Christophorus: Christ and the Holocaust (Art and Theology)
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Today was a day of remembrance for the liberation of holocaust survivors during the Second World War. A joyous day, but one marked by painful associations. According to an ABC News article, veterans recalled the absolute horror of the camps:
The odor of death could be detected outside the camp,…Once you smell that odor, you will never forget it. (Sgt. Robert Patton, 88)
It was just a shock to see skeletons walking,…The dead bodies and live bodies were together, and I saw one body moving. … I asked him, ‘How long has this man next to you been dead?’ He said two days. I said, ‘Why didn’t you get out of bed?’ He said, ‘I don’t have the strength to get up.’ (Capt. Bernard Metrick, 94)
The horrors of the war remain with us long after the cinders have fallen. To understand how such evil could exist is a profound challenge, one that has led many to abandon the possibility for God’s existence in the shadow of Auschwitz.
The painting below is a familiar story, albeit re-appropriated for as a modern parable. I must admit that when I first saw the painting, I struggled to understand this depiction of Christ. But as I grew to understand the underlying story and theology, the painting took on new life and meaning.
The story of “Christopher”(literally “Christ-bearer”) has undergone numerous incarnations. The most familiar version tells the story of Christopher, a young man bent on serving the rich and powerful of his day. Jesus appears in the story as a small child. Not recognizing him, Christopher bears the boy on his shoulders to help him cross the stream, but his weight proved to be too much. Halfway across, Christopher was forced beneath the surface, inadvertently receiving the church’s sacrament of baptism. The remainder of his life was lived in service to God until he was eventually martyred.
Sakulowski’s painting is a re-telling of this familiar story, in the form of a holocaust prisoner and the Savior. Gerd Lindner writes:
“A political prisoner from a concentration camp, with the marks of torture oh him and the distinctive red triangle on his prison trousers, laboriously drags Christ, scourged and crowned with thorns, through the marshy morass of a desolate world. There is no river bank, no rescue in sight. The mystically-illumined Christ alone brings a promise of hope. In an existential situation of need, the person persecuted because of politics is helping the central figure of Christianity, the ‘Man of Sorrows.’ This is the message: In spite of fundamentally different philosophies of life, a bond does exist. And further: In an age where moral values are under threat, this connectedness is our only prospect of continuing to live in an upright way.” (Gerd Lindner, quoted from Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination)
I would respectfully suggest that hope is found not merely in “connectedness” as Lindner writes, but on the very fact of Christ’s self-identification with humanity’s sufferings, a fact that challenges our understanding of God’s relationship to evil. Jurgen Moltman, a German theologian who came to Christ as an allied prisoner during WWII, relates this through the writings of another holocaust survivor:
“A shattering expression of the [theology of the cross] … is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:
“The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’”
Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would make condemn men to indifference.” (Jurgen Moltmann, 273-74)
To be very specific, it is Christ who suffered on the cross – the righteous One crucified between sinners. Luke’s account makes special note of this injustice – that One declared innocent by so many around Him would be forced to suffer such a shameful death (cf. Lk 23:4,14,15, 22,41,47). While His disciples stood at a distance, Christ entered into the worst form of suffering the culture had to offer. The cross is therefore a paradox, one in which the righteous God is identified with what is naturally alien to Himself – sin and human suffering.
Therefore we may rightly understand Jesus as one who shares in humanity’s sufferings. The death camps of Auschwitz, the killing fields of Cambodia, and even the abuses found in Abu Ghraib take on new light as Christ came to redeem both victim and victimizers of profound abuse.
But in contrast to Moltmann and many who embrace a “liberation theology,” the work of Christ is more than the mere identification with sinners, but the full redemption and restoration of humanity. In the early twelfth century, Hugh of St. Victor connects Christ’s humanity with the necessity of the cross:
“From out nature, he took a victim for our nature, so that the whole burnt offering which was offered up might come from that which is ours. He did this so that the redemption to be offered might have a connection with us, through its being taken from what is ours. We are truly made to be partakers in this redemption if we are united through faith to the redeemer who has entered into fellowship with us through his flesh.” (Hugh of St. Victor, ca. 1100)
Therefore Christ identifies Himself with the unrighteous not merely to demonstrate solidarity, but to demonstrate God’s love for a helpless world and to pay the necessary price for its iniquity.
Sakulowski painted this piece in 1987. In contrast to the German political machinery of the 1980’s Sakulowski emphasized mutual understanding. I confess that I do not share the optimism that mutual respect can solve the moral problems of our age.
But I remain confident that the message of the cross has a power even in weakness, and that those who would take up this cross would follow a Savior to the riverbank of His coming Kingdom.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.