To Mend the World
by Brian Zahnd
November 9, 1938 resides in the catalog of human crimes as Kristallnacht—The Night of Broken Glass. On that dreadful night when Nazi storm troopers smashed, ransacked, burned, and destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses throughout Germany, Emil Fackenheim was among the thirty thousand Jewish men arrested and taken to concentration camps. Through an improbable twist of fate the twenty-two year old Fackenheim managed to escape the Sachenhausen concentration camp and was eventually able to get out of Nazi Germany. Following the war he made his way to Canada where he became a prominent Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi. In 1982 Fackenheim wrote To Mend the World, an influential book on post Holocaust Jewish thought. The title comes from the Jewish theological concept of tikkun olam—“repairing the world.” Tikkun olam is the idea that though the world is broken, it is not beyond repair—that it’s God’s intention to work through humanity in order to repair his creation.
In To Mend the World Emil Fackenheim famously dares to issue to the Jewish community a “614th Commandment.” It’s a daring proposition. As far back as the medieval scholar Maimonides, Jewish rabbis have spoke of the Torah containing 613 commandments. But precisely because of the enormity of the Holocaust experience Fackenheim tells his fellow Jews they must now add one more law to their ancient Torah—a 614th commandment. Commandment 614 is simply this: Thou shalt not give Hitler any posthumous victories. Elaborating on the 614th Commandment Fackenheim says,
“We are forbidden to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”
Fackenheim is saying to his own Jewish community that even in the face of the Holocaust, they are not permitted to give up on the world; despite all the atrocities they must continue to believe that a horribly broken world can be repaired. Fackenheim rightly insists that this world is to be the kingdom of God and to despair of this is to collude with wickedness and give vanquished pathogens of evil posthumous victories.
Of course tikkun olam is properly a Jewish concept, but it is a Jewish concept that Christians can and should embrace. A Christian understanding of tikkun olam is that God is restoring all things through Jesus Christ. (Acts 3:21, Romans 8:19–21, 1 Corinthians 15:24, Ephesians 1:20–23, Colossians 1:19–20) And while it may be true that the Jewish community in general has not recognized that God is repairing the world through Jesus, Christians often fail to recognize that God is repairing the world at all! The Jewish failure to embrace Jesus as the restorer of the world is explainable, at least in part, to the long sad history of Christian anti-Semitism, pogroms and persecutions. But the Christian failure to embrace Jesus as the restorer of the world lacks any justification. Nevertheless, whole segments of the church seem to have no idea that God actually intends to save the world. Somewhere along the way we picked up the inexcusable idea that God has given up on the world. This is especially true in certain forms of world-denying fundamentalism.
Far too many American Christians in particular embrace a faulty, half-baked, doom-oriented, hyper-violent eschatology, popularized in Christian fiction (of all things!) that envisions God as saving parts of people for a non-spatial, non-temporal existence in a Platonic “heaven,” while kicking his own good creation into the garbage can! Framed by this kind of world-despairing eschatology, evangelism comes to resemble something like trying to push people onto the last chopper out of Saigon. But this is an evangelism that bears no resemblance to the apostolic gospel proclaimed in the book of Acts. Christianity’s first apostles evangelized, not by trying to sign people up for an apocalyptic evacuation, but by announcing the arrival of a new world order. The apostles understood the kingdom of God as a new arrangement of human society where Jesus is the world’s true king. Put simply, because Jesus is Lord the world is to be redeemed and not left in ruin.
The appropriate response to this gospel proclamation is to rethink everything in the light of the risen and ascended Christ and live accordingly. We rethink our lives (which is what it means to repent), not so we can escape a doomed planet, but in order to participate in God’s design to redeem the human person and renovate human society in Christ. Salvation is a restoration project, not an evacuation project! Or as Thomas Merton put it, “Eschatology is not an invitation to escape into a private heaven: it is a call to transfigure the evil and stricken world.”
The painting is Christ and the Apostles by Georges Rouault (1871-1958)