Can the Lutheran Church in America Shun Its Antisemitic Roots?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) recently and overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on the US government to end all aid to Israel and “enable an independent Palestinian state.” In addition, the ELCA adopted a resolution calling for divestment from Israel, so as not to “profit from human rights abuses.”
ELCA has some 4 million members spread over 10,000 congregations. Many members have German, Danish and Norwegian roots, which is where Luther’s teachings took hold.
Martin Luther, who founded what became the Lutheran Church, is considered to be one of Germany’s greatest icons and, of course, is famous for the Protestant Reformation. He had disagreed with various teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which resulted in his excommunication in 1521. He taught that salvation is not obtained through good deeds but through belief in Jesus Christ, who had the sole power to redeem sin. This message, together with Evangelicalism — whereby “the good news” was to be taught to others through activism and conversion — became the creed in large parts of Europe.
As an Augustinian monk, Luther greatly admired Augustine, who inter alia promoted the pariah status of Jews who were to be loathed, rendered unwelcome and impoverished. During his time, his writings acquired Scripture status, and political concessions to Jews were consequently revoked. Augustinian policies, reinforced by Luther, thus became part of European culture, even extending beyond the Enlightenment.
Luther was not only a monk and university professor, but also a politician and a German nationalist. Despite the poverty of the farmers, ruthlessly exploited by the princes, Luther expediently took the latter’s side in the 1525 Peasants War. Up to 300,000 peasants were killed by the nobility during their uprising. The nobility became the ideal basis of much German folklore and was entrenched and manifested in its culture, such as with Wagner’s operas. Writers such as Erich Fromm and Karl Barth ascribe blind German obedience to authority as originating with Luther.
Being unsuccessful in converting Jews to Christianity, Luther vindictively urged the destruction of Jews. He outlined his ideas in his book On the Jews and Their Lies, which included setting fire to synagogues and schools, confiscating Jewish books, razing homes, banning rabbis from teaching (on pain of death), confiscating cash and jewelry and expelling Jews from German lands.
Dr. Luther’s wishes would eventually materialize 400 years later, in 1938, which became known as Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass. This state-sponsored pogrom occurred on Luther’s birthday. At that time, Lutheran Bishop Martin Sasse gleefully quoted Luther in a pamphlet inciting the people against the Jews. His views conformed with those of Goebbels — similar to what Luther preached in his penultimate sermon. Many of Sasse’s church colleagues claimed that the swastika on church altars was a source of inspiration. Bishop Ludwig Mueller called Sasse a martyr at his funeral in 1942. Lutheran clergy were given the task to complete Luther’s mission against “world enemy,” the Jews.
The Holocaust was therefore not some incomprehensible mad event in the land of Enlightenment, philosophers, writers, artists and composers. It was a deeply embedded cultural structure.
After the war, Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials invoked Luther as a defense in mitigation of sentencing.
The Lutheran Church today, of course, does not condone the murder of Jews. It does, however, continue to be hostile in various ways. The German Lutheran Church organization, Brot fuer die Welt, donates large sums to radical anti-Israel NGOs, as do other Lutheran churches, such as the Church of Sweden and the Danish National Evangelical Lutheran Church, which, for example, donates through DanChurchAid to the NGO BADIL. This NGO is a leader in BDS, denies Israel’s legitimacy and displays crude anti-Jewish cartoons reminiscent of Nazi-era publications, on its website. NGO Monitor has described these in detail.
ELCA therefore has maintained its tradition of discrimination against the Jewish state. It does not advocate boycotts against China, Turkey, Morocco or other countries with border disputes, including the current border disputes between Canada and the US, to name but a few.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, together with its sister Lutheran churches elsewhere, carries a long history of antisemitic baggage, underpinned by its membership in the World Council of Churches, which supports BDS and condemns Christian Zionists who are sympathetic to the Jewish state.
In 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation will be celebrated with festivals, exhibitions, concerts, church services and plays. Some 70 years after the Shoah, the Jewish community in Germany has requested that Luther’s demonization of Jews, which strongly influenced the Nazis, be formally repudiated.
Rather than making belated attempts to right wrongs, the ELCA prefers to perpetuate its traditional antisemitism, hypocrisy and misguided “concern” for those whose agenda is the destruction of Israel. The ELCA has much soul-searching to do. Instead, it is determined to maintain a disgraceful platform that has no place in civilized society today.
This is especially pertinent, considering its founder Martin Luther became one of Hitler’s icons — praised in Mein Kampf. Luther’s antisemitic ghost has no place in today’s America.
Can ELCA embark on honest self-examination, unfetter itself from its antisemitic history and finally — in this turbulent 21st century — get its priorities right?
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a writer and Fellow, at the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. He is the author of the recent satirical novel, “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist,” available on Amazon, Lulu.com, and others. This article was first published in the Jewish Journal.