No words, only tears.

I received a Facebook note from my friend and former work colleague Alan Hirsch today, who had just visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Alan is Jewish, raised in South Africa, discovered Jesus as his Messiah in early adulthood, became an Australian citizen, and now lives in America but travels widely. I thought this post and the comments around it were worth placing on a webpage that anyone might access (although Alan has so many FB friends I'm sure many more people will read it there rather than here!) I've changed the names of his "Friends" to A, B, C etc. to protect their identity! But a warning... because I've included all comments this is a looooonnng post.

Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Christo-Paganism of Europe

I am still trying to process the visit to the world's worst death camp. Needless to say it is an overwhelming experience. Let me be upfront and say that part of my struggle arises from my European Jewish heritage. I tend to see Europe, particularly religious Europe, through the distinct lens of my Jewish identity.

Anyone visiting such places leaves there with the perplexing questions of 'why?' and 'how?' I know that greater minds and hearts have tried to probe the mystery of human evil and failed, so I won't' even pretend to try. But the the question that just won't leave me, is simply this: 'how the heck did this absolute evil horror emerge from so-called Christian Europe??' I simply cannot understand how, after having the light of God's Word for at least 17 Centuries, European 'Christian civilization' could produce the unprecedented horror of the holocaust? Most Christians dodge this question by simply saying that "well, it was not real Christianity that did this", or " we can't judge other eras". But that dodges the issue that it was the very Europe that claimed to represent the Christian story that produced violence, antisemitism, and xenophobic bullying for as long as the Christian story has been in that context. Some of our spiritual heroes...Chrysostom and Luther for instance (and they are the tip of the iceberg) were given to bouts of vitriolic antisemitism. It was out of this sordid history that Nazism drew some legitimacy.

The only way I can possibly get to an answer of this disturbing question is to say that what has passed as Christianity in Europe is for the most part only really a thinly veiled, thoroughly syncretistic, religion called Christo-paganism, but it is paganism nonetheless. Any visit to the high Catholic cathedrals does leave a disinterested observer with the distinct impression that idolatry, nature worship, and the worship of the female divine lies under the surface of the overt Christian symbols.

No less than Newbigin reflected this same insight when he suggested that European Christianity was like a stone that had been immersed into a river for thousands of years: Take it out of the water and it is wet all around, crack it open and it is completely dry on the inside. I suggest that one can easily come to the conclusion that the religion' of Europe is actually a veneer of Christianity but the deepest mythos, its cultural heart so to speak, is largely pre-Christian. At the very least it is highly syncretistic.

This is exactly why the Nazis could use Wagner's operas to conjure up/reinvoke the violent Teutonic gods of pre-Christian Germany. We can only conclude that they were always there--they were never effectively exorcised from the German mythic imagination! Certainly they were not displaced by the cultural Christianity imposed during the Christendom period. So, after 1600 years they rose up to inform the 20th Century national amazing as it is horrifying!

Many are going to be completely offended by this, but I don't think we can seriously come to any other conclusion. And to be honest, I don't particularly feel inclined to be particularly generous at this point. And these are not thoughts that have only emerged from a visit to Birkenau. Whenever I visit Europe I am haunted by its past...I see shadows everywhere...lots of blood, superstition, and hatred...and yes, evil amidst all the beauty, culture, and history. And this is not to say that there are not real saints in the midst and that Europe has not produced some marvelous Christian movements. My Debs always reminds me when I get dark like this that God always preserves a remnant for himself, and clearly this is true (e.g. the Celts, Francis, Wesley, etc.) What I am saying is that the prevailing religion of Europe, and the accompanying Christian civilization built on it, cannot claim to be authentically Christian--not in the Biblical sense of the word at least. Either this is true or my capacity to discern Biblical truth manifested in human experience is seriously marred. I have to concede that this might be true but I have to trust my perception on this. I am amazed, along with Anglican poet, T. S. Elliot, that "After two thousand years of Christian Mass // We have come as far as poison gas". How the hell can this be so? How can we commune with Christ and produce horrors!

My response is to get on with evangelizing this continent and stop mourning the loss of so-called 'Christian Europe'...I seriously doubt it was ever truly Christian in the first place. Besides any religion that creates holocausts (or passively stands by while they take place) is in my opinion not worth preserving and clearly needs to 'hear' the Gospel and repent like all non-believing pagans do. In the end, it appears that pagan is what pagan does.

Some of you are going to have to forgive me for the nature of this rant. I admit to feeling somewhat involved in all can I not? But I don't want you to dodge the probing question that lies behind it. How could anything approximating a Jesus-shaped Christianity produce the systematic evil and violence normally associated with Satan? Answer that and we will have come a long way to solving the enigma of European religion.

question that lies behind it. How could anything approximating a Jesus-shaped Christianity produce the systematic evil and violence normally associated with Satan? Answer that and we will have come a long way to solving the enigma of European religion.

A: Thank you for this reflection, Alan.

B: Ah, i understand a little. Was in Hiroshima last year with Japanese friends- stayed with family who lived trough it.... i wept so difficult i could hardly enter the museum, and am tearing up even now.

C: If we are going to be legitimate, I think these kinds of things must be voiced, lest we make a goal of recreating 'Christian Europe.' What a tragedy it would be to look to faulty models as we disciple a new generation. Thanks for your transparency.

D: its all about power, that's how I try to make sense of it. This is what happens when even Christian believers don't get their theology of power right. Another strand in my struggle to understand is to do with contrasting the sense of stability I encountered in orthodox Judaism, a sense of being timelessly grounded in some very basically sensible ... See Moreethics, and the sense of 'we are not under law so the Holy Spirit will make it up in our heads as we go along, (subject of course to scripture which can be interpreted just about any way imaginable)' subtext present in the kind of Gentile Christianity which can't integrate, make sense of and respect it's Jewish past. I'm struggling too.

E: Satan, our great enemy always seeks to corrupt and defile and destroy everything. He poisons even the church. The church in America is just as syncretistic as the church in Europe was and is. What the death camps show us is the the horror of sin. The ultimate end of our selfishness is not just a loss of happiness but the destruction of God's creation.

F: Thx! for this very moving reflection, Alan. Two additional comments: 1) the perversion of the best yields the worst---always has, always will; 2) the same faith that can spawn an Adolph Hitler can sire an Albert Schweitzer, both of whom were born not far from each other in Germany at about the same time

G: Alan, when we see the decline of "Christian" Europe, it is easy to wonder where the Spirit is in the midst of all the religious decline. I think your comments point to exactly where the Spirit is. In the decline. Justo Gonzalez spoke here at Fuller last week on the "disempowering work of the Spirit". Where there is a false testimony of God's reality, there the Spirit works to undermine the supposed structure, opening the door for renewal.

H: Alan as a european I agree with just about everything you have said. Not all Christians were passive about the Holocaust. My dad came to faith in the 30s at first he and all his friends were pacifists. However as the nature of Nazism emerged they agonized over the proper christian response. With a heavy heart my dad and most of his fellow believers took up arms to defend the powerless. Many died and thats part of the story of European christianity too.

Alan Hirsch: G, sooo true. I have been reflecting on whether we should seriously consider the category of exile to really understand the situation of the church in Europe. I actually think it fits. This ought to change the perspective of the church in Europe and oour approach to mission there.

I: Alan, wow. Thank you for speaking the gospel in the way you always do: It's all about Jesus and the love He commanded us to share, not take away. Here in Ohio I am nourished by your words and given strength to "fight" the evil that should not be in anyone's heart after all we've seen, heard, and learned. Thanks for letting God shine on, in, and through you again!

J: Thanks for sharing so openly Alan. The syncretism or Christo-paganism you mention are enormous hurdles to overcome in the European context. The Europe that was touched by the reformation produced Hitler while the land not penetrated by the reformation produced Stalin. It is, i believe, essential that as Christian leaders in the U.S. we not forsake ... See Moreseeking to take an incarnational witness to Europe as focus is placed squarely on unreached, unengaged peoples and lands. Though tragic, a church in a community does not necessarily mean that the people have access to the gospel. This is Newbigin's wet rock with a dry, untouched center.

K: Hi Al, perhaps this article will help you understand the demoralization and childhood abuse that contributed to the rise of National Socialism ... it helped me understand my childhood and my family of origin and realize that children are born innocent - see

You may not fully know, but I grew... See More up as a fatherless son in an Ayran home, the only male to carry-on my Nazi grandfather's surname - He (a senior Nazi official), his wife (a member of Frauenshaft), and daughters fled to Australia after the war. When I was 10 years old a medical specialist told me (and my family) that I definitely had Jewish ancestry (the worst thing an Ayran can imagine) - at that time, I became a Christian ... by 13 years old I was gay (perhaps the next worst Aryan thing) ... by 14 years old I was homeless ... my relationship with my family continued at a distance until last year, when I was bold enough to look at my family members in the eye and ask: "Which is worse, me being gay or me being Jewish?"

For me, asking that one question from my perpetrators liberated me from the effects of National Socialism ... perhaps to free ourselves we need to ask: "Which is worse, us being Christian or us being Jewish?"

L: Looking from the perspective of an Estonian I have to agree with you. In our culture and context you can see (Christo-) paganism daily at display. The most profitable occupation seems to be witch-doctor.

Alan Hirsch: didn't know this about you bro. Thanks for sharing it. As for the what is worse question...imagine being a gay Jewish Gypsy! :-) We have to laugh bro, or we will cry together. I grew up being called 'f...g Jew' every week and every week having to fight my way to dignity against racist and bigoted bullies. What does not kill us, will indeed make us stronger.

K: He certainly does make the weak very strong :-)

Alan Hirsch: Isn't this amazing L? After so many years, we can still resort to witch-doctors! BTW, great to meet you this week.

M: here! here! as always alby you have cut to the heart of it. european antisemitisim has only receeded in the past 60 years, only after the holocaust.
as always i am filled with love and respect. you continue to be a shining light! so wish we could have a good old chin wag over this one.

N: Alan... thanks for the analysis & wisdom of the European Christian/Pagan paradox. We should send all the leaders,that are hungry for renewal & reformation & revolution your books & Frank Viola's 'Pagan Christianity' & of course pt 2 of that 'Re-Imagine Church' & the big picture narrative from Genesis to Revelation( God's Eternal Purpose before the... See More fall & the need for Salvation) 'From Eternity To Here'. I sort of know how you feel .I was in high school ( at the American Army school in Munich in mid 1960's> Dad Was working in American Consulate) ) We went to Auschwitz & in my immaturity I was horrified but didn't know how to process it either,still can't. Basically the lack of resistance would be like today when peer pressure from society & the predominant culture dictates ones conformity & silence on controversial issues. In Germany back in the day> it was because you don't want the authorities (Gestapo to hunt you down >torture & kill you) fear & loathing was probably in many hearts but the fear won out.
What if we were able to go back in time travel & interview Jesus right> after he whipped the money changers out of the temple (God's house of prayer he said)don't you think he would have had some passionate things to say that would seem critical to our politically/theologically correct crowd?

O: Alan - I've been to Poland three times...I made it one of my highest priorities to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau - so three times I walked those sacred grounds...every person who has a tendency to get all "post-modern" on us in terms of good/evil, relativism, the "essential goodness of humanity"...they need to walk those walks...see those chambers...have a moment in the puts many things in life in perspective.

P: thanks, alan. ... O, good thoughts. i've walked the halls of birkenau. i've seen those chambers. walked through krematorium II. seen the spent containers, the poison, the shoes. i still consider myself a postmodernist.

yes, auschwitz brings good and evil into sharper relief, but every story is still a nuanced one. every SS guard had the potential to be both monster and believer. murderer and husband. we cannot and must not forget our own propensity for violence.

Q: A timely and painful reminder, Alan. Those of us in the North America must take VERY seriously this lesson. I was considering something similar of late. While not denying the obvious and stubborn thread of the Holy Spirit through all of history, I wondered if do not need to reconsider Christian history through another lens, looking to the margins for our "center". We have read history through the eye of the tyrant and, without realizing it, became that tyrant ourselves.

O: I don't believe that I consider myself a "post-modernist" as much as a person who is living in a time of history that some are calling "postmodernity"...but I understand what you are saying paul...that's what I was trying to get at...although you actually thought more about your post than I did...we all do have the propensity for point is... See More that those halls and those barracks remind us of the essential brokenness of the human heart...there are those in our postmodern world that want to minimize the power of evil and paint a rosy view of the essential goodness of humanity...I see the redemptive possibilities for a restoration to goodness but an essential evil that is often excused away in pursuit of secularistic utopianism...Alan, see what you got us all into!

O: Alan - when you wrote this, "My response is to get on with evangelizing this continent and stop mourning the loss of so-called 'Christian Europe'...I seriously doubt it was ever truly Christian in the first place. Besides any religion that creates holocausts (or passively stands by while they take place) is in my opinion not worth preserving and ... See Moreclearly needs to 'hear' the Gospel and repent like all non-believing pagans do. In the end, it appears that pagan is what pagan does." Continents are not Christian...political systems are not Christian...that's the problem when we start to assume that systems like this have the possibility of conversion...only people you said, "pagan is as pagan does"...I'm actually copying your rant...I wish you more dear friend

R: I'm with you on the paganism angle. That is what nominalism is ...

S: Alan, just an addendum: Let's not forget and honor the graves of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Simone Weil, Henri DeLubac, Franz Jaggerstadter and all of the brave Christians who stood up to Hitler Many of them lost their lives as a result. Bonhoeffer felt that he was not breaking with Luther. Barth felt that he was not breaking with Calvin. ... See MoreDeLubac felt that he was not breaking with Thomas Aquinas or with the church Fathers. It was the Nazis and their "German Christian" allies who rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and claimed a new revelation that freed them from what they saw as a corrupt old Christian tradition. They saw themselves as revolutionary reformers. It was their opponents who saw themselves as upholding the tradition of the historic church. Len, good point. Karl Barth was born just 3 years shy of Hitler.

Alan Hirsch: S...the last person i thought would be 'defending' pagan Christianity. But i totally concede the point. Many wonderful people. And by the way, this is not so much a comment on Germany as on Europe as a whole. The Inquisition came mainly from the European sectors of Europe. How about torturing people and burning (40,000 no less) in the name of theological and churchly conformity.

T: Having lived in Europe and spent some time in Berlin last year, I also have been thinking hard about these questions. Indeed, since I visited Dachau the haunting images demand attention. I agree that it is too easy to say they were not real Christians. However, I would argue that every generation has a hole in their logic. More than some pagan Christianity, it seems to me that atheistic darwinism has as much to contribute to this tragic logic.

U: As I reflect on the horror of the holocaust (I am German) and the shocking conformity of the German Kirche I would agree with you that paganism, veiled in religion, is the culprit of not just the apathy, but sadly, often the participation of many German Christians in this dreadful evil. And now? Have we learnt from this very dark part of history? ... See MoreGreed, fear and superstition still seem to rule so much of Christian thought and practice. I observe the treatment of the GLBT community by some sectors of the church and wonder, i listen to the rhetoric of Christian leaders and many would again stand back, or even applaud the destruction of others because they have bought some cheap lies of self-preservation? Personally, I don't mourn the loss of a 'Christian Europe'...I shed enough tears today over the lack of "Jesus shaped" Christianity and the sinfulness of my own heart.

V: Alan - what do we do? Where do we start the change? Do come and help us evangelise Europe! Start here in the UK - start here in Northumberland! Inspire us, revive us, encourage us, teach us, lead us. Bless you brother for your passion and fire!

W: This isn't confined to Europe. Look at what's happened in Australia with our Indigenous people. Not only what happened in the past, but what continues to happen. The interventions in the NT are an absolute atrocity. How can we send tanks into these communities and feel nothing?? How could we steal children from their families, put them in orphanages and refer to them by number, and then wonder if we have anything to apologise for??? How can our government feel it has the moral authority to lecture other nations on issues of human rights?? How can our churches preach of reconciliation in Christ, of how Christ brought Jew & Gentile together under one Lord, when we won't unite with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the same way???

We the Australian church has forgotten our Indigenous brothers and sisters. We have turned a blind eye. We have failed to be angry when indigenous people are reduced to poverty and stripped of their human rights. We have failed to lobby our government to stop the intervention. We have failed to remind the Rudd government that they need to back up that verbal apology with changes in behaviour, or it was no kind of apology at all.

I'm not just pointing the finger at others on this one, I admit my complicity and I am horrified that I have benefited from a system that is founded on murder, rape and theft of indigenous people. I am horrified that I have done nothing.... See More

I am reminded of Jesus' words to the church of Laodicia, "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." Rev 3:17-20

X: Alan, I have such intense resonance with what you are grappling with. Throwing aside the pageantry of Messianic Judaism, I don't think most believers really understand what it is like to be a believer yet a Jew. I don't know what to say to what you've written except to tell you I really appreciate hearing your heart because you put words to the ... See Morecorporate experience that "we" have as Jews even on this side of faith in Christ.

When I was in college, there was a holocaust exhibit that came to my campus, showing photos that the holocaust victims had in their pockets when they were taken to camps. I looked around the room at the photos of people at their weddings, hanging out at the beach with their friends, their school photos, etc, etc....and I saw the faces staring back at me that looked like my mom, my dad, my grandpa, my cousins... me. I knew so few people outside my family who looked like me, and here they were, covering the walls of my college display room, everywhere. Such a powerful connection I felt to a people all the sudden - I never felt such a connection to anyone, I always felt different than everyone around me but here were the people I was connected to. And all at once it hit me - everyone whose face I was looking at was dead....murdered. And that's what so many "christians" would have wanted for me and my family too..

I lost it... Cried my head off and couldn't keep it was sorta embarrassing. A girl from the christian fellowship came over and held me - she said she never knew how to feel like she could make a difference to the holocaust and felt awkward as a christian knowing what to say about it, until she felt she could do something by hugging me in my tears.

Y: X - Lord, forgive us! One of the hardest days of my life was walking around the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem - that was 20 years ago and it still makes me cry just thinking about it - the heart of man is rotten!

Z: Alan, I don't fully understand your anguish. I have been to Dachau and that place changed my life. Like you, when I go to Europe I see the "shadows" as they move from place to place. I can sometimes smell them. Because of that I lift this prayer on behalf of all of us.

Lord, help us see humanities past and present with your eyes. Help us to feel your anguish and identify with your suffering. We can't change the past, but we can surely learn from it and be a force to influence for the future with your grace, mercy, compassion, hope and love spilling out from us.

May the Holy Spirit search the deepest parts of our heart and transform us to know what it means to not only believe, but to become like the Christ we say we so desire and follow.... grace and peace to all of you...Jew and Gentile

a2: I think you have nailed it, Alan. I also think the close tie which the state churches have always had to political power structures has had a tremendous impact. Through the centuries, it has been that power and all that goes with it that has drawn some, if not many, into leadership within the church. That has been toxic for the church. This IS ... See MoreNOT to imply that there are no deeply committed followers of Christ within the state churches! Far from it! But it is a significant systemic issue which continues to plague the church in Europe. One of the most formative experiences for me was working with those on the university who were being trained to teach either protestant or catholic religion within the German schools who (without exception) were very intentional in telling me that even though they were teaching religion, they were not "gläubig", that is, they were not believers.
9 hours ago

b2: Alan, now apply your critique to Christianity in the American South and add in slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, etc., and you have exactly the same situation. Yet, we are not so honest and fail to truly come to grips with the pain that we have caused over the years. So, we bemoan the loss of our "Christian Culture" and wish that things would return ... See Moreto the way that they were in the 1950's. Really? Is that really what we want? I think that that would be horrible, especially for African Americans in the South. Yet, we are still blind to what our ancestors wrought, apart from saying that it was wrong. We still have not dealt with the theological blind spots that allowed us to compartmentalize our faith into a private sphere, while publically, we participated in or stood by while great injustice occurred.

This leads me to the question: What will future generations say about us? What are we blind to? To what great injustice do we ignore while it happens on our watch? How will our children judge us because we were on the wrong side of history. That question keeps me up at night. Because I feel like you are addressing it, I keep listening to you and reading your stuff. Don't let this go. Answering this is vital.

c2: Thank you Alan. b2, I'm haunted by our history in the Southern U.S.

Alan Hirsch: Hey, I was born and raised in apratheid South Africa. I know the complicity of simply being white in a racist system. But South Africa, for all the sheer immorality and injustice of apartheid, never created death camps and transported missions of people to their death by gas and fire.

d2: I dont have a European- Jewish heritage but I struggled to process my visit too. The baby garments and all the cases marked "to Canada' were my undoing and seeing the art work on the walls evoked strong emotion. We were so grateful to Ruth May for her very wise words to our group as wemoved out of the gas chamber.

b2: You're right. There is no comparison to the magnitude of evil of the holocaust. I didn't mean to suggest that. Maybe the same forces were at work though as crowds gathered as at an afternoon picnic, and posed, smiling, in their Sunday best, for souvenir pics at a lynching.

Alan Hirsch: Agreed b2...and I didn't mean to 'correct' you bro. Just responding. You are so right...the same basic spirit energizes both. What is shcoking is that both these, and South Africa, came from staunch Christian backgrounds! Its inexplicable!

e2: Thanks for your very honest thoughts, Alan. I've been thinking about Europe lately as I'm taking the Perspectives class, and your words are timely and helpful.

f2: Alan and b2, what is similar is that systematic injustice against other human beings was institutionalized in Nazi Germany as well as in the American South and South Africa. Only, in Nazi Germany it lasted a dozen or so years and in the American South, it lasted for a couple of centuries, all the while, white Christians met in churches and called ... See Morethe region the "Bible Belt." That is why I see similarities between Europe and the American South and was so affected by what you wrote in your original post.

g2: Thanks Alan, I was waiting your eyeview of things, I haven't been there, apart of watching all the related movies with all attrocities. In Greece we lived a different side of this war. Accepting Christ is a beauty, simply cannot force it. Satan convinced to force Christianity to apply his own practices, killing men, to so called Christian Europe. So your thoughts and reflections say a lot, much appreciated.

h2: Thanks for posting this and for being so honest about your rage. It's refreshing to see someone in Church leadership not feel obligated to defend the church.
The part of your post that particularly stands out to me is this:

"My Debs always reminds me when I get dark like this that God always preserves a remnant for himself, and clearly this is true (e.g. the Celts, Francis, Wesley, etc.)"

The idea of a "christian europe," or a "christian south" or a "christian america," is a funny one. How could anything so big ever fully unite behind an idea as inconvenient as christianity? When Jesus says "Narrow is the path, and few who will find it," I wonder if he really means there will always only ever be a remnant; a small group of people who are marginal enough to be in tune (at least partially) with God... but having read this post, and having had the privilage of hearing both you and Deb speak at tribe, I can't help feeling that God is forming a remnant for himself through both of you here in LA. And I want in :) hurry back!

i2: It's sad that the "veneer" of Christianity in Europe has inoculated them against the spread of the real deal. no wonder atheism was born out of the Europe culture - a seemingly appropriate response to the fake god it often followed.

j2: Alan, I lived in Europe (The Netherlands, Germany and England) and I can identify with your pain and angst. I still felt it (last summer I was in Berlin and Poland for SLOT). I'm personally not interested in lashing out agains the past (I don't think you are either). However, the points you raise have major implications for what God is doing today and the way we lay a foundation for the next generation. I personally think that a lot of the problems we have with the Church around the world stem from the DNA that we received from our European forefathers (I'm from Venezuela). It is most important to me that we recognize the flaws in the systems we have spoused so that we can learn from our mistakes and seek to do better today and tomorrow.

Janet Woodlock: I only have tears for this post and the comments... lost for words.


FiKaLo said…
This is so interesting.

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