Stephen R. Haynes, “Christian Holocaust Theology: A Critical Reassessment,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62/2 (1994): 553-585, focuses on a group of thinkers, primarily North Americans, who locate the fundamental historical failure of Christendom in its understanding and treatment of the Jew. None of them has used the term “Holocaust Theology” to describe their work, and Paul van Buren at least explicitly disapproves of it. Haynes defines
Holocaust Theology as any sustained theological reflection for which the slaughter of six million Jews functions as a criterion, whether the Shoah displaces or merely qualifies traditional theological criteria and norms such as Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience...
Explicitly or obliquely, each approach communicates the message that the Holocaust signals the moral bankruptcy of any theological reflection which lacks an awareness of anti-Judaism’s deep roots in Christian faith and the ongoing complicity of Christians in Jewish suffering.
Haynes explores the question whether the Holocaust has revelatory significance and what such a claim might entail, welcomes the service provided by Christian Holocaust Theologians when they assume “the role of the theological bloodhound sensitized to the distinctive signs of Christian anti-Judaism” but notes that “approaches to the complex Arab-Israeli conflict” are sometimes “simplistic, even dangerous.” He observes that for Christian Holocaust Theologians the restoration of Jewish life and culture in the state of Israel is a providential miracle that carries a message for the church. Sometimes the Shoa and Israel’s restoration replace the death and resurrection of Christ as the central theological datum. These and similar claims partly explain the cold response from many in the pews to Holocaust Theology.
The limitations of Christian Holocaust Theology:
- “the Holocaust Theologians’ compensatory Christian Zionism is often accompanied by a less than critical perspective on Middle Eastern politics” with the suffering of Palestinians frequently overlooked
- “its proclivity for assuming continuity between Christian Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism in ways that are unnuanced or historically problematic”
Haynes notes that some of the more traditional, apologetic theologians can be accused of a similarly simplistic rhetoric of discontinuity, as if Christians were not at all involved in the murder of Jews. But this is not helpfully countered by wedding Christian and Nazi brands of anti-Semitism in “emotionally powerful, but historically dubious” formulations.
Ironically, it is often Jewish scholars who note the historical inconsistencies which the rhetoric of continuity tempts us to overlook. In the 1970s, historian Yosef Yerushalmi responded to Ruether’s Faith and Fratricide by observing that her description of theological anti-Semitism in the Christian tradition could not account for the fact that Jews survived at all in Christian Europe. In his critique, Yerushalmi consciously stressed what Ruether had underplayed or ignored in her early work on Christian anti-Semitism: that there is a “preservation” element in the Christian attitude toward Jews that is always found in tandem with the “reprobation” element; that in general Jews fared better than Christian heretics in the Middle Ages; that the Jews were never rightless in Christian society; and that it was not forced, but eschatological conversion which Christian theologians and monarchs most often sought for Jews.
Haynes argues that we need to acknowledge both that the Nazi regime “represented a sharp break from traditional attitudes toward the presence of Jews in Christendom” and that “the Nazi propaganda war against the Jews pandered to Christian Jew-hatred” and often successfully so. The Holocaust did indeed create a credibility crisis for Christianity
But two other facts cannot be ignored by responsible theologians. First, official policy toward Jews was never one of genocide during the centuries the church might have had the power and influence to carry out such a policy. Second, although the anti-Jewish tradition in Christianity desensitized many Germans to Nazi anti-Semitism, Nazism’s amalgamation of fascist and racist notions was compelling largely because it comprised a response to the dual crisis of modernity and a lost war. Neither of these considerations diminishes Christianity’s role as a necessary condition for the Holocaust; but they help explain why it was not a sufficient condition (Rubenstein and Roth).
- “A final limitation of Christian Holocaust Theology-its lack of empathy for the theological universe most people inhabit-is one it shares with much of academic theology.”
By way of conclusion, Haynes wonders whether it is “worth considering whether the impulse to remove from Christian confession in the post-Holocaust world all that offends or separates... actually enhances genuine interreligious dialogue. Many have concluded it does not.”
These concerns for Christian identity notwithstanding, theological adjustment in the light of Auschwitz is required if Christianity would maintain its relevance in the post-Holocaust world. Given the limitations of Holocaust Theology, we are left with a question: Is it possible to take to heart the advice of J.B. Metz to his students-that they avoid any theology that could have been exactly the same before or after Auschwitz (1981:28)-while also avoiding the excesses and pitfalls of Holocaust Theology? Let us hope this way is open, for the alternatives are unacceptable. Christians cannot miss their opportunity to acknowledge and learn from their anti-Jewish past, nor can they allow this past to overwhelm them or convince them to relinquish a prophetic Christian voice which speaks to all people. Neither way will lead the church where it needs to go-beyond the shadow of Auschwitz and into a new day of Christian faithfulness and responsibility.