I was invited to speak at a conference in Poland recently (on Biblical hermeneutics and theological method, in case you were curious), and while there I had an opportunity to visit Auschwitz. I am not much of a tourist or a sightseer, but there are just some things one has to do when the opportunity presents itself. I have long appreciated the wisdom of the statement, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Ecc 7:2), and I cannot think of a more apt description of Auschwitz than house of mourning.
The buildings, the barbed wire fences, and all the relics inside are enduring memorials to evils that remarkably some deny ever happened. These remind us that the repeated genocidal evils of Biblical days (see Ex 1:16, Est 3:6, Mt 2:16, Rev 12:4,13, etc.) can and will happen in our own generations if we are not vigilant (and in some cases, even if we are).
When I first entered Auschwitz I, walking under the wickedly ironic sign that reads, “arbeit wacht frei” (work makes free), I was struck by the beauty of the surrounding environs. How could such evil happen here?
Once inside the buildings I was struck by the horrors of man’s evil toward man – too many to recount here: tons of human hair stolen from men, women, and children murdered there, tens of thousands of pairs of shoes taken from the children who were killed, Block 10 (Mengele’s medical torture chamber), the Black Wall, the Block 11 standing cells.
I stood in the (largely original) Auschwitz I gas chamber where thousands drew their last tortured breath, and in the adjacent room where three furnaces were used to dispose of the bodies of those who were murdered. How could such evil happen here?
Captain Witold Pilecki, a Polish patriot who volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz so that he could report on the evils of the camp and develop strategies for its destruction, explained in his remarkable report how such evil could happen there:
“What can the human race tell today, that human race which wants to prove a progress of culture and to put the 20th century in a much higher position than previous centuries? At all, may we, the people of the 20th century, face those who lived earlier, and – absurdly – to prove our superiority when in our times an armed mass destroys not an enemy army, but all nations, defenseless populations, using the latest achievements of technology? A progress of civilization – yes! But a progress of culture? – absurd. [emphasis mine] We became involved in a terrible way, my dear friends. A horrible thing, no words to express it! I wanted to use the word: bestiality… but not! We are by the whole hell far worse, than the beasts! I have full right to write this, especially after what I saw there and what became to occur in Oświęcim one year later” (Walter Pilecki, Report by Captain Witold Pilecki, trans. Jacek Kucharski (2008), 122.).
Pilecki recognized the evils of Auschwitz as proof that mankind had not advanced, but had only developed more effective tools of destruction. He added a call to action, saying that in remembering the evils of Auschwitz people should think critically and be watchful.
“…let they give some deeper thought to their own lives, let they look round and let they start, from themselves, their fight against mere falsehood, mendacity, private interest smartly passed for ideas, truth, or even for a great cause” (Pilecki Report, 418.).
Meanwhile, not too many years after Pilecki’s exhortation, and not too far from the beauties of the Polish landscape, in November of 2014, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamanei provides answers to “9 key questions about the elimination of Israel,” even as he assures the world that “the elimination of Israel does not mean the massacre of Jews in this region.” This reassurance rings as hollow as the German Potemkin Village of the Warsaw Ghetto. More recently, Khamanei authors a book promoting his desire to remove the Jews not based on anti-semitic European principles, but rather on “well established Islamic principles.”
Likewise, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), led by men such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani are beheading, crucifying, and burning their way to their hopeful prophetic apocalypse in which all infidels are done away.
It has happened in the past, and it is happening again – this genocidal evil. But how is it possible?
Gerda Weissman Klein answered the question in her holocaust memoir:
“We had all assembled. Why? Why did we walk like meek sheep to the slaughterhouse? Why did we not fight back? What had we to lose? Nothing but our lives. Why did we not run away and hide? We might have had a chance to survive. Why did we walk deliberately and obediently into their clutches? I know why. Because we had faith in humanity. Because we did not really think that human beings were capable of committing such crimes [emphasis mine]” (Gerda Weissman Klein, All But My Life (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 89.).
History repeatedly shows us the tragically high price of misplaced trust. The heart of humanity is desperately sick (Jer 17:9), and filled with evil (Gen 6:5), consequently the fear of man brings a snare (Prov 29:25), and the one who trusts in mankind is cursed (Jer 17:5). Yes, there are certainly dark external forces at work (as in Eph 2:2), but not all of that darkness is from the outside.
While God often does not deliver us from the physical evils resulting from sin in the world, He provides us with the hope of resurrection and eventual freedom from those evils, through the Person and work of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 15). As we come face to face with the greatest of evils, we can either despair as those who have no hope, or we can respond like Habakkuk and Jeremiah did in the face of evil.
Even as he anticipated a flood of violence coming against Israel (Hab 3:16-17), Habakkuk could say, “Yet I will exult in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He has made my feet like hinds’ feet and makes me walk on high places” (Hab 3:18-19).
What Habakkuk anticipated with dread, Jeremiah lived through. Jerusalem had just fallen. Israel’s sovereignty was gone. Jeremiah wrote his Lamentations, weeping at dark days for the nation, yet he could say – right in the middle of his wailing – “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope: The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of the Lord…for the Lord will not reject forever” (Lam 3:21-26, 31).
I thank God that the hopelessness of human failing does not need to be our legacy. While we cannot control what others do, we can do good to all (Gal 6:10), and honor all people (1 Pet 2:17). We must also consider that doing such good includes attending to the Proverbist’s exhortation to “Cause those to be delivered who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, Oh hold them back. If you say, ‘See, we did not know this,’ Does He not consider it who weighs the heart? And will He not render to man according to his work?” (Prov 24:11-12).
Let us never forget…