For those who aren’t familiar with Corrie ten Boom and her story, she and her family were watchmakers outside of Amsterdam. When Nazi Germany invaded, they spent two years hiding Jewish refugees in their home (saving some 800 people) until they were caught in 1944 and sent to various prisons and some, ultimately, to Ravensbrück concentration camp. After the war, Corrie would go on to travel the world and testify about her experience for the rest of her life.
What stands out about Corrie, and is clearly evident in her book, is her family’s unshakable faith in the sovereignty of God and their uncanny ability to embody gratitude, even in the midst of the darkest days of the 20th century (if not the history of civilization).
In the context of the genocide of millions and the suffering of millions more, gratitude and faith are difficult concepts to accept. After all, what kind of god allows such dehumanization and destruction? How can anyone in the midst of holocaust believe in God’s goodness? A story needs a meaty question to wrestle with, and this one is as meaty as they come. Humankind has been chewing on it for thousands of years and we still don’t have an answer we swallow entirely.
As I sat down to write, it occurred to me that I’ve danced around these ideas before. My first play, The Battle of Franklin, took on slavery and war and the consequences of dehumanization. Then in Frankenstein, I wrestled with the idea of how we might be shaped either by kindness or by cruelty and how a relationship to our creator might ultimately damn or redeem us.
Now, in The Hiding Place, I came to realize that the story was ultimately a journey of theodicy. What good can be said of a god that permits the extermination of millions?
The question seems insurmountable. Unanswerable even. But maybe, in the shadow of the unanswerable, we’re called to enter the ring and wrestle, even if all we go away with is a blessing and a limp.
In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the character Ivan puts forward an argument of unsettling power, suggesting that no matter what ultimate good God intends, it is not worth the suffering of even one innocent child.
“I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’ When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. … You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that … I, too, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then … It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child … It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony … I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him … the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive … Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. … too high a price is asked for harmony … And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket … And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”
What if the culmination of theodicy is not an answer, but an action? God doesn't tell us why. Instead, he shows us how. Pete Peterson
If you’re anything like me, you can’t turn away from Ivan’s defiance without being haunted by it. It’s a demand for justice that we all carry around with us, and we feel it when we hear rumors of famine in far off lands and see pictures of children on the cusp of starvation. We feel it when we see videos of ISIS executions, or hear testimonies from refugees, or witness 70,000 people left homeless in the wake of a hurricane. And right here in America we’ve worked hard to deafen our ears to the cries of our victims but in flashes and gunshots and protests we’re gradually awakening to the screams of our own ghosts as they spill out of the past where we’ve tried to bury them. The world is swollen with suffering. We’ve all partaken—and we’ve all participated.
It’s easy to shake a fist at the Almighty and refuse his ticket. It’s hard to listen. It’s harder to receive an answer that’s as difficult as the question itself.
Visit a concentration camp, and you’ll find it’s your job to listen. It’s not a place to stage an argument. It’s not a place to stroll through and visit with scant attention. And yet, neither is it a place of despair. It’s a place to listen, to give ghosts their voices.
“Our father who art in heaven And who sees our homeless life, Take your loyal children into your care, Staunch the tears that darken our souls. Hallowed be thy name here on foreign soil, Where, violently torn from our paternal home, We must pray secretly among our enemies. Thy will be done! We humbly cry In the belief that sorrow and joy must come from you, That you give us everything, great and Almighty God, And this deep faith will sweeten our misery. Give us strength to survive and the belief in our souls That our exile is not without purpose … Deliver us from all that is evil And give us a joyful homecoming.” —Urszula Winska, prisoner of Ravensbrück
“O Lord, remember not only the people of good will but also the people of evil will. And remember not only all of the suffering they have caused but also the fruits that have been borne of this suffering: our friendship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity. Remember the greatness of heart that sprang from this. And when we face the Last Judgement, let all of the fruits we have borne secure their forgiveness. Amen.” —Mother Maria (Elizaveta Skobcova), imprisoned and executed at Ravensbrück
Like Betsie and Corrie ten Boom, many who went into great darkness found there a light that was greater yet. They sat in the depths of the pit, and they gave thanks. They prayed for their oppressors. They kindled love between one another. They sang and they suffered. And they saw something in all of it that most of us miss. They are witnesses, and we owe them a hearing of their testimony.
In the writing of The Hiding Place and my wrestling with Ivan’s rebellion, I could find no answer to why God permits such things. But while I’m angry about suffering in the world and I cry out for vengeance, I also need to humble myself and hear the voices of those who have gone before and seen things more closely and more clearly.
I happened across a story of the communion host being smuggled into the concentration camp by a Red Cross worker. Seeing this revelation, prisoners gathered around in wonder as if a miracle had come among them.
Maybe it had.
What if the culmination of theodicy is not an answer, but an action? God doesn’t tell us why. Instead, he shows us how. He answers mystery with mystery. His response to suffering is to partake of it himself, and he partakes of it still in each of us. He dies with us, groans with us, suffers with us. But to what end? In the mystery of Communion we acknowledge that we are not merely secured to Christ; he is also secured to us, the eternal intersecting with the temporal as he joins himself to each of us in our own suffering and death—and therefore joins us to his resurrection.
To Ivan, I say yes, there is one who can forgive and atone and who has the right to do so, for the Creator suffers as we suffer. The child’s death is his death too, and therefore his resurrection will be the child’s. He takes all suffering into himself—and he transfigures it.
His body, too, was broken. His blood, too, was spilled. Our bodies, too, will be made new. This is the testimony of the martyrs and saints. This is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Betsie ten Boom saw it. Corrie ten Boom testifies to it. An empty tomb proclaims it.