After repudiating is founder’s virulently anti-Jewish attitudes last spring, the main Lutheran church in America is beginning to teach its adherents about anti-Semitism and Martin Luther’s role in promoting it.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which claims 5.2 million of this country’s estimated 8 million Lutherans as members, adopted a declaration last April rejecting Luther’s anti-Semitism.
Last week, the group’s Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations met to map out a two- to five-year plan for implementing the new teachings.
The church’s first step, according to Franklin Sherman, chair of that panel, will be to make available to its 11,000 affiliated congregations study materials on Luther’s anti-Jewish attitudes. After that, the movement will work to implement the new teachings at its seminaries.
“The study materials will deal with the period of the Reformation and try to explain to Lutherans the whole history of anti-Jewish teachings within the Christian tradition, and Luther’s role in them,” said Sherman, who is also director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Pa.
Unique among schools in North America with ties to the Lutheran Church, Muhlenberg has a sizable minority of Jews, who make up about 20 percent of its student body.
About a week before Sherman’s panel met, the Lutheran Church held a service of confession and a Lutheran-Jewish convocation near Chicago, where the church is headquartered.
On Nov. 13, after a service of confession at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, Ill., Bishop Sherman Hicks of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod led about 200 Lutherans in a procession to the near by West Suburban Temple Har Zion. There, before an audience of approximately 450 Jews and Lutherans, Hicks presented a large plaque inscribed with a copy of the church’s declaration repudiating Luther’s teachings to two Jewish representatives. They were Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and Maynard Wishner, president of the Council of Jewish Federations.
Hicks expressed sorrow for his church’s sins. “We confess our sins. We repent for the wrong that has been done. We ask for forgiveness. As a bishop of the church, it is with humility and gratitude that I present this declaration to the Jewish community,” he said.
It was, said participants, a highly dramatic and emotional ceremony.
“To probe the deepest recesses of one’s spiritual tradition and to discover an anti-Jewish bias so painful, so raw, and so disturbing, is an act of courage,” Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said in his remarks at the service.
This kind of convocation may be replicated by other Lutheran and Jewish communities around the country, Rudin said.
Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who lived from 1483 to 1546, wrote several essays, including the 1543 tract “About the Jews and Their Lies,” condemning Jews for not converting to Christianity. He advocated that their synagogues be burned and their books confiscated, and that they be forbidden from teaching.
If they still refused to convert, Luther wrote, “than we must drive them out like mad dogs, lest we partake in their abominable blasphemy and vices, deserving God’s wrath and being damned along with them.”
His teachings have been quoted as justification by anti-Semites throughout history, and were used most notably by Adolf Hitler.
It was, in fact, a film shown at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington about the roots of anti-Semitism that in part led to the repudiation last spring.
Several leaders of the American Lutheran Church visited the museum and viewed the film. In the film, woodcuts made of Luther during his lifetime and anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews from the same era are projected on the screen, while Luther’s anti-Semitic words are voiced over the images and a narrator describes how Hitler used Luther’s teachings.
“Luther is portrayed, quite accurately, as a principal figure in the history of anti-Semitism,” said Sherman.
The Holocaust Museum is planning an addendum to the film which will express the Lutheran Church’s new stance, he said.
According to the Rev. Leon Rosenthal, the inclusion of Luther’s words in the Holocaust Memorial film was so compelling to Lutherans because they “pride themselves on being `middle America.’”
It was at Rosenthal’s church that the recent Lutheran confession service was held.
“There’s been a wrestling with how are we heirs of this man. Do we accept him in toto to be his followers, or is there a legitimate way in repentance to reject part of him and accept” other parts of his message, asked Rosenthal.
The American Lutherans’ repudiation of their founder’s anti-Semitism, in a document adopted on April 18, 1994, states, in part, “We reject this violent invective, and more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations.
“Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people.
“We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel.”
The church’s new stance is something of an effort to reconcile fundamentally contradictory beliefs about Jews.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as its name makes clear, missionizes non-Christians to try and convert them to belief in Jesus.
And it is a central tenet of Christian – including Lutheran – theology that the Jews must be converted to belief in Jesus for the Messiah to return.
But Lutherans do not target Jews for evangelizing, according to Rosenthal.
“We have chosen not to use terms like `evangelizing Jews’ of `mission to Jews,’” he said.
“Given the events of the Holocaust and the tradition of anti-Semitism in the West, it is no longer an appropriate or scriptural way to refer to the Jewish people.
“The Bible itself does not single out the Jews for mission. We are very much seeking a way that affirms the right of the Jewish people to define themselves, to find how we are Christian in relation to how Jews are Jews,” he said.