The Commandant by Rudolph Hoess (Book Review)

Photo of Rudolf Hoess
Photo of Rudolf Hoess
Photo of Rudolf Hoess, the infamous commander of Auschwitz, and the author of this book.

Rudolph Hoess was the SS Commandant over the concentration camp at Auschwitz during World War II. Under his direction well over a million would die (Eichmann claimed 2.5 million!). These were not primarily enemy combatants but civilians – men, women, and children (primarily Jews).

Hoess wrote about his time at Auschwitz, not only what he did but how he thought and felt. This particular edition entitled The Commandant has been edited by Jurg Amann for length and clarity. It is a small volume of only 111 pages.

I found it highly disturbing, anxiety inducing, stomach churning – in other words, just what is needed. It is a prophylactic against future genocides, may God save us. It is an inducement to action in the present against ongoing genocides, God help us.

“But I must admit openly that the gassings had a calming effect on me…Up to this point it was not clear to me, nor to Eichmann, how the killing of the expected masses was to be done. Perhaps by gas? But how, and what kind of gas….Now I was at ease.”
– Rudolph Hoess, pg. 70.

Let me digress for a moment and speak as an American Christian. I suspect that someday when God reveals to us the true nature of the good and evil which we have done in our lives we will find that our apathy stands far above and beyond so many of the sins we endeavor so faithfully to avoid today.

Further, I suspect that our myopic dedication to these rote sins is an endeavor to distract our consciences from the true nature of our own selfishness.

Lord, save me from my apathy. From my righteous indignation over the sins of others that I use to assuage my burning conscience.

Movie Review: Evil.

Sometimes movies sit in my Netflix queue for a long time. Netflix suggests that I will really, really like them – but I’m not convinced. Finally, I give it a try and almost without fail, Netflix’s recommendation is right on – this is the case with the film Evil.

The cover for the Evil movie on some DVD's.
The cover for the Evil movie on some DVD’s.

What sort of film would be titled Evil? No, it is not a horror film. Rather it is about a boarding school in Stjärnsberg (Sweden) and especially the tribulations of Erik Ponti, a young man from an abusive background, who refuses to bend to the hierarchical and arbitrary rules of the student body (which are overlooked by the teaching staff).

The film is loosely based on one of Sweden’s most popular novels (which is semi-autobiographical) of the same name by Jan Guillou and was released in 2003. It is in Swedish and has English subtitles. You can learn more about the film on the IMDb and Wikipedia pages.

Why did this film appeal to me? Because of the ethical questions it raises. Namely,

  • Why does an individual become “pure evil?”
  • Is it possible for such an individual to become good?
  • What would be the catalyst for such a change?
  • What is the appropriate manner in which to address injustice?
  • What should one do when standing up for justice results in suffering and loss for friends or family who have not asked to be part of your campaign for justice?
  • Are there some individuals who are so firmly fixed in their “pure evil” ways that they must be destroyed?
  • How should we handle unethical behavior by our heroes/leaders?
  • At what point does one become an active participant in “evil” simply by inaction?

The film is officially not rated. If the MPAA had reviewed the film, they would have assigned it an R rating. The film contains brief episodes of profane/crude language, an incident of sensuality, an ongoing theme of sadistic violence, and a scene with non-sexual, almost male nudity.

Wait a moment…How can one have “almost” male nudity? Excellent question. All I can say is that if I did not warn you about it, you would say “There is a naked man in that film!” But now that I have told you, you will tell me, “There is no naked man in that film!” To which the answer to both statements is – yes.

For mature audiences I’d suggest this is a great film with an interesting story line which provides ample opportunity for discussion.

Christianity Today’s Grappling with the God of Two Testaments

I subscribe to Christianity Today and recently my subscription arrived in the mail. I was immediately taken with the cover consisting of an intermixing of 1 Samuel 15:2-3 (Old Testament) and Luke 6:27-31 (New Testament):
This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘But I tell you who hear me: love your enemies,” I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel do good to those who hate you, when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Bless those who curse you, now go, attack the Amalekites pray for those who mistreat you. And totally destroy everything that belongs to them. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. Do not spare them; if someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Put to death men and women, children and infants, give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

A powerful and visual contrast of the apparently conflicting messages of the Old and New Testaments. Christianity Today endeavors to provide an explanation and reconciliation of the profound differences apparent in the OT and NT article in this edition (July / August 2013).

Their endeavor consists of a brief and honest note from CT editor Mark Galli. This is followed by Mark Buchanan’s pastoral response entitled “Can We Trust the God of Genocide?” Then Phillip Cary argues “Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God” and Christopher J. H. Wright’s article “Learning to Love Leviticus” and sidebar “Sex in Leviticus.”

I was saddened that CT didn’t take the opportunity to cover this topic even more extensively – I would have loved to see the entire magazine dedicated to the subject for this issue. Still, the articles are fairly interesting.

Mark Galli’s Editorial

I appreciate Galli’s honesty in acknowledging that there are really difficult passages that trouble Christians. He also provides us with several titles for further research on the topic including Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, David T. Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, and Eric A. Seibert’s The Violence of Scripture.

Can We Trust the God of Genocide?

Massacre of the Innocents painted by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1610-1612.
Massacre of the Innocents painted by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1610-1612.

Mark Buchanan offers a ‘pastoral’ response to the troubling texts involving genocide in the Old Testament. A ‘pastoral’ perspective as I commonly understand it is one which spends more time expressing empathy for the emotional components present in individuals’ difficulties with Scripture rather than a more intellectual/philosophical approach (at least, that is what I mean when I attempt to explain something in a ‘pastoral’ manner).

He aptly notes the difficulty we face, “What’s not easy is explaining what appear to be deliberate acts of divine cruelty. God’s virulent rage. His hair-trigger vindictiveness. His apoplectic jealousy. Why would God make women and children pay for the sins of despots or the apostasy of priests? God’s behavior at times appears to the skeptic, and even to the devout, as mere rancor, raw spite. There are passages in Scripture that make God look like a cosmic bully throwing a colossal tantrum.”

He suggests this raises the question “Can the Bible be trusted?” Which is really a more personal question, “Can the God of the Bible be trusted?” And finally, the real heart of the question, “Jesus, is that really you?”1Which reminds me of Malcolm Boyd’s Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Whether this allusion is intentional on Buchanan’s part, I don’t know.

Buchanan provides an interesting analysis of Hosea 13:16 and its relation to John and James desiring to call fire down from heaven – and this along with his explanation of the problem are probably the strongest portions of the article.

From here on, I found the article less satisfying. Buchanan argues that, “But he’s the same God. Indeed, here’s a surprise: The road is even steeper now, the judgment of God sterner, and the cost of refusal greater…Jesus opens a new way to the same God. But Jesus, rather than lessening the stakes, heightens them. His blood speaks a better word than Abel’s, or any other’s, but his message is only an intensified version of what God has always said: Do not refuse me when I am talking to you.”

Buchanan does find the key to our interpretive paradox, “My pastoral instinct is that this all resolves at the Cross. All talk of God must filter there. All views of God must refract there. All theology must converge there. At the Cross, God’s own wrath falls on God. The God of the Old Covenant meets himself in the Christ of the New Covenant, and in a way superior to everything that has come before, he enacts a deep and lasting reconciliation.”

But he then suggests, “But here’s the strangeness of it: The Cross is mostly God’s defiance of himself. God erects a nail house against his own wrath. What the Cross defies, what the Cross defeats, what the Cross pushes back, is as much the wrath of heaven as it is the power of hell.”

I found the nail house to be a distracting illustration – but more importantly, I find this picture of the meaning of the cross as God’s defiance of himself as inadequate. It is perhaps a natural corollary of  penal-substitutionary atonement, which I believe in but also believe is inadequate to describe the fullness of Christ’s sacrifice (thus why the NT writers use so many different analogies and terms to describe what Christ accomplished).

I’ve written somewhat of a pastoral/personal reflection which focuses on the cross here.

Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God

Of all the articles present in CT on this topic, I was most disappointed by Phillip Cary’s article. While it provides a good explanation of herem (the Hebrew term for genocide) and hesed (a Hebrew term for lovingkindness). Cary’s article might be summed in this statement, “How then shall we read the Canaanite genocide? I would say: as Canaanites, prone to lead Israel astray, yet blessed by the faith of Abraham. This is a faith shared by Rahab in her lovingkindness toward Israel, and offered to Gentiles in Jesus Christ who is, as his genealogy attests, the son of Rahab as well as the son of David (Matt. 1:5–6).”

In my humble opinion, Cary punts the ball. He argues that the genocidal commands of God should result in us being thankful we have been spared rather than upset that God would command such genocide. But I’m not sure (okay, I’m certain) that being the recipient of a genocidal command in any way changes the morality of the genocide.

I understand what Cary is saying, I just wish he had taken us a little farther down the road.

Learning to Love Leviticus

The article and sidebar (“Sex in Leviticus”) by Christopher J. H. Wright are my favorites on this topic. Wright provides an interesting, reasonable, and understandable explanation of how the OT applies to our lives now. Statements such as this are representative of his sentiment, “To imagine that ‘living biblically’ means trying to keep as many ancient rules as possible just because they are in the Bible misses the point of the law in the first place. Old Testament law was not just about rules but also about relationship with God, founded on God’s grace and redemption, and motivated by the mission of living as the people of God in the world, so that the world should come to know the living God.”

Wright’s explanation of why we no longer follow the sacrificial and dietary laws of the OT are especially helpful. He concludes with a series of questions we can utilize when trying to connect the ancient laws of Israel with our current context which are insightful and extremely practical.

Overall, his article reminds me of Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton’s Old Testament Today: A Journey from original Meaning to Contemporary Significance – which I’d highly recommend as being a more extensive guide to understanding the OT.

Wright’s sidebar on love (hetero/homo) is interesting, controversial, and far too short. He takes the traditional position on homosexuality (it is sinful) based on Genesis 2:24 but qualifies by noting, “that the Bible has far more to say about all forms of disordered heterosexual sexual activity, including nonmarital and extramarital, than its prohibition of same-sex intercourse.”

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, CT provided a good introduction to the topic. I think there are a few things CT could have done to strengthen their coverage of the topic besides those noted above, specifically:

  1. Where was the historical perspective from Mark Noll? This could have provided an overview of other understandings of the atonement (ransom theory, Christus Victor, moral influence, satisfaction, and penal substitution) as well as traditional understandings of the cohesiveness between the OT and NT (for example, some inkling of the allegorical understandings of the early church fathers).
  2. Where was the more liberal perspective? If not providing it from a liberal author, at least a summary of this perspective would have been helpful (John Shelby Spong as an example).
  3. While the articles regularly mention that there are difficult passages in the NT on a similar level to those in the OT, there could have been article specifically dedicated to this topic. I’d especially like to see something looking at Jesus as portrayed in Revelation in contrast to Jesus in the Gospel and in comparison to the OT difficulty passages.