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David P. Gushee

Rescue Those Being Led Away to Death

The Church, the Nazis, and the Holocaust

Of human passions and the actions that follow from them, Aristotle wrote the following famous words:

Fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way … this is characteristic of virtue.

The five books under consideration in this review essay tell the story of a time not so long ago when the churches of Jesus Christ failed this Aristotelian test of virtue. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, initiated his anti-Jewish policies, launched World War II, decided on extermination as the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe, and pursued this policy without mercy for four long years at the cost of six million Jewish lives, the churches failed the moral test this escalating calamity imposed. In general and with notable exceptions, the churches felt too little anger and too little pity; directed that anger and pity too weakly and too late, with mixed motives, and without adequate courage and vigor. The failure of the Church (and the churches) continues today in its inadequately strenuous reckoning with what happened from 1933 to 1945. These five books attempt to offer that historical reckoning, and generally do so well.

One of the besetting difficulties of writing or teaching about the Nazi era is that the Holocaust tends to be the filter through which all data are interpreted. Every moment of the period, from the days of Hitler's rise to power until his death in 1945, is viewed with an awareness of Auschwitz, gas chambers, mass murder. This is perhaps inevitable. It certainly reflects an appropriate moral revulsion.

Those of us on the other side of the Holocaust find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine a world in which Auschwitz did not yet exist. We follow the historical trajectory knowing that it ends in the gas ...

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