By Eli Bass, Director of Jewish Life
Bob Marley teaches us that “If you know your history, than you will know where you are coming from.” Knowing and understanding history also challenges us to face up to deep injustice of the past. In Charlottesville this summer, white supremacists fought to keep monuments of General Robert E. Lee, who fought to maintain slavery. The monuments are a historical record of those who supported enslaving and subjugating based on race.
Round year anniversaries are times to look at and face history. As a staff member who serves Jewish students at a school with Christian roots, I also need to grapple with its history. I want to take a moment to look into the person of Martin Luther. Luther was a prolific author who wrote and dictated many volumes of works. He was a monk and a powerful teacher. He translated the bible into a German that could easily be read by the people. His publication of Ninety-five Theses” on Oct. 31, 1517 developed a schism with the Catholic Church, which created the protestant reformation. This is the 500th anniversary which many Lutherans are celebrating this week. Luther’s contribution to the development of Christianity is unquestionable.
As a Jewish person, I also need to grapple with another side of Luther as the author of “On the Jews and their Lies”. Luther was the author of texts, which were utilized, to justify and promote attacks on Jewish people throughout a period of over 400 years. Luther worked to inspire his followers to commit terrible acts. Luther urges followers “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. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom.”
During the holocaust, Luther’s works were a large part of the theology utilized to validate genocide of European Judaism. The Nazi party regularly held up “On the Jews and Their Lies” at Nazi rallies as they worked to gain support of Germany’s Lutherans. The 500th anniversary of the “Ninety-five Theses” is a chance to reflect on Luther’s story. Talking about Luther requires us to look at his entire person including his ugly hatred directed at the Jewish people.
Today, I’m also reflective on the modern Lutheran church. Susquehanna has an affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. After the holocaust the ELCA church began to confront the theology of its namesake. In 1994 the ELCA released their “Declaration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to the Jewish Community.” This declaration demonstrates the church confronting its past, “In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. Very few Christian communities of faith were able to escape the contagion of anti-Judaism and its modern successor, anti-Semitism.”
Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the 20th century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented.”
My exposure to the Lutheran church has helped me to see both the large strides of the church has made to confront its history and others where Luther’s theology can be scrubbed of his ugly record with the Jewish community. Today’s ELCA is committed to interfaith diversity and dialogue. I have seen its leaders like those of so many other religious communities acknowledge that much work is still required. It is because of these modern commitments, that I’m proud to work at an ELCA affiliated school.
Knowing and confronting our history and recognizing the misdeeds of those who preceded us help us to be better people and better communities. I believe this is the way we make progress and grow.