Crucified God of Compassion
Marc Chagall – “White Crucifixion”
Note the Holocaust images in this painting: Chagall’s White Crucifixion emphasizes the suffering of Jesus and the Jewish people. The painting is startling because the crucifixion, often seen as a symbol of oppression by the Jewish people, is instead being used (by a Jewish painter) to represent their suffering. In the center is the crucified Jesus, wearing a prayer shawl as a symbol that he is Jewish. Around Jesus, Jewish people run from persecution; a synagogue is burning; a man flees carrying the Torah scroll; and at left above, the red flag of Soviet Russia communism shows that persecution of Jews was not just a Nazi phenomenon.
(1) The context – unspeakable suffering: As knowledge of the Holocaust spread, Christian theologians began to ask two questions: Why had so few Christians resisted the evils of fascism and anti-Semitism? And, where was God in all this suffering? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eventually executed by the Nazis, had written from prison, “Only a suffering God can help.” After the war, some theologians began to say that the right question is not why a loving God allows suffering to happen, or how we can reconcile suffering with God’s governance of the world, but where is God in the midst of this suffering?
(2) The failure of theodicy (theodicy = defense of God): Traditional theology argued that God created the world with its own natural laws, and gave humans free will; God allows disaster to happen in this world, but in the end will bring good out of evil. But this traditional argument broke down in the wake of the Holocaust and other “ethnic cleansings” of the twentieth century. ¶ Three young German theologians and Jewish scholars addressed the problem of suffering: Jurgen Moltmann (Reform Protestant) said that theology needed to speak of God in light of the Cross, on which Jesus himself was abandoned and crucified. Dorothee Soelle (Lutheran) said that “in the light of Auschwitz, the assumption of the omnipotent God seemed a heresy.” Johann Baptist Metz (Roman Catholic) said that “a fissure had opened in the Catholic imagination, with its impregnable confidence that God is good and the world is orderly.” Beyond personal suffering, these theologians also addressed the enormous suffering that people unjustly inflict groups other than their own. ¶ Political theology: Moltmann, Soelle and Metz began to use the term “political theology” – not meaning a theology connected to politics, but a theology that is concerned with the polis (the city), about the public good of massive numbers of people. They pointed to a different way to experience the presence of God: joining with those who suffer, and protesting against the evil in the world. ¶ The God of Pathos: The Jewish religious scholar Abraham Heschel wrote that the Hebrew prophets (such as Isaiah and Jeremiah) knew God’s heart to be filled with pathos – sharing the emotions of human beings, loving, caring, rejoicing, getting angry, weeping, grieving. And since God cares so deeply for us, we ought to be shaped by God’s passion, and to involve ourselves in the struggles of others. ¶ Central vision: Political theology believes Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection give hope to the whole world: the future is in God’s hands, and those hands are caring, sustaining, and consoling.
(3) The crucified God: Jurgen Moltmann argued that God’s very essence is self-giving love; the cross demonstrates that God is deeply involved in human suffering. Out of the fullness of love, God freely chooses to suffer with us. In fact, the cross plunges God deeply into the suffering of the world, and opens a reverse pathway on which suffering travels back into God, where it can be redeemed by God’s love.
(4) The silent cry: Dorothee Soelle rejected traditional theology’s argument that God deliberately handed Jesus over to death as payment for human sin. She also questioned why the traditional church has encouraged us to love and honor a God whose primary attribute is power. Instead, Soelle emphasized a God whose primary attribute is selfless love, as Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Rather than dominating, God’s power is creative, non-compelling, and life-giving. This is power as love – power that flows through relationships, power that brings healing and reconciliation. But we can know God’s love only when we become part of it ourselves; that is, we can know the God of compassion only in committed resistance to every form of suffering.
(5) Passion for God: Johann Baptist Metz thought even the idea of the suffering God cannot help us, because there is no idea or symbol that can really explain suffering. Instead, there is only remembering and lamenting unto God. ¶ Remembering: We remember the cross of Jesus in solidarity with all the dead, and with the living who are suffering today. Since the crucified Christ has risen, remembering gives hope for the future to all who suffer. Only by keeping the stories of the suffering alive (against the desire of tyrants to bury the truth) will tyrants be robbed of their victory. ¶ Lamenting: Metz believed that remembering the dead in solidarity with their suffering, and in hope of their future blessing, involves a mysticism of “lamenting unto God” – actively engaging with God in our anguish, and in our hope that God will ultimately answer our questions in love. This kind of prayer – lamentation – fills the Bible, but has been eliminated from our contemporary liturgical texts. In reviving the prayers of lamentation, Christians can embrace the suffering of others, resisting injustice wherever it takes place, and hoping for justice even for the dead. Keeping the dangerous memory of the crucified and risen Jesus – in solidarity with the suffering and the dead – is a compassionate and hopeful Christian spirituality.
(6) Mystical-political discipleship: The massive suffering of the Holocaust shattered Christianity’s usual way of thinking, and led to a religious crisis. Moltmann, Soelle, Metz and others concluded that there is no satisfying answer to the mystery of suffering – but there is a way to live that helps us bear our suffering. These theologians pioneered a pattern of thinking and acting that honors the mystery of God in memory and hope. Whether we adopt Moltmann’s symbol of the crucified God, or Soelle’s silent cry of life, or Metz’s compassionate God who hears our laments, we can find the light of divine presence even in the darkness of our suffering.
Thoughts for reflection:
After the Holocaust, theologians began to ask an old question with new urgency: Where was God while this overwhelming evil and suffering was taking place? Some began to think that the right theological question is not ‘Why does a loving God allow suffering?” but “Where is God in the midst of suffering?”
Traditional theology argues that God created the world with its own natural laws, giving humans free will. So God allows human sin and natural disasters to happen, but promises to bring good out of evil at the end of time. But in light of the massive suffering of the 20th century, this traditional answer gave no comfort to growing numbers of people.
Where was God when Jesus was on the cross? Jurgen Moltmann argued that God was not watching Jesus’ suffering from afar, but right there with Jesus on the cross. The cross showed that God’s very essence is self-giving love – and out of the fullness of that love, God freely chooses to suffer with us.
Traditional theology argues that God called Jesus to the cross as a payment for the world’s sins. Dorothee Soelle rejected this traditional atonement theory, describing instead a God whose primary attribute is not exact justice but selfless love. This selfless love is actually the power of God: it is the kind of power that flows through relationships, power that brings healing and reconciliation, a divine power that is creative, non-compelling, and life-giving.
The Hebrew prophets proclaimed a God who deeply cares for humans. Abraham Heschel (a leading Jewish theologian) noted that the Hebrew prophets described God as loving passionately, getting angry, weeping for us, and even grieving with us. The God of the prophets was not a distant, dispassionate, untouched deity; the God of the prophets is deeply involved in human life.
How can we come to know this God? Philosophers and theologians may never find a satisfying answer to the mystery of suffering, but there is a way to live that helps us bear it – because Jesus (and so many others) have shown us that God is here with us in the pain.
Finally, we draw near to the mystery of God when we share the suffering of others. Since God cares so deeply for us we, too, should be shaped by God’s deep compassion. We experience the power of God’s selfless love when we share that love with others.