Part III: Contemporary Lutheran Rejection of Luther’s Antisemitism

Contemporary Lutherans are now committed to ensuring that all members of civil society clearly and publicly condemn all forms of antisemitism. Public officials are expected to disavow hate mongers, hate speech, and other forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify acts of antisemitism. They favour appropriate anti-discrimination legislation and implementation. Action must be taken against individuals and institutions responsible for discrimination and criminal acts against Jews and the denigration of Jews.

Further, Lutherans must engage in preventive action and promote concrete efforts to counteract and prevent the increase of antisemitic incidents and hostile action against Jews as well as the rise of radical and violent movements which foster racist ideologies and discriminatory practices against the Jewish community. Lutherans now promote Holocaust remembrance through education and the organization of cultural or media events or on the internet, and include the subject of antisemitism in anti-racist education for students and teachers, and in all teaching material as well as eliminating antisemitic propaganda in school curricula, textbooks and the media. They promote public awareness and tolerance through non-formal education and the media and provide youth with an opportunity to take an active role in educating the world about the evil that necessarily results from Jew hatred. Is this not a great deal of effort in repentance?

The United Church of Canada’s statement, Bearing Faithful Witness, makes the following distinction. Anti-Judaism means intellectual dissent from Jewish precepts (in the same sense as “anti-Christian” or “anti-Christianity”). However, the term also has a pejorative connotation, implying not merely an attack on Jewish ideas but on the Jews themselves for other than racial reasons. Anti-Judaism is therefore considered less lethal than antisemitism. However, anti-Jewish elements are present in the Christian Scriptures as I indicated in the previous section. However, the United Church of Canada rejects as false the claim that the Scriptures are antisemitic. Claims that Christians who attend Jewish services, follow Jewish rituals and adopt Jewish custom are the enemy. Why? Not because Christianity is superior to Judaism, as Chrysostom contended in the 4th century, but because Jews claim that their beliefs and rites are superior to Christian ones. I myself consider such a claim to be anti-Jewish for it falsifies Judaism just as the New Testament does.

Anti-Judaism is depicted as a result of the effort of the new Christian church, in this case Lutherans, to detach itself from Judaism in a process of establishing identity by delimitation, a process normally accompanied by polemics, accusations and insinuations, even though Jesus himself had no intention of founding a new religious community and expressed his solidarity with the Jews of his time. This, of course, is not Saul or Paul’s interpretation, but that of contemporary Christians trying to distance themselves from the antisemitic roots within Christianity. For them, Jesus did not challenge the belief that Jews were God’s chosen people. Anti-Jewish statements in the New Testament should be read and understood as reflecting this political process of detachment rather than as an expression of the fundamentals of Christianity.

In this re-reading, the gospels must be read at two different levels, as the story of Jesus and as the presentation Jesus’ story resulting from the politics of the period. Polemics against Jews do not genuinely come from Jesus but are products of a later period. Thus, Matthew interprets the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem during in 70 CE as God’s direct punishment of Judaism because of his fight with the Pharisees, a position projected back into the teachings of Jesus. In Jesus time, Pharisees were allies of Jesus, even if holding different views, in the fight against the Sadducees. However, their rejection of the message of the cross and resurrection turned them from allies with whom they disagreed into enemies later on so that “Pharisee” became a derogatory term among Christians. Christology was not initially anti-Judaic. There was simply a debate over a new definition of Judaism without a temple.

This is an apologetic, an effort to re-write history for the contemporary period in which antisemitism is a “No, No.” After all, after the First Temple was destroyed, there were deep disputes about its meaning, but no claim by one party that the others were apostates. Reducing those differences simply to a process of separation may be a cop out. The differences were not just between two sects of Jews claiming legitimacy, but between one sect which saw the other as traitors to Truth.

Depicting some Jews standing for narrowing Judaism versus others, Christians, for attempting to broaden Judaism, is itself a statement of anti-Judaism which ignores both the fundamental differences and the claims of Christians to possess the only true meaning. Jewish rejection of the Hellenists, such as Josephus who came from a priestly family, is absolutely different from the conflict with Christianity. For the Hellenists assimilated but did not claim to be the true heirs of Judaism. Further, Christians charged Jews with excluding them from synagogue services. However, it is one thing to reject a congregant because his or her beliefs depart fundamentally from the basics of the congregation and another to claim that the congregation has the only path to the Truth.

As I indicated above, the charge against the Jews for murdering their Christ is not John’s alone in the Gospel According to John, but also that of Paul. It is a fundamental and not just a circumstantial belief of the new Christian religion.

For the Christian religion was founded upon faith versus the law, upon either affirming Jesus as the Christ or being godless. Jews who do not accept Christ are depicted as non-believers destined for hell and in service to the devil. Further, the responsibility for the death of Jesus is increasingly blamed on Jews rather than Romans. Christians are guilty of cultural expropriation for they reinterpret traditional Jewish words and phrases as having Christian meaning, and only Christian meaning. In Paul’s diatribe against Jews in I Thessalonians (2:14-16), he calls Jews enemies of all people. Paul certainly seems to advocate the theory of substitution. The question is the following: can there be a Christology without anti-Judaism?

I suggest that the effort to delink Luther’s antisemitism from his theology is part and parcel of the new Christian effort to differentiate between doctrines that are historically rooted (the views of Jews) and doctrines that contain the essence and truth of Christianity as well as positions that are also historically rooted. But what if the latter so-called historical positions are rooted directly in the core Christian gospel? Text or reliefs or music or Luther’s antisemitism cannot be deleted. They can only be demarcated from the essence of Christianity and blamed on historical circumstances. However, I suggest that this is apologetics in the name of a new found respect for Jews and Judaism without getting to the core of the problem. I argue, as some Christian theologians do, that anti-Judaism is both inherent in Christianity and a logical and necessary consequence of the fundamental tenets.

Rosemary Ruether asked, “Is it possible to say ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ without simultaneously saying implicitly ‘and the Jews must be damned’?” If one adopts the position of the continuing election of the Jewish people and rejects the doctrine of substitution, is this not, in the end, a repudiation of Christianity? For how can the other tenets of Christianity be the Truth, but the rejection of Judaism as such be made false? Paul unequivocally differentiated the eschatological people of God from the historical people of God and argued that baptism made those who accepted Jesus as their saviour to be authentic if not historical Jews. But did he reject substitutionism in making this distinction? I suggest not. There is not much Christianity without much of Paul and parts of the Gospel of John even as one tries to distinguish the Paul who wrote I Thessalonians and the one who wrote the Letter to the Romans.

To argue, as pro-Semites now do, that God’s promise to the first chosen people is still valid even if there is also a second promise, is to ignore that the core of Judaism recognizes not only Jews as the only chosen people, but also that to be chosen means something radically different, not a guarantee of a place beside God in heaven, but as carrying a special burden on earth and a unique responsibility.

I am not claiming that the revisionist Christian theologians are people of bad faith. They clearly possess only goodwill towards Jews. And they do not claim, as many Jews believe, that the Jews need only be saved because Israel is needed before the Second Coming, that is, Jews are instrumentally important to the new Christian theology. Instead, there is a genuine new appreciation of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Further, the new theology claims that the relationship between God and the Jews not only persists until today, but is everlasting. Therefore, Christians are no longer viewed as being alone now in belonging to God. Judaism must be made part of Christology and Jews made partners with Christians.

But what if Jews accept the principle of civility in Jewish-Christian relations but reject the idea of partnership in God? For, as stated above, there is a fundamental split over the meaning of “chosen.” The use of Martin Luther’s concept of promise (see the next section) is not sufficient to develop reconciliation, even if it develops respect. In the new theology, Christians and Jews in the new doctrine are saved in hope, in the revelation that is yet to come. Redemption remains conditional. However, I argue that is not only a rejection of Martin Luther’s antisemitism but his Christian theology.

Gregory Baum, an old and dear friend with whom I had a falling out several decades ago, tried a similar tactic in reconciling Judaism and Christianity in his book, Introduction to Faith and Fratricide. But there was a correlate. For Gregory, who was born into a Jewish assimilated family in Germany and became a convert to Roman Catholicism at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, attached to his liberalism was an adoption of the Palestinians as the new victims now needing salvation from European displaced antisemitism and the ruthless Israelis.

The argument took place in my study in my home. Gregory and another friend and colleague, from the United Church rather than a Catholic, had prepared a statement on Israel which they asked me to read and critique. In the document, they insisted that Europe and Christians, because of antisemitism, had transferred the burden of the Jews to Palestine and, thereby, were responsible for creating the Israel-Palestine conflict in the first place. Jews as Zionists were, in the new doctrine of Christian-Jewish sharing, now responsible for a new sin.

I was angry. I insisted that the document had fundamental faults in that it:

  1. failed to attend to the Jewish age-old connection with Israel;
  2. failed to attend to the genuine positive role that Christian Zionists had played out of their love of Judaism rather than their antisemitism;
  3. failed to pay attention to the absolute rejection of Jewish redemption in Zion by the religious and most political leaders of Islam at the time;
  4. ignored the deep roots of antisemitism, though not nearly as virulent, in Islam;
  5. shifted responsibility for the Palestinian cause to a marriage of Zionism and displacement of European antisemitism in the new left anti-Zionist form of antisemitism;
  6. finally, the new apologetic refused to consider whether the creation of Israel was a genuine result of authentic Judaism rather than morphing into an irresponsible political position.  

I tell this tale as a warning. Out of revisionist Christology can emerge not only a respect for Jews and Judaism, but a new form of hatred and distortion. That is why it is important to get beneath the Christian outreach in love towards Jews and wrestle with the underlying theology.

To be continued

With the help of Alex Zisman


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