Questioning Our Ethics
by Devin Ames, 2023 Seminary Fellow
On a walking tour through Auschwitz,1 I noticed my normally talkative group had gone stone silent, not asking our guide even a single question. At a few points on the tour, I felt an urge to pray, to pray while standing on the ground where countless atrocities occurred not even a lifetime ago. I found myself saying “O God” and then unable to proceed. This was the only prayerful utterance I could muster. In this space and time, I couldn’t help but focus on the horrendous cruelty and brutality that occurred at Auschwitz. I felt the weight of the truth that this place was not a remote location run by a few fanatics but rather a site made possible through the widespread complicity, complacency, and indifference of millions.
It’s important to remember that Auschwitz didn’t just appear out of thin air. It took the decisions and indifference of millions of people to lay the path to what would become the location of so much death. And while people from the nearby town were expelled when Auschwitz was built, other camps were very much connected to citizens’ daily lives. There were not just a few camps but, as I learned from a map at the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, over 44,000, ranging from work camps near factories to camps for political prisoners to camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, which functioned as both a work and extermination camp. They were all over. At that same museum, I learned the stories of many people who worked to oppose Nazi policies and programs, many of whom were executed for their efforts. Everywhere we traveled, I was constantly reminded of the people who said nothing and of the people who spoke and worked in favor of genocide.
As a Seminary Fellow, I thought extensively about how religion was at work. I thought about an image of a pastor blessing Nazi soldiers. I thought about how many Christians in Germany threw their support behind Adolf Hitler. I thought about how religion was forbidden within the camps because it could be a source of hope. I thought about how the latrines became sites of group prayer because they were too disgusting for SS soldiers to check. In the midst of this, I also thought of Martin Luther, many of whose theological writings have brought me to know God as loving and full of grace, but who also wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, a horribly antisemitic work that was lauded and used by the Nazis.
Since returning to the United States, I’ve thought deeply about those utterances of “O God.” Why did those words come to mind? Why couldn’t I find anything else to pray? Were they a cry of despair, a mournful whisper, an angry shout, a reaction to an unbearable weight? Yes, certainly all of those and probably much more than that.
I also keep thinking about the phrase written on the cover of the notebooks the program gave us: “Question Your Ethics.” A statement both open-ended, and quite pointed. A call not to simply submit to any ethical system but rather to spend time thinking about the foundations for, and implications of, any ethical reasoning.
“O God” and “Question Your Ethics,” continue to percolate in my mind. Currently, I see both phrases as calls. I see “O God” as me calling to God, as my calling with all that I felt as I stood on the grounds of Auschwitz, as a calling that persists as I continue to think about how my learning experiences will shape me and what I am called to do with that today. I look at the world around me, and I find myself wondering what would happen if, instead of scrambling for the right answer, we could find a way to sit with a simple “O God.” Sometimes, those are the best words to speak.
“Question Your Ethics,” feels like a calling and a plea. A sometimes pain-filled and pressing thought in an increasingly divisive world, one in which we dig in our heels on issues so quickly and vilify those who disagree with us, seeing ourselves as champions of the “right way.” What would happen if we consistently and honestly looked at our grounding principles, our ethical foundations, and considered how they may need to shift depending on their impact on other people?
As I began working on this reflection, I wasn’t sure I was ready to share my thoughts and experiences of these two immersive and intense weeks. But then I thought: maybe this is just living in the reality of “O God'' and “Question Your Ethics.” There’s always going to be a level of uncertainty, and that’s okay, perhaps even preferable. It’s freeing not to have to dig my heels in so deep, to remember that I can know where I stand in the moment while remaining open to how that could change. I believe that in order to be an ethical leader, one must pay attention to caring for one’s neighbor and maintain a willingness to change when one’s ethical system no longer serves this purpose. This work necessitates being able, being willing, to cry out “O God,” while moving toward comfort with the silence that follows, knowing that sometimes these are the only words to be said.
It is both comforting and distressing to know that God’s people have cried out in great lament for thousands of years. I am comforted to be a part of a community that has this practice yet troubled to be a part of a world filled with pain requiring such lament. The rich Judeo-Christian tradition of lament, especially embodied in the Psalms, just might address this void of pain and grief. My mind is drawn to the opening of Psalm 22, later repeated by Jesus on the Cross, words that feel eerily similar to my own “O God.”
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night but find no rest. Psalm 22:1-2 (NRSVUE)
In calling this psalm to mind, I can’t help but consider how many others may have lamented using these words, cried out in them on the ground upon which I then stood; those imprisoned at Auschwitz, those who have been there in the following decades, those who experienced similar horrors at other camps. The lamentations uttered over decades still seem insufficient, unable to address fully the evil that occurred. And yet, these cries are not simply lost in a void; they are heard, received, and held by God. God takes them as they are, raw and unpolished. God hears the groaning and remains with us even in the face of such evil.
Devin Ames was a 2023 FASPE Seminary Fellow. He is currently a resident in the spiritual care department at Mayo Clinic, Rochester.
- A version of this piece was originally published on the Faith+Lead blog: https://faithlead.org/blog/questioning-our-ethics/