Sometimes a statement can be so wrong as to be almost right. Or might one say, even very wrong statements can come ever so close to true? In his memoir of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls how the prisoners were periodically pared down. Those too ill to work were sent to their deaths. It was a capricious culling. The prisoners were forced to run out one barrack door and into another.
Sometimes the old and the sick ran well or someone, who was young and in good health, would stumble. Levi writes, “There is nothing surprising about these mistakes: the examination is very rapid and perfunctory, and, in any case, the important thing for the Lager administration is not that the most useless prisoners be eliminated but that free places be quickly created, according to a fixed percentage.”
Levi’s troublingly false, but almost true, statement comes as he remembers the end of one such day.
Now each of us is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as to pick up the last drops of soup, a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails, and then, from my bunk, on the top level, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his cap on his head, his torso swaying violently. Kuhn is thanking God that he was not chosen.Kuhn is out of his mind. Does he not see, in the bunk next to him, Beppo the Greek, who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow, and knows it, and lies there staring at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Does Kuhn not know that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty—nothing at all in the power of man to do—can ever heal?If I were God, I would spit Kuhn’s prayer out upon the ground (123-24).
Primo Levi died, many years after Auschwitz, an atheist. What offended him so deeply in Kuhn’s—profoundly Hebraic—prayer for pardon is the old man’s belief that there could be a God who cared about his sins and who might take mercy upon him, might hold back death another day. And so Levi suggests, that any God, who tolerates such horrifying evil as Auschwitz, would find the notion of begging forgiveness more than pathetic. It would be contemptible. How could the evil of Auschwitz be a punishment for sins as petty as Kuhn’s?
Believers will insist that Levi is wrong about the alternatives he offers. God does exist, and God does not receive our sorrow with contempt. Believers may be right, but they must not be smug. There is no way to minimize what Levi experienced, no way, speaking only of this world, to fault his conclusion.
The notions that our world comes from God and is governed by God are hard to sustain, if one looks seriously at evil. What egocentric presumption to think that God listens for our repentance and acts accordingly!
And yet the liturgy begins with a collective act of contrition. We enter the presence of God, asking for mercy. Levi is ever so close to right in suggesting should God should spit out such a prayer. The evil we’ve brought into the world, the evil we’ve allowed to flourish in the world—yet we come, asking forgiveness?
How it helps to see ourselves in the eyes of another! Disagree with Levi, but take your sin seriously. If God does not exist, we waste our time, confessing our sins. If God does exist, our understanding of evil and our role in it is so small, so limited as to be worthy of contempt.
Worthy of contempt, yes. But that’s not who God is. In God justice and mercy meet, because God is the justice we cannot attain, and it is God who lifts us toward it, toward himself, in mercy. God does remove “the reproach of Egypt” from Israel (Jos 5: 9). Jesus says that God is a forgiving father, who awaits the prodigal child. But why believe that parable rather than the testimony and conclusion of Levi? Ask yourself, sincerely ask yourself, that question. The answer matters.
People think they know how to pray and wonder what they should do, how they should pray, in the liturgy. It’s ever so the opposite. The liturgy is the prayer, the presence, Christ left us. We learn from it. And it begins, “Lord, have mercy.”
Joshua 5: 9a, 10-12 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32