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Jewish World Review /September 18, 1998 / 27 Elul, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Christianity and the Holocaust

DID CHRISTIANITY CAUSE THE HOLOCAUST? That is the question four scholars considered at Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center (www.eppc.org) last week. It is a subject more brooded upon than openly discussed outside of academia, so it's interesting to get a glimpse at the scholarly analysis.

Professor Stephen Aschheim, a historian from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, began by observing that nearly everything that preceded the Holocaust has been blamed for it. German romanticism, the counter-enlightenment, the supposedly peculiarly vicious form of German anti-Semitism, modernity, racism and, of course, Christianity, have taken their share of blame. But Aschheim is scornful of books with titles like "From Luther to Hitler," which make a simple leap from Christian anti-Jewish outbursts and calumnies to genocidal Nazism.

Continuity is not causation, Aschheim cautioned. Racism, for example, is always pernicious, but rarely genocidal. If Christianity were the cause of the Holocaust, one must explain why during 2,000 years of Christian rule in Europe, there was no Holocaust. There was bitter persecution, to be sure. Nearly every Nazi persecution of the Jews -- including the Nuremberg laws, but not the "final solution" -- had its parallel in earlier Christian oppression.

The Christian churches are still coming to grips with their own moral failure during the Weimar Republic and Nazi period. (One example: The Catholic and Protestant churches were vocal and decisive in fighting euthanasia in Weimar Germany. Yet, with some laudable exceptions, they remained silent in the face of the mounting anti-Semitic campaign of the Nazis.)

The Holocaust was not perpetrated by the Church, nor the four scholars agreed, could it possibly have been. For while the Christian hatred and contempt for Jews was at times extreme during the Medieval period and afterward, the Christian faith is a moral one. Jews themselves understood this, and took refuge from murderous mobs in the homes of bishops and popes.

Though there were local priests who incited mob violence against Jews, and certainly local Christian police who looked the other way, it was never the message of the Church to kill Jews. As Aschheim so succinctly stated it: "The aim of the Church was to convert the Jew. That was the worst nightmare of the Nazi."

Still, these threads of causation are tangled and quite difficult to tease apart. Aschheim, while not accepting the view that Christianity caused the Holocaust, does not shrink from indicting Christian churches for creating the climate in which the more virulent and vicious seeds of Nazi racism could grow. As Professor Steven Katz, another of the scholars present, framed the question, "Why did the Nazis choose the Jews as the paradigm of the other?" Katz's answer is this: The Nazis understood that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism had prepared the ground for Nazi anti-Semitism. He argues that while you do not get to Auschwitz from the New Testament, you cannot get there without it, either.

The Reverend J. Augustine Di Noia, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, did not disagree. The Catholic Church has been examining its teaching and practices regarding the Jews since 1945, and has dramatically altered both. Particularly under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, the Church has repealed its old view of the Judaism as a fossil religion, totally supplanted by Christianity, and now recognizes the Jews' continuing covenant with the Almighty. Di Noia spoke affectingly of the folly of the deicide charge, explaining that to blame anyone for Christ's death is to excuse oneself and thus remove oneself from the salvation his sacrifice promises.

Professor David Steinmetz of the Duke University Divinity School is an expert on Luther. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his birth, Steinmetz received many calls from journalists asking whether Luther was an anti-Semite. "The answer is yes," said Steinmetz, "Luther wrote repulsive things about the Jews, of which the Nazis made use. But he was not a Nazi."

The specter of the Nazi genocide -- the killing, as Aschheim put it, "of civilized victims by civilized murderers" -- continues to haunt us. It presents a particular challenge to Christians. But it is heartening to see that Christian churches and Christian scholars are taking the challenge to heart. them.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.