I was baptized an ALC Lutheran, but was raised in an LCMS church as my mother’s family was LCMS. Discovered there was much more out there that I aligned with when I attended Valparaiso University. Though it still had/has a strong LCMS influence, it was there were I really started to embrace the ELCA as my home church.  It’s no secret that the other Lutheran colleges refer to it as That Liberal Lutheran School.

Valpo reallystrived to promote tolerance and acceptance. It welcomed its first GLBTQ student support group when many other relgious-based schools shunned such groups. Thought provoking seminars during the Week of Challenge and Martin Luther King, Jr Day really did bring cultural diversity to the fore.  And it was through student and faculty envolvement where women were finally allowed not to be just silent ministers in the Chapel of the Resurrection but were finally allowed to preach and lead worship as the ordained pastors that they were.

This is what helped mold my views of Lutheranism.

What I didn’t sign up for was Martin Luther’s anti-semitism. Yes, I knew it existed but chose to ignore it forever. It wasn’t until recently that I really explored what it was all about.

There is no doubt that Luther carried much of the old school Catholic Church animosity toward the Jews as Christ killers (sigh) into the Reformation.  Gordon Rupp, a Methodist Luther scholar writes in Martin Luther: Hitler Cause or Cure:

Luther’s antagonism to the Jews was poles apart from the Nazi doctrine of “Race”. It was based on medieval Catholic anti-semitism towards the people who crucified the Redeemer, turned their back on the way of Life, and whose very existence in the midst of a Christian society was considered a reproach and blasphemy. Luther is a small chapter in the large volume of Christian inhumanities toward the Jewish people.

It is no suprise that Luther wanted the Jews to convert to Christianity. There was a simmering animosity that cannot be ignored, but at first Luther seemed much more benign, hoping that it would be God’s will that cause Jewish faith tradition would erode away and yield to Christianity. In his 1514 letter to Rev. Georg Spalatin (Burkhart), Luther writes:

But what am I doing? My heart is fuller of these thoughts than my tongue can tell. I have come to the conclusion that the Jews will always curse and blaspheme God and his King Christ, as all the prophets have predicted. He who neither reads nor understands this, as yet knows no theology, in my opinion. And so I presume the men of Cologne cannot understand the Scripture, because it is necessary that such things take place to fulfill prophecy. If they are trying to stop the Jews blaspheming, they are working to prove the Bible and God liars.

But trust God to be true, even if a million men of Cologne sweat to make him false. Conversion of the Jews will be the work of God alone operating from within, and not of man working-or rather playing-from without. If these offences be taken away, worse will follow. For they are thus given over by the wrath of God to reprobation, that they may become incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction.

Yet somewhere along the line, the tone became more vicious.  While many a confirmand is familiar with Luther’s Small Catechism, many do not realize that he also wrote the 1543 treatise Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies.) His tone takes a distinctively hateful tone, reducing the entire race of people to something subhuman:

They must assuredly be the base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth…

… For they are full of malice, greed, envy, hatred toward one another, pride, usury, conceit, and curses against us Gentiles. Therefore, a Jew would have to have very sharp eyes to recognize a pious Jew, to say nothing of the fact that they all should be God’s people as they claim…

…So it became apparent that they were a defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut with whom God ever had to wrangle, scuffle, and fight. If he chastised and struck them with his word through the prophets, they contradicted him, killed his prophets, or, like a mad dog, bit the stick with which they were struck.

It’ is not bad enough that he views them as subhuman, he goes one step farther to actively encourage Christians to take action against the Jewish people. He promotes the destruction of not only their prayer books, but advocates “to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” 

Yet he did not stop there, Luther had an eight point plan to eliminate the Jewish faith tradition either by conversion to Christianity or by forced expulsion. His plan also included the prohibition of owning money, forced labor and forced expulsion from the country. (“In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.”)

Quite frankly this sounds terrifyingly similar to the Russian pogroms or Hitler’s Endlösung der jüdischen Frage (Final Solution for the Jewish Question) which led to the Holocaust/Shoah. In fact scholars Berger and Rose both point to Luther’s influence on forging a truly Germanic hatred of Judiasm and its people that may have been a building block in the Shoah. Professor Rose goes on to assert that without Luther’s antisemitic treatises, the German mindset leading up to the Shoah may have been absent.

Not exactly the faith tradition I signed on to when I was confirmed, married and baptized my daughters.

Fortunately mainstream modern Lutheranism has distanced itself and denounced Luther’s hateful rhetoric. Without that, I doubt that I would be raising my daughters in the Lutheran faith tradition and would be embracing a different Church.

It was not until 1982 when the Lutheran World Federation finally encouraged the Lutheran body to move beyond Luther’s hatred and define ourselves as something that is set apart from his anti-semitism and move actively forward in the name of Judeochristian reconciliation by stating, “We Christians must purge ourselves of any hatred of the Jews and any sort of teaching of contempt for Judaism.”

The Missouri Synod was next in its denouncements. In 1983 the LCMS issued a statement denoucing Luther’s “hostile attitude” toward the Jews:

That while, on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people, and, by the same token, we deplore the use today of such sentiments by Luther to incite anti-Christian and/or anti-Lutheran sentiment.

In 1994, the ELCA followed suit by issuing the following Declaration of ELCA to  Jewish Community:

We who bear his name and heritage must acknowledge with pain the anti-Judaic diatribes contained in Luther’s later writings. We reject this violent invective as did many of his companions in the sixteenth century, and we are moved to deep and abiding sorrow at its tragic effects on later generations of Jews. (Entire text in link above.)

It is clear that the mainstream Lutheran church bodies have denounced Luther’s Antisemitism, and the ELCA has gone one step further (see my previous post) by acknowledging Judiasm in a Judeochristian continuum as seperate and equally worthy facet of worshipping the same God. So why am I posting a history lesson about the ugly underbelly of Martin Luther?

While the recent visit from Jews for Jesus was still fresh in my mind, the choices of scripture translation for Easter Sunday really have stuck in my mind.  There was nothing controversial about the choices of passages, though our pastors in a push to distance themselves in every way from the ELCA refuse to utilize the ELCA’s choices of scripture each week. Each told the story of the Resurrection. The New Living Translation was used for the second lesson and the Gospel. No big deal. It was the Resurrection in modern English. Not my first choice for translation as I am more familiar with the RSV or NIV from my confirmation and college days. The psalm was in that nice cadence of the New King James Version.  (I think everyone would agree that the psalms lose a lot of their lyrical quality if a truly modern translation is used. So again, nothing controversial.

But what really stood out was New Century Version of the first lesson.  A revision of the International Children’s Bible, the NCV is a good choice for bringing the Bible to those with lower literacy skills. But it also known for its conservative and evangelical tone.  Not a surprising choice since my pastors have declared themselves “orthodox” Lutherans are rather involved in the World Alone network and the LCMC. I normally don’t have a problem with NCV, though I don’t prefer the writing style. But what really grabbed my attention and made me wince was the following exerpt from the passage in Acts 10:34-43, in particular verse 39 (bold emphasis mine):

We saw what Jesus did in Judea and in Jerusalem, but the Jews in Jerusalem killed him by hanging him on a cross.

Ouch. And with one translation we are back to blaming the entire Jewish people for killing Christ.

So I did a comparative search of the passage, looking at the  alphabet soup of English Bible translations includng the NLT, NIV, NRSV as well the RSV, NKJV and finally the first English translation the KJV. Each of the other translations makes the one to blame for killing him more vague. They killed him, or they put him to death, etc. Perhaps this is me being too overly sensitive, but the NCV is only one that spells out the Jews killed Christ.

So why did they use this specific translation where the other lesson and Gospel were in the New Living Translation? I certainly don’t want to bear false witness against those chosing the passages (for the record, the ELCA did not include the passage from Acts as part of suggested readings for Easter.) Nevertheless the choice of passages and translations was rather jarring? Why was the passage blaming the Jews picked to be the lesson? And why was the one translation that clearly spells it out the one that was picked instead of the other translations the dull the blame? These are questions I do not have the answers for.

That said, is this return to a more orthordox interpretation of Lutheranism also embracing Luther’s other opinions?  I certainly hope not. The pollyanna optimist in me would like to think this is merely a coincidence. I certainly hope that subtle anti-semitism is not a biproduct of such conservative evangelism and that I am seeing problems where they don’t exist.