Three rabbis in Auschwitz put God on trial, more-or-less declared him guilty, and then sat down to pray. That’s how Shoah survivor and Jewish intellectual Elie Wiesel frequently described the real-life event that inspired his great play The Trial of God. Theologian Robert McAfee Brown, in an introduction to newer editions of the play, colors in the details:
The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence,” the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers,” and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.
This scene, with its harmony of contradictions between belief and unbelief, has been my personal theological home base for the better part of a decade. The infamous philosophical problem of evil isn’t solved by any theological rationalization, nor is it explained away; to do so would be either intellectually dishonest or morally ignorant. At the same time, it’s just as lazy to dismiss God. Wiesel taught me that doubt and faith, though mutually contradictory, can be gently held together.
Faith in the modern world almost necessitates contradictions. The great Japanese Catholic novelist Shūsaku Endō reminds me of this truth in Silence, in which the Portuguese Jesuit missionary-priest Sebastião Rodrigues takes a faith-filled step on a fumi-e, a wood-carved image of Jesus and Mary, symbolically renouncing the Christian faith. When given an ultimatum by local governor Inoue Masashige to renounce his faith to end the persecution of lay Christians or to keep his collar while their torturing continues, Fr. Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ: “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.” The Christ-like response for Fr. Rodrigues is to renounce Christ.
I mentally returned to both of these scenes this week after hearing the German law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl’s report accused Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the birth name of Pope Benedict XVI, of four cases of misconduct for his mishandling of sex abuse cases when he headed the Archdiocese of Munich. As a recent convert to Catholicism, I knew I would have to wrestle with the ever-outpouring aftermath of the church’s darkest sins—the sex abuse crisis—but I never considered it would darken the seat of Peter. To be in faith with Rome, in this moment, feels like unfaith to Christ.
Simultaneously, I wonder how the Wieselian response—a forceful condemnation of the very Church at the center of my faith while maintaining my Catholicity—would play out. For the time being, I have no answers. I only know that to be faithfully Catholic in the moments following the revelation that a former pontiff, a Vicar of Christ, was complicit in the Church’s efforts to brush aside the molestation of children is to faithfully question Catholicism. I’m reminded of the indelible words of the man that goes to Jesus in Mark 9:23-25 and cries, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” The sentiment of the man and the grammatical structure almost allow the reverse to be prayed as well: “Lord, I don’t believe; help my belief!”
Just like in Endo’s novel, sometimes the Christian thing to do is to step on the fumi-e. Unfortunately, I don’t know where to find the fumi-e to trample.
Photo: Screencap from Silence (1971), dir. Masahiro Shinoda
Joshua Polanski (’20) is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking and exhibition, slow and digital cinemas, cinematic sexuality, as well as Eastern and Northern European, East Asian, and Middle Eastern film.