Sunday, January 25, 2009


The other day I finished Elie Weisel’s Night. It is his personal story of the Holocaust. In Night he recounts his life as a young Jew from Hungary being sent with his family to almost certain death in the concentration camps, first Auchwitz then to Buchenwald. I had heard of this wonderful book, of course, but had never taken the time to read it. So many books, so little time…

While this is a hard book to read, it is simply one of the most important books around. His writing style is sparse, blunt, real, stark. But the events that he described could not have been written with many adjectives. There really was no need.

The book begins with Elie’s wonderful love of family and community, his search for God and his careful meditation, prayer and truth seeking. It ends with him losing faith in humanity and his faith in God. He had to endure the loss of his mother and sisters upon entering the camps. The deaths of countless other Jews even as his father slowly declines and Elie becomes his father’s caregiver. He chronicled the constant physical and psychological torture including the understanding that, even after being humiliated, starved, frozen and beaten they all would eventually probably die.

One of the most excruciating aspects of Elie’s story is how his relationship with his father, Shlomo, slowly becomes reversed. How, instead of relying on his father for hope and comfort, Elie must watch as his father is beaten and humiliated and finally succumbs to illness brought on by their opressors, the Nazis.

We are given to understand at the end of the book that Elie has completely lost his faith in God. A kapo, a prisoner who received better treatment for his cooperation with the Nazis and who oversaw the other prisoners, told Elie, “Everyone lives and dies for himself, alone.” More and more often Elie asks himself where God is, how a God of love and mercy could let his people be treated this way. Yet imbedded in this narrative are many wonderful acts of selflessness and beauty that a believer would point to and say this is the presence of God. In the sound of the dying violinist who played with his last bit of strength in the shed of men and boys freezing to death, in the face of the incredibly beautiful boy who was to be hung because he was associated with resistors, in the simple gift of a crust of bread to a dying prisoner. God was there.

Night made me recall vividly my experiences in Rwanda, the home of a very modern genocide. Rwanda’s trouble was no less sad than the Holocaust. Both were needless, cruel, stoppable. Several people, including my own family asked me when I returned, “Where was God?” I am pulling now from my Rwanda blog to make this connection…

“If there was a God how could he have let this happen?” “How can you still believe in God?” These were also my questions. I am no authority on God. But I have read some remarkable things about Rwanda by people who are much more in touch with the answer to these questions than me. The book The Bishop of Rwanda by John Rucyahana helped me to understand in a way that nothing else has. Bishop John started Sonrise School and has done brilliant work toward reconciliation in Rwanda. I have to quote him at length in answering these tough but thoughtful questions…

Where was God when million innocent people were butchered? Where was God when priests and pastors helped massacre the people in their churches?

I’ll tell you where God was. He was alongside the victims lying on the cold stone floor of the cathedral. He was comforting a dying child. He was crying at the altar. But he was also saving lives. Many were saved by miracles. God does not flee when evil takes over a nation. He speaks to those who are still listening, He eases the pain of the suffering, and He saves those who can be saved… God has always used the broken, and he is using this broken nation to manifest his grace and power. He is taking the brokenness cause by evil and using it for a greater purpose – a great reconciliation in a nation that the world had not only given up on, but had given over to the devil, and its own evil… I know what it is to forgive through the tears. Like many people in Rwanda I have to forgive in order to live…

The pain of Rwanda is not just in the survival of brutal acts or in those who lost someone dear to them. It is in the killers as well… It does not matter that the government pushed them to do it. It does not matter that the devil reigned for a time in their hearts and minds. The guilt came and the pain stayed. That is why I have seen so many prisoners burst into tears after they have repented and been forgiven by the very people who suffered at their hands…

I have seen people forgive those who killed their loved ones. I’ve watched survivors and perpetrators cry together and hug each other through their tears. Something like that requires the presence of God. I could never go to a single prison to preach without the power of God. Without God I would hate such killers with all my heart. But with God I can truly say that I love them. (p. xv and xvi)

John’s family suffered terribly at the hands of the extremists, yet he forgives and he preaches forgiveness. He wants to show the world the power that comes through forgiveness. Where is God? He is with John Rucyahana.

And he is with Elie as he refuses to let the world forget the Holocaust, continues to fight for peace throughout the middle east and raise consciousness with his speeches and essays. I have not read the books, which follow Night (I must), but it is clear that Elie did find his faith again. In a commencement speech at DePaul University Chicago in 1997, he included these remarks.

I will tell you a story. Martin Buber was a great philosopher, some of you have studied him, probably in philosophy classes. He was one of the very first to believe in ecumenism, which means he always joined all the groups that brought Christians and Jews together. He was a religious existentialist, and the story is that once he came to address such a group of theologians. There were Jewish theologians and Christian theologians there. And he said to them, "My good friends, what is the difference between you and me? Both of us, all of us believe, because we are religious, in the coming of the Messiah. You believe that the Messiah came, went back, and that you are waiting for Him for the second coming. We Jews believe He hasn't come yet, but He will come. In other words, we are waiting. You for the second coming, we for the first coming. Let's wait together."

Where is God? He is with Jimmy Carter and Bill Gates and Nicholas Kristoff and all those who raise their voices against injustice. I pray that He is with Barack Obama as we head into this new, uncertain era where we need peace and understanding as much as ever.

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