c. 1996 Religion News Service
(Rabbi Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)
(RNS)-This year marks the 450th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther, the German monk who left the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 to become the leading figure in the Protestant Reformation.
Now that Germany is unified, for the first time in decades it is possible to visit the towns, universities and churches in eastern Germany that are intimately associated with Luther. Indeed, the travel sections of many American newspapers are filled with itineraries and descriptions of”Lutherland.” But beyond all the tourist enthusiasm and the genuine reverence for Luther’s achievements, it is important to remember that there was a dark side to this historic reformer.
Luther’s later writings are filled with hostility toward Jews and Judaism, including demands to burn down synagogues, prohibit rabbis from teaching, take books away from Jews and force them to do the hardest physical labor, and forcibly to expel Jews from their places of residence. The Nazis used many of Luther’s teachings during the Holocaust to justify their genocidal war against the Jews.
The dark side of Martin Luther was something that could not be ignored by Lutherans in the United States.
In 1983, the 2.6 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran body in the United States, repudiated Luther’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. But while Missouri Synod Lutherans deplored Luther’s violent recommendations, they still affirmed his belief that Jews must be converted to Christianity-an idea that dismays the Jewish community.
But in 1994, the largest American Lutheran body, the 5.3 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, went several steps further. The ELCA’s Church Council unanimously adopted a remarkable resolution that stands as an act of profound atonement for the legacy of Luther’s anti-Semitism.”In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded to the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers,”the Church Council said, noting that the Holocaust represents a special burden for Lutherans because it took place in a country where Lutheran churches proliferated. “We … must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews,”the council said.”We reject this violent invective … we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations …”We particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther’s words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people,”the council continued.”We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel … and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us.”Finally,”the council concluded,”we pray for … increasing cooperation and understanding between Lutheran Christians and the Jewish community.” This statement was an act of courage in a world where modern-day anti-Semites frequently use Luther’s words to justify their teaching of hatred. The ELCA collectively looked at itself in the mirror and determined that it could no longer cover up or make excuses for Luther’s writings. Only outright rejection would do.
Lutherans are not the only Christian bodies to purge themselves of their inherited anti-Jewish teachings. In 1987, the United Church of Christ General Synod decried the anti-Jewish attitudes that culminated in the Holocaust. The Roman Catholic Church has repented for the persecutions and forced conversions of the Spanish Inquisition.
But rejecting the teachings of revered leaders from the past is never easy because such teachings include many aspects of church life including liturgy, hymns, sermons, Bible studies and seminary training.
Many Christian leaders through the ages believed that with the coming of Christianity, Jews and Judaism had forfeited the theological right to exist. Judaism was regarded as a”surplus”religion that should disappear from the stage of history.
And yet, despite conversion campaigns and violent persecutions carried out by Christians in different times and places, the Jewish religion and the Jewish people live on.
It may be impossible to amend or eliminate the elements in the New Testament and in other Christian teachings that have been used to foster anti-Semitism, but the world can take a lesson from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
By publicly making amends for Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish diatribes, the ELCA fulfills two great Biblical commandments: To love God with all their hearts and love their neighbors as themselves.
MJP END RUDIN