It’s difficult to describe a visit to Dachau. Yes, there are buildings and reconstructions. Historical markers abound helping you grasp the significance of your surroundings. But there’s more. When you walk into Dachau, you walk into a mausoleum of human pain and suffering. No one laughs or talks above a whisper, even in the open air of the barracks or assembly grounds. There is a blanket of sobriety, a weight of gravitas.
It is as if you are on holy ground.
How ironic that space drenched with such a sense of the sacred is the seed of so much spiritual doubt. While many found faith of its deepest and most vibrant nature on the grounds of Dachau, others lost it forevermore.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel put the memory of the horrors of his experience to words in a book that was appropriately called Night. One of the nightmares he describes has to do with the hanging of a young boy who was suspected of sabotage in a Nazi death camp by the German Gestapo.
They began by torturing the boy. When he would not confess, they sentenced him to death with two other prisoners, leading all three in chains to the gallows. It was to be a public execution, and thousands of prisoners were forced to watch.
While the head of the camp read the verdict, all eyes were on the child. His face was pale, and he was nervously biting his lips. No more than 12 years old, Wiesel writes that he had the face of a sad angel. The three victims mounted the chairs, and their necks were placed within the nooses.
The child said nothing.
Suddenly, someone cried out, "Where is God? Where is He?"
No one answered.
The executioner then tipped the three chairs over so that the bodies fell, jerking to a stop at the end of the ropes. Though the crowd was large, not a sound was heard. The only movement was the setting of the sun on the horizon. The only noise was the sound of men weeping.
The two adults died instantly. Their tongues hung swollen, tinged with blue. But the third rope, the one holding the little boy, was still moving. For more than half-an-hour, he hung there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under their eyes. Unfeeling and insolent, the guards ordered the prisoners to march past the two dead bodies, along with the still struggling boy.
As Wiesel passed, he writes that he could not help but turn and gaze into the boy's eyes. As he did, behind him, he heard the voice say again, "Where is God now?" And Wiesel said that the inner voice of his heart answered, “Where is He? Here He is -- He is hanging here on this gallows."
For Elie Wiesel, that ended any chance of Him relating to God. For him, God died that day.
But God didn’t “die” for everyone.
I read an interview of a man by the name of Christian Reger who spent four years as a prisoner at Dachau for nothing more than belonging to the Confessing Church, the branch of the German state church which opposed Hitler. Later he became a leader of the International Dachau Committee, and returned to the grounds in order to restore the camp as a monument so that the world would not forget.
In the interview, Reger reflected how the German philosopher Nietzsche said a man can undergo torture if he knows the why of his life. "But I, here at Dachau, learned something far greater. I learned to know the Who of my life. He was enough to sustain me then, and is enough to sustain me still."
Are you there yet? In the face of staggering questions and assaults against your faith, and even against God’s character, are you content with the Who of your life as opposed to the often-empty nature of the why?
Throughout our faith journey we will experience doubt -- doubt about the goodness of God, the wisdom of God, even the truth of God. Dachau moments. Moments when you wonder what God is really like. Sometimes it can seem that the God of the Bible acts in ways that we would never dream of acting, which makes it hard to believe that God -- or what we think we know about that God -- is right; much less that He is worthy of worship and obedience.
For what it’s worth, such moments are normal. They are simply moments of questions, of doubt, of facing the mystery of God in light of the reality of our broken world. It’s what you do with them that matters.
Of course, much that we lay at God’s feet belongs at our own. Much of the evil and suffering and insanity of this world is self-inflicted. Dachau itself was a reflection of human depravity, and was meant to be as evil as it was. Even the first camp commandant, an SS officer named Theodor Eicke, had been plucked from a psychiatric hospital due to his sanity being questioned by the local Nazi leadership.
Fitting, in a way, as Dachau was insanity made manifest.
But it was human insanity, not God’s.
When Susan (my wife) and I went to Dachau, we took a taxi from our hotel in Munich. We told the driver where we wanted to go. He didn’t say anything for a long time. He just drove. Then, out of the blue, he said in a thick German accent,
“Where you go, it is a very painful place.”
Then he paused again, and said, “When I was 10 or 11 years old, my teacher took us here. She said, ‘We were responsible for two world wars – now we are responsible for freedom.’”
Then he paused again, and said, “Those were the right words to say, I think.”
I think so, too.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press), available through Amazon.
Elie Wiesel, Night.
Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts?
Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.