Grappling with God and the Holocaust

Hagee's 'Hitler' sermon is, at worst, questionable theology - which happens to have Jewish adherents.

hagee 88 (photo credit: )
hagee 88
(photo credit: )
The long knives are out for Rev. John Hagee, the fiercely pro-Israel evangelical leader who, until recently, was supporting US presidential candidate John McCain. He is being branded not just an anti-Semite, but one tagged by the media with the worst association possible: Hitler. Granted, Hagee himself raised the specter of Hitler in a sermon reportedly from a decade ago that was recently dredged up by a left-wing blogger, in which he said that God sent Hitler and "allowed" the Holocaust to happen "because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel." Far from the ugly media-driven perception that Hagee was justifying - or even somehow praising - the Holocaust as Heaven-sent, he was actually trying to answer the question with which countless rabbis and survivors have grappled ever since: How could there be both an all-powerful God and the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust? While anyone could rightly be outraged at his theology or even his apparent hubris in purporting to know God's motives, it cannot be said that he is anti-Semitic. The charge, in fact, is completely counter to what is most beautiful about Rev. Hagee's ministry, that it has been so dedicated to combating Christian anti-Semitism. MEDIA ELITES have pounced on this story to help McCain's likely general election opponent, Barack Obama, but Jews in America and Israel alike have been startled by the "Hitler" headlines. If the media coverage were even remotely accurate, the concern would be warranted. But put into context, Hagee's "Hitler" sermon is, at worst, questionable theology - which also happens to have some Jewish adherents. In a probing and at times challenging one-on-one interview this March at a public gathering in Los Angeles, Hagee talked about how, as a young man, he was profoundly impacted by reading the book The Anguish of the Jews, by a Roman Catholic priest named Father Edward H. Flannery. The book chronicles over 2000 years of anti-Semitism, going back to before the time of Jesus. It was, Hagee explained, a dark side of history to which he had not been exposed in all his theological studies. Hagee was so haunted by the sins committed against Jews in the name of Christianity, he said, that he felt it was his calling to purge anti-Semitism from Christendom. Untold numbers of Christians have felt called by God to do many wonderful things, but it would seem too few have had the same yearning as Hagee. Which is precisely why Hagee has for so long has worked to rally other Christians not just to support Israel, but the Jewish people. A prominent theme in Hagee's ministry, from his sermons to his books, is that the Holocaust was not an historical aberration, but rather merely the largest and most lethal manifestation of hatred against Jews. So the reverend devotes what, compared to other Christian ministers, would be seen as inordinate effort to reminding his followers of the Holocaust, as well as the many other disgraceful actions perpetrated against Jews. WHICH BRINGS us back to the "Hitler" sermon. Hagee, like millions of other evangelical Christians, believes in an active, all-powerful God. When you preach often about the Holocaust, you had better give your followers an explanation of the Holocaust that jells with a theology revolving around an all-powerful Almighty - not a natural marriage. The answer Hagee offered his followers in the now-controversial sermon was that it was fulfillment of biblical prophecy, specifically the prophet Jeremiah's about hunters and fishers. This is hardly a commonplace interpretation, but that's all it was. Hagee, like countless rabbis and survivors over the years, was simply trying to offer a reason for how the Holocaust could happen in a world with an omnipotent God. His answer is at odds with the most widespread Orthodox Jewish interpretation, that God's actions are to be accepted, though not necessarily explained. One rabbi - specifically the one who knows him best, longtime friend Aryeh Scheinberg - believes that Hagee's theology isn't loony at all. "Pastor [Hagee] interpreted a biblical verse in a way not very different from several legitimate Jewish authorities," Rabbi Scheinberg said Friday at a joint press conference with Hagee in San Antonio on Friday. "Viewing Hitler as acting completely outside of God's plan is to suggest that God was powerless to stop the Holocaust, a position quite unacceptable to any religious Jew or Christian." Scheinberg, who leads a modern Orthodox congregation in Hagee's hometown and has counted the minister as a friend for almost 30 years, defended Hagee by pointing to words written during the Holocaust. "No less an authority than the author of the Eim Habanim Smecha, Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal of blessed memory, wrote these words while cowering in a Budapest cellar in the very midst of Hitler's Holocaust: 'Furthermore, the sole purpose of all the afflictions that smite us in our exile is to arouse us to return to our Holy Land.'" TO BE sure, Hagee spoke with a certitude many will understandably find offensive, as the obvious objection is that no man can read the mind of God. Fair enough. But that reasonable theological dispute in no way renders Hagee's sermon anti-Semitic. Stripped of context, a sermon claiming that Hitler was sent by God is indeed jarring. McCain heard it and ducked for cover. He's a politician, and it's not his job to know the truth; it merely is to know the perception. Not so for the media. In an ideal world, anyway, journalists should be in search of the truth. In the real world, sadly, most journalists are too busy - and lazy - to meaningfully research Rev. Hagee's theology and documented teachings. Even given this reality, however, it might seem appropriate that before rushing to reduce 40 years of a man's career down to a convenient Hitler association, the media ought to spend 40 minutes to see if they're actually getting the story right. The writer is a columnist based in New York