Religious Values After the Holocaust:
A Protestant View

by Allan R. Brockway

In addressing the topic at hand I should like to begin with two autobiographical recollections.

I am a Depression baby. That is to say that I was born in 1932, the year that Franklin Roosevelt was first elected to the presidency of the United States. When President Roosevelt died, just before the end of the Second World War, I was almost twelve years old.

The significance of this otherwise irrelevant fact is that I am a member of a generation that is neither fish nor fowl, that re members the war but knew nothing of it. I remember asking my father what the radio newscasters talked about when there wasn't a war. He replied, "They read recipes." In particular, I knew nothing of the Holocaust at the time it was going on; if any mention of the mass murder in Europe was made on those newscasts, I don't remember it.

I do remember collecting tinfoil for the war effort and saving my nickels to buy stamps at school to go in the book that would, when filled, become a war bond. I do remember ration stamps (my mother could never get enough sugar for canning) and the scarcity of other items, such as rubber for automobile tires. But the war did not consciously touch me in my childhood; I knew it was going on, I had no doubt about the Allies' ultimate victory, but it caused me no anxiety and certainly no hardship.

The values I incorporated during those years were the standard so-called Protestant values of frugality, diligence, church attendance, personal piety, and patriotism. I knew nothing of what I came later to call racism, though the "values" of racism were ingrained in me with the air I breathed. The question of anti Semitism was never raised; to my knowledge no Jews lived in the small town where I was growing up during the war. But, of course, I knew quite well what "the Jews" had done to Jesus and absolutely nothing of what "the Christians" had done to "the Jews."

No one thought much about the events of the Second World War in the high school I attended, and I learned nothing of the Holocaust there, or in college, in any intentional way. Indeed, it was not until l953 when, for a contemporary literature course, I read John Hersey's powerful novel The Wall, about the Warsaw Ghetto, that I was introduced to any knowledge, much less feeling, about the Holocaust. I shall always be grateful to Hersey for the awakening, all unbeknown to him, of a young man about to enter the ministry of what was then the Methodist church.

Now again, the only relevancy of this recollection lies in the fact that it took me so long, and then by accident, to begin to comprehend what had happened only a few years before. As I look back on it now, Hersey's novel did for me what some young people now testify the television series "Holocaust" did for them: it told me that the values I had taken for granted, the values of respect and honor for human life and for the dignity of the individual, were not historically absolute values: they could be- they had been!-flouted, denied, and indeed totally rejected.

The second of my autobiographical recollections comes from about fifteen years later, when I was editor of a social action magazine of the Methodist church. At the time of the 1961 Arab Israeli War I wrote and published a short editorial in which I suggested that Jews need never worry-in the future the United States and the world would not allow Israel to be pushed into the sea. Along with other Protestant editors, I was immediately called to task by my Jewish colleagues for those too little, too late, and unconsciously insensitive words. And I began to realize, in a way I had never before, that still I had been taking for granted that the values I had learned as a child were inviolate,at least in the United States and the Western world. And that I had not even begun to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.

The horror facing us today is that the Holocaust actually happened, that it happened in our world, the world of all those values I was taught as a child. But the additional horror is what I began to learn-and am still painfully learning-after the 1967 war. That is that some of those values, if made paramount, endanger other vital values. In brief, religious and religiously motivated patriotic values have the power to override humanistic and humanitarian values. Let me explain.

The distinction that Karl Barth made between religion and faith, which I learned most explicitly through Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote about "religionless Christianity," has yet to make its way fully into our thinking about values. But the Holocaust says nothing to us if it does not insert that distinction indelibly into our collective consciousness. For it was the preeminence of religious values that produced the Holocaust, religious values that forced humanistic and humanitarian values into a secondary and finally nonexistent role. These latter, the humanitarian values, I wish to argue, are at the heart of the Christian value system based on faith, but they are foreign to religion, Christian religion in particular. The former, the religious values, were at the heart of Hitler's final solution.

It is true, of course, that Hitler's religion was not Christianity, despite his formal allegiance to Catholicism. Instead, his was a religion founded on race and blood, that fed upon the historic pragmatic religion of Christianity. But it was religion, nevertheless, because it placed idealistic, event transcendent, values above those of human beings and of peoples. Hitler demonstrated in the most horrible fashion imaginable that religious values made absolute are demonic.

Christianity has been prone, more than most religions, to just such demons. Torquemada's Inquisition is a beautiful example, during which Jews and others were made to "confess" Jesus Christ or suffer painful deaths. The people, the individuals, were unimportant; what happened to them as persons made no difference. The only things that mattered were the transcendent values of the religion. But Hitler took the religious value system one crucial step further. For him, religion was not a matter of belief, it was a matter of being. "Being precedes essence," the existentialists have told us, but for Hitler being and essence were identical. If a man or woman was "Aryan," this was sufficient for salvation (literally). Otherwise, particularly if one were a Jew, one's essence denied existence-and it was the Nazi religious duty to actualize that denial of existence, which is, of course, just what the death camps did.

It has often been noted that, had the "final solution of the Jewish question" been totally successful, and had the war not been lost, Hitler would have set about the systematic extermination of Christians as well. There is nothing inconsistent about that. For though Christians' "essence" was not so readily identifiable as that of Jews (which wasn't all that easy to identify either, as the Nuremberg Laws testify), if someone was defined as essentially a Christian, then that someone had no business being in existence. It is not hard to imagine some system comparable to Torquemada's being utilized by the Nazis to effect "conversion" of otherwise "Aryan" people to Hitler's religion. And through it all, the fundamental values of Christian faith, though not necessarily Christian religion, were in the process of being obliterated. What I am pointing toward is the critical difference between values integral to faith as opposed to values integral to religion. The values of religion, are, first and foremost, those that promote the religion. In other words, the religion itself is the primary value and all other values are subsidiary. Thus, if the religion requires that human beings be sacrificed or otherwise slaughtered, then that must be done. Any insistence that human beings have intrinsic value is brushed aside, not only as a nuisance but as idolatry.

The history of the Christian religion is replete with illustrations of the deleterious effect of its sometimes more and sometimes less complete institutionalization within society. But institutionalized Christianity has always been tempered by the faith it bears. It took the absolutism of the Nazis to demonstrate the genuine implications of consistently applied religious values. And what the Nazis demonstrated was that when religious values are carried to their logical conclusion, they deny the values inherent in both Christian faith and humanistic reason.

It is instructive to note that Hitler did not generally imprison, murder, or otherwise persecute those who were merely adherents of the Christian religion (Deutsche Christen). But he fully recognized the danger from those of Christian faith. These latter refused not only to participate in the expression of the Nazi folk religion but, more importantly, actively held to the values of their own faith, values that could never be harmonized with those of the Nazi regime and religion.

What were, and are, those values? They are what might be called horizontal values, those that make real, live people more important than abstractions, more important than religious belief. The value system of Christian faith does not differ from that of any enlightened humanist, it should be observed, save in one important particular: Christian faith is grounded in the conviction that active dedication to the infinite worth of the created universe in general and specific human individuals in particular is the first, last, and only test of one's faith in God. No one loves God who does not love those loved by God-which includes every single human being, of whatever color, belief, nationality, sex, or age. Nothing could have been farther from the Nazi creed. And nothing could be farther from the Christian religion when religion takes precedence over faith.

I need not chronicle again the dismal record of the Christian churches and the majority of individual Christians when con fronted with the fact of Hitler's mass murder of their friends and neighbors-the Jewish business people, secretaries, accountants, homemakers, factory workers, schoolteachers, laborers, and children of Europe. What is important for us to note today is that there was little in the history of the Christian religion to prompt a response other than that of the Deutsche Christen. For centuries the church had taught that the Jewish people had been written out of God's plan of salvation. It was not merely a peripheral religious tenet; it was central to the Christian religion itself, for from the earliest days of the church religion had displaced faith.

We can see, for instance, that in Luke-Acts the church came to view itself as a kind of new people, a third racial grouping between Gentiles and Jews. This meant that the Jewish people and the pagan world had no future. Only the church had some kind of destiny. This is an interpretation voiced especially by Professor Gregory Baum. It requires no stretch of the imagination to make that read: The Nazis saw themselves as the third race beyond Jews and Christendom. By implication this position negated the future of the Jewish people and the Christian church. Only the Aryans had a destiny. And the Aryans possessed the political and military power, like the church beginning with Constantine, to develop the social implications of their religious doctrine. Because theirs was an unrelenting religious belief, they became one of the few unambiguously religious societies in all of history. Hitler and his minions were nothing if not consistent.

The Christian religion, bereft of faith, fell easy victim to the Nazi religion, for especially when it came to the Jewish people, there was little difference between them at the level of belief. The principal difference was that whereas the church remained the bearer of Christian faith despite itself, there was no vestige of such affirmation of the human individual within Nazism. But we might say, what if the theology, the religion, of Christianity had put priority on the intrinsic worth of individual human beings That question and its answer are of greatest concern for us today, for the fact is that seldom, if ever, has the hypothetical coincidence of religion and faith existed. Throughout history, religion has tended to emerge supreme in the lives of peoples and nations.

Lest I be accused of suggesting that there are no differences among religious values, that they are uniformly demonic, let me issue a denial in advance. Many, if not most, religious values do not conflict in the least with the fundamental divine affirmation of the temporal and ultimate intrinsic worth of individuals, as both persons and peoples.

Indeed the values of community, which support mutual aid among community members and even for the "stranger within the gates"; of allegiance to and worship of the transcendent Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of humanity and the entire created universe; of personal and corporate prayer and adherence to life styles that correspond to it-all these values of religion are also the values of faith.

Where religion begins to separate itself from faith is when particular understandings of the transcendent Creator, of prayer, of community, and so forth, become absolute in opposition to differing understandings and it becomes necessary ( or so it is thought) to defend the religion against those others. Moreover, when religion believes-and acts on the belief-that it must convert others to its own system in order to be true to itself, then it has separated itself from faith. This latter, of course, has been a failure, one might even say sin, of Christian religion. In sum, the values of a religion are not necessarily what I am calling religious values. There is a great difference between practicing a religion and adhering to a religious value system.

Once that has been said, however, the question remains as to whether it is possible for the values of faith, the values centered on the infinite, indeed cosmic, worth of each human individual, to become normative for societies in this post-Holocaust age. Are the values of faith up to the task of guiding the actions of peoples and societies?

Ours is a world in which it is not possible for any of us to live in isolation from others within our own society or from others in societies on the other side of the globe. It is a world that forces decisions upon us that we would much prefer not to make. And it is a world that is placing almost unbearable pressure upon the value of the human individual.

There are, for instance, too many people in the world, and the number continues to grow. Most of this population growth is taking place among people who are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, various kinds of "primal" religionists, and of no readily identifiable religious identity at all. In addition, the resources available to the enlarging world population are not growing at anywhere near the pace of the population itself. Technology, once thought to be the guarantor of a new age of plenty, has fallen before the scar city and cost of natural resources to fuel its computers, airplanes, and machines of war, not to mention its air conditioning, petroleum-based fertilizers, and automobiles.

The question persons of faith face today is a new one in human history; at least it is new in terms of the greatness of its dimensions. That question is, which human beings are to be affirmed when not all human beings can possibly be preserved?

Who is to say who shall live and who shall die? What criteria shall be used for such "awe-full" decisions? The faith statement that all people are, by definition, of infinite value turns out to be a criterion by which everyone is damned if you do and damned if you don't. But the alternative is infinitely worse.

In face of this kind of radical pressure upon a world society that emerged scarcely yesterday in historical times, we are witnessing the reemergence of religious solutions, solutions which, from the perspective of faith, deny the validity of human beings as individual people. Today the most obvious of these reemergences is seen in the Islamic "fundamentalism" in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nations of the Near and Middle East. But it is also present in the religiously based policies of Israel and the equally religiously based attitudes and actions of the United States and the nations of Western Europe. With the exception of those in places such as Iran, these religious solutions are not usually framed in explicitly religious categories, but they are religious nevertheless, for they repair to supposedly transcendent values for their justification of a refusal to place determining value on individual people-real, live, individual human beings. Instead, what we see referred to are Islamic law, biblical tradition, and human rights, the last of which has become an extremely flexible category for support of those who will conform to United States policy. People are killed for the "holy" cause of religion; religion becomes a mockery of faith.

What the Holocaust should have taught us is that religion, no matter what its form, leads to hatred, destruction of people (who are individuals with their own hopes and dreams and daily lives), and governmental forms that institutionalize that hatred and destruction.

The Jewish people has much to teach the rest of us in this turbulent world about the danger of religion, despite the present religious determinism that characterizes the Israeli government. The Talmudic insistence upon the primacy of not doing to others what one would not want done to oneself is, of course, central to Christian faith (though certainly not to Christian religion, as the history of the church gives ample evidence). Judaism has not been principally a religion. It has been and is a people, a people that understands itself to have been chosen by the Founder of the world to be a "light to the nations." The world has, of course, not accepted that people as such. Instead, it has seen that people as a threat, as an anachronism that inexplicably preserved itself into the modern world, that should not have survived-but nevertheless did survive-not only the destruction of the second temple but also the onslaught of Nazism. The guilt of the Western world and the guilt of Christendom have not been able to overcome the fundamental threat that the mere existence of the Jewish people represents for Christian religion and for the secularism that has overcome the Western Christian world.

Secularism, properly understood, is synonymous with Christian faith when it comes to the affirmation of the intrinsic worth of human individuals. But the secular world and its system of values fails, in the last analysis, because it is unable to root its value system in anything that transcends itself. After all is said and done, it simply will not do to assert that human beings are valuable because they think they are. A value laden cogito ergo sum is nothing more than a nihilist cry.

So I am back to my initial autobiographical observations. I was a child during the war and thus during the Holocaust. Clearly I have no responsibility for what went on then. I didn't kill any Jews. I didn't acquiesce in the death of a single Jew. By the time I became aware of the death camps, they were long gone. No one can blame me for either positively killing Jews or not taking action to prevent their death. I'm innocent, am I not?

I wish it were so. I am an adherent of the Christian religion. I'd like to say that I live in Christian faith and nothing else, but the truth of the matter is that Christian faith cannot exist without Christian religion. I want, desperately, to deny Christian religion and affirm Christian faith apart from the religious value system that Christianity enforces. But I cannot. The best I can do is live and act for Christian faith within the Christian religious system. So I, like most other sensitive Christians, fight against the religion and try to affirm the faith, for the most part without success.

The Holocaust stands over against our religious systems. It stands as a mute testimony against all our protests that we are not responsible. When all the evidence is in, and the evidence now available is almost more than one can stand, the demand for metanoia, for repentance, for going in a new direction away from religion toward faith, on the part of Christians-whether they live in the so-called Western world or whether they live in the so-called Third World-remains. The values of the Christian faith focus on human beings, no matter their religious identity, nationality, or race. Every one is infinitely valuable.

So we reject the Nazi values. So we reject the values of religion, which, when pursued to their logical extreme, end up in Nazi values. We still are left with a world in which too many people live, in which nationalist, economic, and ideological values prevail. The Holocaust tells us that faith in human and biblical values is extremely fragile. But it is a faith worth pursuing, a faith worth reinforcing, a faith worth our trust. For without it the future of the human species is less than dim and individual hope is hopeless.