Humanity on Trial

In the U.S. state of Nebraska, State Senator Ernie Chambers filed a suit in 2008 against God, seeking a permanent injunction against God’s harmful activities, in an effort to publicise the issue of public access to the court system. The judge dismissed the case as the Almighty could not be properly notified, not having a postal address. The senator responded “Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit.”

The idea of putting God on trial cuts to the very essence of the Western, contemporary concept of humanity: we have autonomy; we have freedom; we have knowledge, to such an extent that we are no match even for God.

And it is this which C. S. Lewis argues as being quintessential of the modern human being in God in the Dock, an anthology of C. S. Lewis’ Christian apologetics. In this, Lewis argues that modern human beings, rather than considering themselves as being judged by God, prefer to act the judge and put God on trial themselves.

Lewis writes: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock”.

This is a striking image. That amid suffering and cruelty, it is us who nonetheless are the powerful ones and can hold God to account. Unlike the traditional image of God as judge, punishing us when we transgress and commandeering our freedom, here we put God on trial.

And there was surely no greater birth of this “modern man” than the Holocaust. The inversion of the Enlightenment, in which the power of humanity was revealed not in all its glory, but all its horror and power.

So Lewis’ argument rings true when we consider the famous story of God on trial in the Holocaust. Former Auschwitz concentration camp inmate Elie Wiesel tells the story of 3 Jewish prisoners trying God in absentia for abandoning the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

They are said to have debated the charges levelled against God. Perhaps these were whether in allowing the Nazis to commit genocide, God broke the covenant with the Jewish people? Or, whether the Holocaust was an act of purification of a corrupted world, like Noah’s flood? Or whether it was evidence, as writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi argued, that God does not – indeed cannot – exist?

The theological question typically borne out of the Holocaust has been of our human response to suffering; how God, the loving God of our forefathers, could let the Holocaust and other such atrocities happen.

But I want to ask a slightly different question. Did God let the Holocaust happen, or did we too? And should we be putting God on trial at all – or humanity on trial?

When I think back to Lewis’ quote, I believe that the most apt modern response has been not to put God in the dock but put ourselves in the dock.

While we are inevitably judged by God, we also can and must judge ourselves. We must put humanity on trial.

It is incredible to think of a world in which the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” did not exist. And yet that was the world pre-Holocaust.

It was in the aftermath of the Second World War in the Nuremberg trials, when for the first time in history, the traditional understanding of war crimes was not sufficient. It gave no provision for crimes committed by a power on its own citizens.

A new article was drafted in, to be called Crimes Against Humanity and for the first time, as both perpetrator and victim, we literally put humanity on trial.

On a more personal level, the Jewish response to the Holocaust has often been to seek justice.

In my first term at Oriel, I was privileged to sing in the memorial service for Sir Zelman Cowen, former provost of this College.

Zelman Cowen was born in St Kilda, Melbourne, on October 7 1919, the son of Russian immigrants whose families had fled to Australia to escape persecution.

During his teenage years he paid close attention to events in Europe and to the arrival of the first German refugees in Australia.

As news of the persecution of Jews in Europe trickled into his classrooms, he felt an obligation to stand up against fascism and to interpret its evils, on a human level, to Australian school friends for whom it all seemed so far away. He wrote a prize winning essay named ‘Pogrom’, a fictional story reflecting the Russian anti-Semitic pogroms he had heard about, including from his grandfather.

The theme of this year’s national Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘Don’t Stand By’ and Sir Zelman did anything but stand by. He saw the dangers of anti-Semitism and illiberalism as a teenager and began a lifetime of civic communication to educate the world about them.

That teenager with such a profound sense of justice would also become a consultant on legal matters to the British Military Government in Allied-occupied Germany.

Sir Zelman devoted his life to pursuing justice, seemingly a response to the injustice Jews faced in his childhood. How fitting that in spite of all the great public, civic positions he took in Australia, the UK and elsewhere, he wore his Jewish name as a badge of pride, a variant of Solomon, the king and great judge.

Perhaps most crucially, he regarded his own commitment to tolerance and freedom as stemming in part from his Jewish roots, and stressed:

“I have been conscious all my life of being a Jew. I have been conscious all my life of being a sharer in and a lover of the non-Jewish British world, but my Jewishness is deep in me.”

If my pre-War European and Russian great grandparents, shameful and fearful of their Jewish identities, could have been told that one day Jews would even reach the hallowed halls of Oxford at the moment they were certain our civilisation was on the verge of extinction, they would not have believed it.

And yet Sir Zelman, who grew up during the Holocaust was able to reach even the posts of Provost of an Oxford College and Governor-General of Australia.

Today, I am honoured to have been invited back to speak to you tonight, as an alumna of this College and as a Jew. I want to thank our Chaplain, Robert, not just for asking me to speak tonight but for all the ways he supported me over my 4 years at Oriel.

Sir Zelman and I are linked by a shared moral heritage stretching back to Deuteronomy and the call to value justice in the laws at the very heart of the Jewish religion. “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdorf” – “justice, justice, you shall seek”, it says in Deuteronomy. And the Talmud says that a scholar cannot live in a city without the institution of a bet din, a religious court of law.

But Judaism does not just teach us to enact justice ourselves – it also does not let us forget that we are ultimately judged by God.

This is no clearer than in our judgement on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival. This is the day when God judges the Jewish people and is known as Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgement.

The ‘Unetaneh Tokef’ prayer from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the New Year festival, when we are awaiting our sealing in the book of life on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, shows how central the concept of our own mortality is in the shadow of God’s great judgement:

“A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”

I believe the importance of this annual reminder of our own mortality and insignificance in the annual cycle of the year and life cannot be overstated and yet it is what C. S. Lewis brands as “ancient” and the exact inverse of how the modern man sees the world.

In this way, religion fundamentally goes against the grain of 21st Century human autonomy and individualism.

I have hinted at the importance of something very unappealing for people of today’s society, that even with all the technology and scientific advances we have achieved, not everything is within our power or reach.

There is something both comforting and terrifying in this possibility. We do not make the ultimate judgement. We cannot prevent or mitigate all suffering. In the final analysis, it is us who are judged.

The Jewish and human response to the Holocaust must not be to give up faith in God, or accuse God or put God on trial, like Lewis’ modern man.

Our greatest devotion must be to seek justice and confront the inequality we see around us, as Sir Zelman did and in this way to do justice to the lives lost in the Holocaust.

To put ourselves and humanity on trial.

Homily at Evensong to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, 24 January 2016, Oriel College Chapel.

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