01 April 2009

To See with New Eyes: Elie Wiesel's, "Night"

Throughout Lent many of the readings have presented us with symbols we see rather differently than non-Christians, and that has intensified as we near Holy Week itself. Further, the praxis we have each adopted for Lent with its penance, prayer, and almsgiving has been done with the intent of allowing us to come to see and understand our own needs and excesses a bit better, as well as the needs of others. All of this is meant to allow us to see the world with new eyes, in particular, with the eyes of faith, the eyes of Christ who finds (and creates) hope in the apparently hopeless, and meaning in the apparently absurd.

Unfortunately, as we approach the passion we are in danger, I think, of failing to see its wonder precisely because it has become too familiar to us. The cross is not the scandal or offensive stumbling block to us it was to the Jews; it is not the foolishness it was to the Greeks, to men of philosophy and wisdom. We do not see the presence of God here as strikingly as we ought, because we have never seen the absence of God here -- we have never seen this as the place where no true God of majesty and power COULD or SHOULD be found; neither then can we really see his scandalous presence anew or afresh as easily as nonbelievers are capable of as they are confronted for the first time by the awesome paradox involved in the cross. We do not see the wisdom and foolishness of the world turned on its head here so clearly as we might because the cross has been domesticated for us; this happens with familiarity --- and with theologies of the cross uncomfortable with paradox.

For this reason each year before Passion/Palm Sunday and Holy Week, each Good Friday, I reread sections of Elie Wiesel's book, Night. I want to enter these days with a sense of "the wisdom of this world" Christianity rejects, with fresh images of the passion in my head and heart, with the world's question, "Where is God in all of this?" ringing in my ears and heart, and this book helps me to do this. The answer some give to this question when faced with the brutal excution of innocence is vastly different than the answer a Christian will give --- even if they use the exact same words when they respond.

In the following passage, one boy (the author) loses his faith. He concludes that all he sees and experiences is a sign of God's absence or death. A just God is not to be found here. He cannot be. It is scandalous (offensive) foolishness to find God here in the face of such human barbarity and cruelty, such depravity and inhumanity. But for Christians the answer is different. We do not merely find God in the unexpected place, we find him in the unacceptable, offensive place, asserting his rights over every moment and mood of sinful human existence in a power the world despises because it is perfected in divine self-emptying and weakness. He IS here in this place of sin, death, and godlessness, and because he is, nothing will ever look nor be the same to us.

[[I witnessed other hangings. I never saw a single one of the victims weep. For a long time those dried up bodies had forgotten the bitter taste of tears.

Except once. The Oberkapo of the fifty-second cable unit was a Dutchman, a giant, well over six feet. Seven hundred prisoners worked under his orders, and they all loved him like a brother. No one had ever received a blow at his hands, nor an insult from his lips.

He had a young boy under him, a pipel, as they were called --- a child with a refined and beautiful face, unheard of in this camp.

(At Buna, the pipel were loathed; they were often crueler than adults. I once saw one of thirteen beating his Father because the latter had not made his bed properly. The old man was crying softly while the boy shouted: "If you don't stop crying, I shan't bring you bread anymore. Do you understand?" But the Dutchman's little servant was beloved by all. He had the face of a sad angel.)

One day the electric power station at Buna was blown up. The Gestapo, summoned to the spot, suspected sabotage. They found a trail. It eventually led to the Dutch Oberkapo. And there, after a search, they found an important stock of arms.

The Oberkapo was arrested immediately. He was tortured for a period of weeks, but in vain. He would not give a single name. He was transferred to Auschwitz. We never heard of him again.

But his little servant had been left behind in the camp in prison. Also put to torture, he too would not speak. Then the SS sentenced him to death, with two other prisoners who had been discovered with arms.

One day when we came back from work we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony, Three victims in chains --- and one of them, the little servant, the sad eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. he was rigidly pale, almost calm, biting his lip. The gallows threw a shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together on the chairs. The three nooses were placed around their necks.

"Long live liberty!" cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

"Where is God?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting.

"Bare your heads!" yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.
"Cover your heads!"

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive. . .

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red. His eyes were not glazed.

Behind me I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is he? Here he is ---He is hanging here on this gallows. . . ." That night the soup tasted of corpses.]]