On Hope and the Cross: Jürgen Moltmann’s Search for a Life ‘after Auschwitz’

Last week, we saw how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christian commitments forced him to resist the Third Reich, speaking out to the point of being labeled an enemy of the state and ultimately involving himself in a plot to assassinate Hitler. His was a theology of Christian responsibility that was formed and articulated in the crucible of the conflict between the Gospel and the Nazi ideology that was destroying not only German Christianity but German culture and civilization as well. Today’s post will look at the next chapter of that history, through the lens of Jürgen Moltmann, a man twenty years Bonhoeffer’s junior who became a Christian in a British Prisoner of War Camp, just as the full scale of the German atrocities in the death camps was being revealed. The question for him was how to respond in the aftermath of such evil committed by one’s own people. In his own words, his theology was “an attempt to find an answer for a life in Germany ‘after Auschwitz’” (How I Have Changed, 13*). Today I’d like to look at how Moltmann sought to find such an answer and what that might offer us in how we respond to our present challenges.

Moltmann’s theology cannot be separated from his immediate post-War context. Reflecting on this, he wrote:

I belong to the generation which consciously lived through the horrors of the Second World War, the collapse of an empire and all its institutions, the guilt and shame of one’s own nation, and a long period as a prisoner of war. […] The break-up of the German front, the collapse of law and humanity, the self-destruction of German civilization and culture, and finally the appalling end on 9 May 1945 — all of this was followed by the revelation of the crimes which had been committed in Germany’s name — Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Maidanek, Bergen-Belsen and the rest. And with that came the necessity of standing up to it all inwardly, shut up in camps as we were.” (Experiences of God (EG), 6f; emphasis mine)

It was in that Prisoner of War camp, filled with his own survivor’s guilt and the shame of his nation that Moltmann became a Christian. Of this, he wrote: “[T]the experience of misery and forsakenness and daily humiliation gradually built up into an experience of God;” the Psalms “opened my eyes to the God who is with those ‘that are of a broken heart.’ [God] was present even behind the barbed wire — no, most of all behind the barbed wire” (EG, 7f). This sense of God’s presence within his shame and hopelessness found its fulfillment in the words of the crucified Jesus: “When I came to Jesus’ dying cry [’My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?’], I knew, ‘There is your divine brother and redeemer, who understands you in your god-forsakenness’ ” (Experiences in Theology (ET), 4). This understanding of the cross as a divine response to human suffering and therefore as a source of hope for him and the world would be formative for Moltmann’s thought and approach to faith.

Upon returning home, Moltmann’s hopes for a new Germany were dashed. The world’s desire to return life ‘back to normal’ as quickly as possible had quickly overwhelmed the younger generation’s desires to “create a new, different, more human world” (EG, 6). But because Moltmann’s ultimate hope was not a naive trust in the world, but a knowing trust in the God whose love was expressed in the cross of Jesus, political setbacks only heightened his sense of the importance of hope for Christian life:

Christianity is completely and entirely and utterly hope — a looking forward and a forward direction; hope is not just an appendix. So Christianity inevitably means a new setting forth and transformation of the present. (EG, 11)

[The hoping person] can never come to terms with the inescapability of death or with the evil that continually breeds evil. For him the resurrection of Christ is not merely consolation in suffering; it is also the sign of God’s protest against suffering. That is why whenever faith develops into hope it does not make people serene and placid; it makes them restless. It does not make them patient; it makes them impatient. Instead of being reconciled to existing reality they begin to suffer from it and to resist it. (EG, 12)

Moltmann published his first major work, Theology of Hope in 1964, just as that sense of restlessness and impatience seemed to be boiling up in the world. In the Christian sphere, these were the years of Vatican II, which sought to open up Roman Catholicism to the world, the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America, and what Moltmann saw as the pinnacle of the ecumenical movement in the World Council of Churches gathering in Uppsala with its hopeful theme, “Behold I make all things new.” Politically, colonized peoples around the world were regaining independence, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was gaining ground, and between a reforming spirit in Germany, the Paris student movement, and the Prague Spring, many were hopeful that a more unified, more caring Europe was emerging. But even as these movements saw their peak in 1968, that same year also “heralded the reaction and the breakdown of hope” (EG, 13). Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Vietnam War escalated, and Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring. Around the same time, evangelical movements arose in reaction against ecumenism, and some of Vatican II’s leading lights began to be censured by the Church (How I Have Changed, 17). Once again, hope was disappointed.

Even before these disappointments, however, Moltmann was already growing uncomfortable with how his Theology of Hope was being appropriated in the West. It was one thing to speak of hope in Germany and Japan, in the midst of national shame and the literal rubble of the War; it was quite another to speak of hope in the United States, which had emerged from the War wealthier, stronger, and more powerful than ever. Here, genuine Christian hope was being distorted into triumphalism and a theology of glory. And so, he intentionally turned his theology toward the cross, especially when addressing the West. This wasn’t a rejection of hope — for his hope had always been grounded in the cross — but a commitment to looking at the subject “from below,” alongside the world’s suffering, victimized, and oppressed. Reflecting on his turn to the cross, he wrote:

What is really Christian can be discovered in the light of the cross. … The only idea of God — the only vision of hope — the only act that can be called Christian is the one that can endure before the face of the dying, forsaken Christ. (EG, 15)

And again:

He delivers himself up in order to be ours and to be with us, right into the desolation of God-forsakenness itself. Even in this hell, thou art here. That is the divine truth of Jesus’ cry of desolation. And that is why, on the other hand, we cannot shut out any suffering or any loss or any grief from God. If we discover God in forsakenness and desolation, and if every forsakenness we have to endure is taken up in God, then we even win back the [claim that ] ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ Nothing is shut off from God, if God himself has gone through the experience of Christ’s cross. (EG, 16)

It bears repeating that he drew this emphasis from the convictions provided by his post-War context. He refused to forget how supposedly ‘Christian’ nations — his own first and foremost, but far from the only one — had turned their backs on their Jewish neighbours in their time of crisis. The only answer to the forsakenness of the death camps was God’s own forsakenness in Christ on the cross. At the same time, the independence movements in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean demonstrated that European imperialism had been equally a betrayal by ‘Christian’ nations of the way of Jesus. He thus tied the West’s increasing anxiety to its “prosperity based on injustice, with prosperity at the cost of other people and other nations” (EG, 22). “The key to the rebirth of our hope,” he argued, “lies in the place where we buried it: in the exploited and oppressed nations and their liberation” (EG, 23).

While this approach had a common orientation to the liberation and feminist theologies of the 1970s, Moltmann realized that as a successful European male, he could only participate in such movements as an outsider, as an ally. He could speak from his own experiences of hopelessness, but this could only be a source of empathy for the suffering of others; he could not speak on their behalf. This sort of humility was new in theology. As opposed to the monumental theological projects of Aquinas, Luther, or Barth that tried to say everything for everyone for all time, Moltmann realized that he could offer only “a part belonging to a wider community” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, vii).

So what does all this have to say to us in this heartbreaking, challenging third decade of the twenty-first century? First, faithful Christians must always stand up and acknowledge sins, whether those sins were committed by them, committed in their name, or committed against them. No good can come from denying reality. For Moltmann, this meant wrestling with how to find a life ‘after Auschwitz.’ For us, this may be how to find a life ‘after Kamloops Indian Residential School,’ or life ‘after Trayvon Martin.’ This involves lamentation and repentance, but also a resolve to ensure the sins of the past are not repeated. Second, a Christian response within tragedy is always oriented towards hope. The most basic Christian claim is that the end is not the end; there is always the possibility of new life when all seems lost. And third, this hope emerges from within and alongside the experience of suffering, whether this suffering is caused by the guilt for personal or national sins, or by the oppression of being sinned against.

Christian hope is not grounded in power, wealth, success, or glory, but only and always through the ways in which we are called to “take up our crosses and follow him.”

In all of this, it is the cross that takes precedent. It is the cross where we find God. It is the cross where we find hope. If there is new life, it is only new life that comes ‘after’ the cross.

* Please see the bibliography for the series for details.

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