging from the gallows.
And the high, plaintive soprano laments in words I cannot understand, but still I sit at my safe table in my safe home surrounded by my living, healthy family, and my heart weeps the same excruciating question,
Where the hell is God?
Once upon a time, I had an answer for that. It was an answer gleaned from a plethora of apologetics (defense of the Christian faith and the Bible), all of which I swallowed with very little question and with much silencing of doubt. Skeptics pointed to various examples of human suffering and asked me, “Where was God in that? How could a loving God let this happen? How could God let this happen if he really is all-powerful and loving at the same time?”
And I gave the compassionate, heartfelt, standard answer: “God sent his son, Jesus, to die a horrible death so that we wouldn’t have to. Jesus let himself be tortured to death so that we wouldn’t have to pay the ultimate price for all the bad stuff we’ve done.”
There’s more to it than that — there’s in-depth conversation and pleading and gentle tones and revisiting the topic. But at its core, that was my response, and I felt satisfied with it. I think I even convinced a few people of it, and they allowed themselves to be soothed by its reassuring message.
I wouldn’t give them that answer now.
That answer no longer soothes me. It no longer comforts me. It no longer feels compassionate.
It feels convenient.
Tell it to the parent who bends wailing over the broken body of their child. Tell it to the poor and the sick and the utterly destitute huddled up against the borders of the overabundantly wealthy, begging for entry and being refused and even punished for daring to ask for more. Tell it to the wheelchair-bound who don’t have access to public services populated by the easily mobile. Tell it to the teenager who’s terrified to go to school because they don’t know who’s going to harrass them more for their gender: their fellow students or their teachers. Tell it to the elderly person whose friends and family are all dead, who sits by the window and watches the world pass by and wishes somebody would just stop and say hi. Tell it to the child who’s rolled up in newspapers in a cardboard box, unable to sleep because of the gnawing agony in their empty stomach.
Approach these humans, look at their pain, and say to them, “God is entered into this pain of yours. You can’t see God or hear God or feel God, but be assured that God knows how you feel, because God — through Jesus and because of Jesus — God has felt these things too. God weeps and mourns and suffers with you. You’re not alone.”
I am so sorry, but that’s not enough.
It feels empty to me now. It feels pat. Cliche. It feels placatory and unsatisfactory.
Where is God? There, in the actual body of the suffering, tortured human. God isn’t in God’s knowledge of or empathy with how we feel. If you are looking at another human’s suffering…and you’re entering into it…and you’re refusing with every fiber of your being to step back and put safe distance between yourself and that pain…then in the other’s suffering flesh and your entering into it, that is God. Not an object or even a person we worship, but an experience we have in our becoming part of each other’s agony.
I feel overwhelmed.