He was there and He was not silent
By Matthew Claridge–
In his widely-acclaimed memoir of his experience during the holocaust, The Sunflower, Simon Wisenthal relates a tragic story of victimization and moral ambiguity. Called to the bedside of a dying SS officer, Wisenthal was asked if he could find it in his heart to forgive the Nazi for his contribution to the genocide of his people. Stunned by both the immensity and the audacity of the question, Wisenthal eventually determined to say nothing to the tortured soul sprawled out before him and left the room.
At one point in the narrative, Wisenthal comments: “It is impossible to believe anything in a world that has ceased to regard man as man, which repeatedly ‘proves’ that one is no longer a man. So one begins to doubt, one begins to cease to believe in a world order in which God has a definite place. One really begins to think that God is on leave. Otherwise the present state of things wouldn’t be possible. God must be away. And He has no deputy” (pg. 9, Schocken, 1998 edition). There’s a strange irony here. Wisenthal’s conclusion that God is silent is matched equally by his own silence. We become like the ‘god’ we worship.
Contrast this story with another. In 1928, a Polish man by the name of William E. Wallner committed his life to Christ after watching Cecil B. Demille’s King of Kings (of The Ten Commandments fame). Wallner subsequently became a Lutheran pastor, ministering to many in pre-Nazi Poland. One particular Jewish doctor was converted under his ministry. When Poland was annexed by Germany, the doctor was rounded up and deported to one of their concentration camps. John Murray relates the rest of the story:
The doctor, a Jewish convert to Christianity, encouraged his fellow prisoners “to die bravely, with faith in their hearts.” As a result, the doctor became a target of Gestapo officers. Although struck with an iron rod until one of his arms had to be amputated, the doctor would not be quieted. Finally, as DeMille’s autobiography recounts, ‘one Gestapo officer beat the doctor’s head against a stone wall until blood was streaming down his face.’ Holding a mirror before the doctor, the Gestapo officer sneered: “Take a look at yourself. Now you look like your Jewish Christ.’ Lifting his remaining hand up, the doctor exclaimed, “Lord [Jesus], never in my life have I received such honor—to resemble You.’ Those would be his last words on Earth.
Distraught by the doctor’s proclamation, the Gestapo officer sought out Wallner that night. Could Pastor Wallner help him, free him from the terrible burden of his guilt? After praying with him, Wallner advised, “Perhaps God let you kill that good man to bring you to the foot of the Cross, where you can help others.” The Gestapo officer returned to the concentration camp and through the aid of Wallner and the Czech underground, he worked to free many Jews over the years that followed.On July 30, 1957, Wallner met with DeMille and spoke about the impact The King of Kings had on his life and all who came in contact with him. Wallner ended his account to DeMille by declaring: “If it were not for ‘The King of Kings,’ I would not be a Lutheran pastor, and 350 Jewish children would have died in the ditches.”
This Jewish doctor experienced just as much of the horror, loss, and degradation that Wisenthal experienced. Indeed, not even Wisenthal experienced the degree of shame and torture this brother in Christ endured. But the results could not have been more different. Wisenthal’s survival was followed by a life devoted to bringing Nazi war criminals to international justice. The doctor’s martyrdom was followed by the redemption of a Nazi war criminal who served many condemned Jews with mercy. Both results, in their own way, were heroic and needful acts; but their point of origin revealed entirely different motivations. Wisenthal, moved to despair by a god-less universe, hunted down Nazis out of sense of Darwinian touche as much as by a sense of justice. Wallner, the Lutheran Pastor, did not leave the Gestapo officer in his sins nor excuse them by issuing forgiveness in the name of the real victims, but pointed him to the foot of the cross. Only there could Jew and Gentile meet on common ground. And only there could Wisenthal find, not just a God who speaks in the vernacular of the world’s pain, but a God who acts to heal it.
Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has two children.