Part of me would simply like to respond with a time of silence.
But, I think, today calls for confession and understanding.
What can we say?
1.That the Lutheran tradition has within it a strain of submission to people in authority
2. a strain of anti-Judaism in it
Both of which make us complicit in the horror of the Holocaust.
3. Additionally, there was also a portion of the faith that resisted Nazism, but it wasn’t enough and didn’t go far enough.
Let us pray.
One aspect of the faith going all the way back to our beginnings is that common question “How do we relate to the state and the society in which we live?”
One tact is to take Jesus’ words “my kingdom is not of this world” to move all our concern in an otherworldly direction—to assume those things shaping day to day life here and now, are none of our business as Christians.
Similarly, and this is more the norm for us Lutherans, is to follow Paul’s advice to the Romans—those in authority are there because God is the God of History, and therefore we ought to be good citizens of our country and not question authority.
Lutheranism’s tendency to side with the powers that be, fits Luther’s life experience—when there were death threats by the Pope and other Catholic officials it was the secular princes who kept him from trial and death. The state kept him alive and the reformation afloat, and he rightly thanked God for that
—not knowing the kind of murderous totalitarianism that was to come.
Now, Anti-Judaism is perhaps the original sin of Christianity. It was birthed out of that strange back and forth that lead to the cleaving of Judaism and Christianity.
Rome called on Jews to denounce Christianity as a new cult—an innovation and therefore not exempt from Emperor worship,
and the Roman Empire called upon the early Christian movement to denounce Jews as rebels to be expelled from Rome and Jerusalem.
The debates and stories Jesus told within the Judaism of his time and Paul’s description of “The Law” sounded much different coming from Gentile lips. It switched from being an inter-Jewish discussion to an antagonism from the outside.
Eventually Marcion, a Roman Christian, declared a separation between the “Jewish God” and the God revealed in Christ—and while he was condemned as a heretic, that did little to repair the widening breach between the two faiths.
Supersessionalism—the idea that the Church replaced Israel and the New Testament replaced the 10 commandments—still haunts the Christian heart to this very day.
In Nazi Germany this original sin was in full blossom—with wrongheaded arguments that Jesus was not a Jew and with renewed Marcionism—calling for the de-Judaizing of scripture.
Similarly, the unfortunate words attributed to the crowd in Matthew’s telling of the passion, “His blood be on us and on our children,” has been used to justify all kinds of horrible things done to the Jews—Pogroms in Poland, the Inquisition in Spain
—the charge of “Christ-Killer” comes from these words.
In fact, so powerful a motivator were these words in past decades and centuries, that the panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations insisted, that “the New Testament … must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews", and that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people.”—that is why on Good Friday you hear me talk a lot about Judeans and Religious Officials when I read the Passion account instead of the traditional translation “the Jews.”
But, let’s get a little more particular—what of Luther?
At the age of 40 he wrote a tract against Dominican abuses of the Jewish populous entitled, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” in which he writes:
“Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks—the crude asses—have treated the Jews in such a way that anyone who is truly a good Christian ought to become a Jew. If I was a Jew and heard such dolts and blockheads teach the Christian faith I would as soon be a wild boar as be a Christian.”
If only he’d stopped there, but he did not. When he was 60, a few years before his death, he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies” a tract so vile that even his closest friend Melanchthon said it “reeked of the Inquisition.”
In it he maps out a “solution” for what he calls the “Jewish problem” in Germany—that Synagogues and Jewish houses ought to be burnt, Talmuds taken, Rabbis forbidden to speak, safe passage on highways removed, Jewish property confiscated, and Jews made to be serfs on German farms until they choose to self-deport.
If this sounds similar to the Nazi “final solution,” minus the gas chambers—there is a good reason for it—Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were picked up quite whole-cloth by the National Socialists.
There were however some Lutherans who heard the pseudo-Theological claims of the Nazis such as:
“The New Word of God is found in the History of the German People.”
“Jesus is not Savior but a Hero-Prophet for the Church just as Hitler is the Hero-Prophet of Germany.”
And “You may only believe in the resurrection if you believe in the resurrection of Germany.”
They heard these claims and took the entire Nazi program as an attack on the Church.
When most German Church-folk were asking the question, “Should the Nazi controlled Church be more Calvinist or Lutheran?” There was a movement called the Confessing Church, who believed the Nazis should not control the Church and responded with the Barman Declaration, which we will confess together in place of the Apostle’s Creed in today’s service.
One of those members of the Confessing Church, Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonheoffer, responded to the situation in Nazi Germany by entering into a conspiracy to kill Hitler and smuggle German Jews to Switzerland. In fact one of the last orders of the Nazi High Command before they lost the control of German was “Bonheoffer must die.” And indeed he was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9th 1945
I bring up these heroes not to absolve us, but to challenge us to hear God in the midst of societal noise and historical half-truths. Challenge us to hear the Gospel above the clangor of Culture, to hear always the cries of our common humanity.
So, “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
Christianity’s original sin Anti-Judaism, and Luther’s tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” are part of a train of thought that leads to Auschwitz.
The Lutheran hesitancy to challenge secular authorities ensured that resistance to, or even questioning of, “The Final Solution” was limited.
Finally, I thank God that there were some who tapped other veins of our tradition—Theology of the Cross and Scripture Alone—and in so doing resisted Nazism and the Holocaust.
We mourn the majority’s inaction and wrong actions,
we remember the martyrs who died doing what was right,
and we continue to pledge to the 20 million victims of the Nazi regime, especially the 6 million Jews, never again.