I’ve been a Lutheran Christian my whole life, and have participated solely in Lutheran congregations where I’ve worshiped, learned, discovered, discerned, and served in leadership. Out of the preschool, elementary school, Junior High, High School, College, Seminary and Graduate Schools I’ve attended – only my High School (Palatine High School, in Palatine, IL) was not a Lutheran sponsored center of learning. In each setting (other than High School) – the 16th century monk turned reformer Martin Luther (from which we Lutherans gain our name), his history, theology, and writing was taught and emphasized alongside everything else the Christian faith has to offer. I have even been to Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany three times. To say it mildly, I’ve had a lot of Luther over the years. I have numbers of volumes on my shelves written by him or about him. I find him a very interesting human being – full of brilliance, full of real human shortcomings, full of deep emotion and spiritual conviction, and full of historical importance that continues to illuminate living in Western culture five hundred years after he lived.
For as much as I find a personal interest in Luther – he is far from perfect – and at times I feel the need to disagree with him; especially when he is so painfully wrong. Luther was quick to say that most of his writings should be destroyed because he feared people would rather read what he wrote rather than read scripture. (Luther also had a pretty high opinion of himself – even when trying to be humble!) What he attempted to clarify was that scripture stands as authority over all of us – and those who preach, teach and lead within the life of the church should be judged on account of the biblical witness, and are secondary to it.
One of Luther’s greatest shortcomings was his inability to compromise or listen fully to others with whom he disagreed. Part of our heritage I often think about was that if Luther and Pope Leo X had not let their emotions get the better of them the great fracture of the Western church might have been prevented. I wonder what the world would look like if it had. Luther’s excommunication by Leo in 1521 and Luther’s “Here I stand” speech at Worms left a wound in the church so deep that has yet to heal even in light of great strides made by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans over the years. In 1529, Luther stubbornly stormed out of a meeting in Mantua with other reformers across Europe who came to a consensus on almost every point but how to understand the Lord’s Supper. When Luther left the meeting with such disdain for his colleagues the church splintered even further among the Protestants (and Protestants continue to splinter today). This inability to listen and seek understanding among those who differed from him led to one of Luther’s most controversial writings that has had generations of negative impact titled, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” He published it in 1543. Luther died in 1546.
You really should read this tract for yourself, and brace yourself for an uneasy stomach which may result when you do. You can read it here:
Luther cannot be excused for these words, but a little context to his perspective is also warranted. I think he really could not fathom how anybody could hear the message of Jesus Christ and not be moved by it. He had experienced such dread and fear of God’s judgment and wrath against him that the message of Christ and his forgiveness really did change his life. Luther couldn’t understand why anyone, especially the Jewish people who shared so much history and scripture with Christians would reject Jesus. So Luther argued in this tract – that since the Jewish people rejected Jesus, they should not be spared the full wrath of the community – including burning down their homes and businesses and should be expelled from the land. If you are starting to see the connection why the Nazi party in Germany during the 1930s and 40s gained an interest in Luther once they got their hands on this tract – it is not a hard leap to see what such shameful words can do to others once they are exploited and carried out to the letter. Luther is not solely to blame, but the connection between the millions of people who were dehumanized and brutally killed at the hands of the Nazis who used Luther’s words in their propaganda cannot be avoided.
In 1994 The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) joined other Lutherans around the world in repudiating Luther’s statements against the Jewish people. You can read the statement for yourself here:
While I am thankful that such a statement exists, and that we as a church state in a public way that anti-Semitism is both a part of our past and contrary to what we believe, teach and confess; where the rubber really meets the road is in the way we conduct ourselves with our neighbors. Christians as a whole have a horrible track record when it comes to living alongside our Jewish neighbors and Holy Week always seems to be a time each year where misperceptions run wild.
John’s Gospel, from which we read the Passion account from on Good Friday doesn’t seem to help much in this regard. His word choice around calling “the people” and the “religious leaders” by the term “the Jews” has long been utilized by hate groups to blame an entire group of people for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, religious leaders did conspire and turned the crowds against Jesus, but Jesus was executed for treason by Roman authorities. Pilate, the Roman Governor, who in John’s account seems unconvinced of Jesus’ crimes, capitulates to the charges when Jesus’ kingdom “not of this world” is cast as a threat to the empire. However, even with a word choice that sounds problematic to modern ears, John’s point in his Gospel narrative is that Jesus is the savior of the world, and that his death is part of God’s greater plan to redeem all of it.
As we hear the stories of Jesus’ death and resurrection this Holy Week, let us be mindful of two important things: All of us are sinful and not one of us bear a perfect witness to the faith that sustains us. We must stand together when one of our leaders, even when Luther himself is wrong. Luther’s relations with his Jewish neighbors could not have been more wrong. We should feel compelled to remind one another of that, while we encourage one another toward a more honest and gracious witness. In these days let us stay mindful that our words matter, that our actions count, that our common life among other Christians is that God is still at work among us. Our trust in Christ’s death and resurrection engages us as both judgment and promise for the sake of this world in which we live, work, play, and hope for the future. Let us ask for forgiveness where it is warranted, seek justice among those who continue to suffer at our hands, and let us reach out to those different from us because they too are created in the image of God. During this Holy Week, let us especially be sensitive to our Jewish friends, neighbors, and coworkers so that we can be constructive in our relationships in a way that it may carry over to the rest of our lives. Finally, let us keep this reality close – that anytime we single a person or a group of people out negatively (religious, ethnic or otherwise), or when we claim ourselves as superior to others as a justification to treat them poorly, or whenever we use our faith as a weapon to attack; it is we who are the ones who stand in judgment.
We so often do – which is exactly why Jesus came.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” (Lamentations 3:22-24)
Here is a link to another piece I wrote, “Luther, The Jewish People and Lutherans today”: