The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the largest branch of the Lutheran church in the United States –has formally rejected the anti-Semitic writings of the movement’s founder, Martin Luther.
Though never incorporated into official Lutheran doctrine, Luther’s 16th century anti-Jewish diatribes have long been used by right-wing groups eager to give historical and religious justification to their anti-Semitic claims.
In “The Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community,” the movement’s Church Council wrote that their members feel a “special burden” because of “catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the 20th century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”
“Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred,” the declaration continued, “we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people.”
The April 18 declaration was issued in conjunction with the Lutheran World Federation, the movement’s international arm.
In his 1543 treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” Luther described Jews as dishonest heathens, encouraging German civil authorities to confiscate their prayerbooks and burn down their synagogues and homes.
“In terms of the mythology of anti-Semitism,” said Marc Caplan, research analyst for the Anti-Defamation League, “this is one of the essential works.”
During World War II, Luther’s anti-Semitic teachings were incorporated into Nazi propaganda, with only a minority of the Lutheran clergy objecting.
Luther’s teachings have long been circulated among the anti-Semitic literature of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.
Most recently, the Nation of Islam, the militant Black Muslim group, was selling excerpts from the 1543 treatise along with the notorious anti-Semitic tract, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
But Lutheran leaders said they were moved to distance themselves formally from Luther’s teachings on Jews because of anti-Semitic statements by Luther featured prominently at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
They said they wanted to make it clear that the denomination which bears Luther’s name does not endorse all of his teachings.
“We honor Luther, but by no means do we take everything that he says as authoritative,” said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, associate director for the department of ecumenical affairs for the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Of the approximately 100 volumes of German and Latin writings which make up the body of Luther’s work, only the portions known as the catechisms, and a few other writings, were adopted by church authorities in the late 16th century as the official doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
‘MOST LUTHERANS ARE SHOCKED’
The anti-Semitic portions of Luther’s work are generally not studied, even by Lutheran scholars.
“Most Lutherans are shocked to learn that their man Luther ever said something like this,” said Franklin Sherman, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhelen-berg College, a Lutheran institution in Allentown, Pa. Nonetheless, Sherman said, last month’s declaration was thought necessary as an apology and an act of repentance.
A leader in the Protestant reformation, Luther had originally reached out to Jews in hopes of converting them to his brand of Christianity.
But while hopeful that his critique of Catholic conservatism would lead to greater religious tolcrance, and sympathetic to his attacks on idolatry, few Jews were actually willing to convert to Luther’s movement.
Frustrated by this, and fiercely critical of rabbinic interpretation of the Scriptures, Luther lashed out at Jews, calling them “stubborn as the devil,” and advocating their forced labor and banishment.
His influence on Protestant rulers was said to have contributed to the expulsion of Jews from the German region of Saxony in 1543.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, praised the Lutheran church for facing up to its legacy.
“Instead of walking away from it,” Rudin said, “they said ‘yes, he meant it, and it was wrong, and we repudiate it.’ “
Although the statement cannot stop hate groups from appropriating Luther’s teachings, Lutheran leaders say they hope the statement will cause a “ripple effect” throughout the Protestant world.
The statement grew out of a 1983 meeting between the Lutheran World Federation and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.