Newsletter #14: Nazi art and Islamophobia
In today's newsletter: the Nazi drawings, original sin and Islamophobia, and lawful Elisabet
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what else is in the newsletter today:
The Nazi drawings
Original sin and Islamophobia
The USCCB wouldn’t let me share the Catechism
What I’m reading: on lawful Elisabet
The Nazi Drawings
Currently, the Minneapolis Institute of Art is hosting an exhibition titled “Envisioning Evil: ‘The Nazi Drawings’ by Mauricio Lasansky.” Lasansky is the son of Eastern European Jews who himself was born in 1914 in Argentina. As an adult, he moved to the United States and spent most of his life in Iowa. In 1961, Adolf Eichmann was discovered in Lasansky’s home country of Argentina and taken to Israel to stand trial for his participation in the Nazi Holocaust. The Nuremberg trials were televised worldwide (and covered extensively by Hannah Arendt), and Lasansky was compelled by the atrocities brought to light to begin “the Nazi Drawings” that year.
The series consists of 33 large drawings made with pencil, turpentine, and earth colors. They are horrific and brutal. Concentration camp guards are depicted with skull helmets that distort their faces, and skeletons emerge from behind the guards, at times consuming their victims, at times acting in sync with the guards almost as puppeteers. Lasansky depicts the worst of the atrocities: sexual violence against women, the torture of children, and the anguished cries of babies with disabilities. (A warning to the reader: I have included a couple of images from the exhibit below, but I chose images that were among the least disturbing.)
Clergy are featured multiple times in the series. Lasansky drew on the inter-generational trauma of Jews who felt ignored and abandoned by the leaders of the Catholic Church. Though recent research and the release of previously confidential documents give stories of Pope Pius XII’s secret actions against Hitler and his regime, many Jews today still struggle with the fact that the former pontiff never spoke out publicly against Hitler during his reign. Pope Pius XII’s legacy is controversial on the matter, with evidence also supporting claims that he helped Hitler gain power and combat Catholic opposition. Lasansky focused on what seemed to him the baffling timidity of Catholic leaders, depicting priests and even the pope as shrugging fools. As a Catholic myself, the fact that Lasansky felt a personal betrayal by the Church was deeply unsettling. But his depiction of Catholic leaders also felt timely for a Church that has been struggling even before the Nazi Drawings with a crisis of child sexual abuse.
My encounter with the exhibit came at an challenging time. I’ve been struggling in a number of ways with my Catholic faith over the last couple of years, and I was going through my annual season of ennui. I continue to struggle with the treatment by Church leaders by a friend who was abused in her parish, and also with the treatment LGBTQ+ people receive in the Church. Seeing Lasansky’s work gave a new layer to that pain.
The Nazi Drawings were a work of torment. No. 30 is a self-portrait, where Lasansky depicts himself being mutilzted by a skeleton, blood dripping from his eyes and heart. He depicted himself as being torn apart and tormented by the creation of these drawings. This is an experience of many who have had to process their deepest traumas, and the drawing gives visceral form to the experience of being asked the question: “Tell me what happened to you.” The sharing of one’s story is often invaluable to those who can find healing in it, but the cost of sharing is greater than most can imagine.
My time with the exhibit was eventually consumed by the thought of the children. I’ve seen the lifetime effects that child abuse can have on a person. For some, it can lead to alcohol and drugs as a form of coping; a life can be permanently misshapen by this horrible thing that wasn’t the child’s fault in any way. Even worse, I thought about those small children taken to the concentration camps where they would die. The concentration camps would be the most memorable and formative experiences on their lives. They would never have a chance at healing. They would be born into misery and die in misery. They would spend days, weeks, months, years being tortured until they were killed. And then they would be forgotten.
I really struggled with this. What could possibly be the point of creating a life for that? What kind of God could permit such a thing, a wasted life, a worse than wasted life?
But I found myself faced with a sort of paradox. I struggled with accepting a God who could let this happen. But at the same time, how could I not believe in a God greater than even these atrocities? How could I not believe that those children meant something, and were meant for something, good? If I didn’t believe in a God, and I only believed in this world, then those children’s lives could only have been about suffering (and whatever personal spin we put on that suffering to make the memory of it tolerable). So I have to believe in a God, and I have to believe in a life after this, and I have to believe in a God of unimaginable goodness, with the unimaginable ability to heal our deepest and most horrific wounds, because I can’t imagine what it could possibly take to heal what those children endured. And if I am compelled to believe in a God who can heal those children, then I am compelled to believe in a God who can heal me too.
Original Sin and Islamophobia
I recently accompanied a friend to a Catholic baptism. She had experienced abuse in the parish but wanted to support her friend whose child was being baptized. So I made the trek out to her suburban parish for moral support.
During the baptism, the priest caught my attention when he made the comment: “We are born with original sin, which means we are born as an enemy of God.” He spoke about the uniqueness of Catholic baptism, also saying, “In no other religion in the world does God want us to be coworkers with him so intimately.”
While the latter comment may have some basis in Catholic theology, the former statement is just not accurate. In Catholic theology, “original sin” firstly refers to the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden which deprived them of their original holiness and justice. This sin damaged the original harmony of creation and threw Adam and Eve into a state of fear, confusion, and alienation from themselves, each other, and God (CCC 397-401). Secondly, “original sin” often refers to the consequences of that first sin. Human nature is not totally corrupted, but humanity suffers weakness, ignorance, death, and concupiscence. Baptism imparts the life of Christ’s grace and, by doing so, “erases original sin and turns a man back toward God,” even if the consequences of sin remain and require ongoing struggle towards holiness (CCC 402-406). It is not simply that original sin makes man an enemy of God and Baptism turns us into a friend. Rather, original sin weakens and harms our ability to establish harmony with ourselves, each other, and God, and Baptism is a necessary part of the full reorientation towards harmony and holiness.
But the priest’s comment, if true, would have significant implications. The Second Vatican Council, in Nostra Aetate, writes of other religions:
“Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men… The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
But if we take the position of the priest, that the unbaptized are “enemies of God,” then Nostra Aetate should be rejected.
But this may be the perspective of the parish. A friend shared with me how priests at that parish would talk about the evils perpetrated by “the Islams” and how Islam is necessarily and inescapably violent and antagonistic with Christianity. If the parish accepts the view of original sin that was put forward by that priest, then this would be a necessary view. In this way, we can see how bad theology in one area distorts other areas of theology and pastoral practice, such as how we relate to other religions.
Or could it go the other way around? Could it be that the parish and its priests harbor Islamaphobia, which caused a distortion its theology of sin? Could it be that evils like Islamaphobia are dangerous not only to vulnerable Muslims, but also to Christianity itself, to the integrity of our teachings and witness? If we want to promote the integrity of our theology of sin, we must also work against evils like Islamophobia.
And in doing so, we can more closely align ourselves with the Catholic tradition. We can better understand and appreciate, for example, what Nostra Aetate has to say on Islam:
“The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”
Want to take a look at ways in which you might be inclined towards Islamophobia? You can take a free test here. The test (like all similar tests) has its limitations, but it can be a useful tool for self-reflection.
The USCCB wouldn’t let me share the Catechism
Last week, I shared about a project I had tried to pursue several years ago. I had gathered a team of Catholic young adults to release a daily newsletter with a reading from the Catechism and a brief reflection. But someone told me about a similar project that a lay Catholic had attempted, and which resulted in a cease and desist letter from the USCCB, since they held the Catechism copyright. So I tried to get permission. Permission was denied. Since then, I’ve had other Catholics reach out about projects that they also couldn’t pursue because of copyrights enforced by the USCCB. This is clearly a regular and ongoing problem. I’m not sure what can be done about it, since this is clearly an issue of how the USCCB wields its legal power.
What I’m reading: on lawful Elisabet
I’m continuing to make my way through Sarah Ruden’s translation of the Gospels, and I was struck by the opening of Luke. In the first chapter, we learn that Elisabet and Zacharias (remember, Ruden translates using Hellenic naming) “were both lawful before god’s eyes, making their way blamelessly in the commands and other lawful requirements of the lord.” When it comes to the law, they are the perfect Jewish couple. And yet they are still lacking.
In this way, they are in a position similar to that of the wealthy man who encounters Jesus in Luke 18. The man says that he has observed all the commands required of him since his youth. So Iesous tells him, “There’s still one thing left for you to do: sell everything you have and share it out among the destitute, and you’ll have a storehouseful in [the] skies, and come follow me.” The man hears this and is “heartbroken” because of his wealth. Ieusos teaches that it is hard for “those with property… to make their way into god’s kingdom.” Ieusous is asked, “Then who can be rescued?” He responds, “The things that are impossible for human beings are possible for god.”
The young man obeyed all the laws, and yet there was something that he was withholding, something that prevented his entrance into god’s kingdom. He could not part with his property. At the opening of Luke, we are faced with an old man who has likewise obeyed the law, and we might ask ourselves: What must he and Elisabet give up?
In a footnote, Ruden comments on the fact that Zacharias and Elisabet do not have children: “When marriage was nearly universal among free people, and when children were considered essential, infertility was a great humiliation.” In Luke 1, Zacharias questions God after being told Elisabet will have a child. He says, “I’m an old man, you see, and my wife is far along in her days.” And we learn that Elisabet has seen her childlessness as “my shame among humankind.”
Paradoxically, the “property” which must be given up here is a certain self-conception. They must give up their shame, their humiliation, their self-conception as old and fruitless. When Zacharias objects that he and his wife are too old to have children, God challenges Zacharias’s lack of faith (his “not believing”) by making him mute until the child is born.
This might take us to the young man who came to Jesus and said he’d done all the commands and Jesus tells him to give up all he has. For Elizabeth, what she must give up is her conception of herself as old and fruitless. She failed to recognize her capabilities and has accepted the shame which society has placed upon her. It is this failure and this acceptance which God seeks to cure.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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