Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, October 23rd
This testimony was offered in worship by Yali Amit as part of a four-week series: (Re)Formation, Worship at the start of #Reformation500. This Sunday focused on how we are Formed by Failure.
The invitation to testimony today asked the question, “When has Lutheranism failed you?”
I met Sara on the online dating site OkCupid almost four years ago to the day. On our first phone conversation, I learned she was a practicing Christian and even more specifically a Lutheran. Having lived in the United States for more than half my life, I surely knew plenty of church-going Christians, but it was not something they shared with me – it was not part of my experience. Sara brought up her faith as it was related to her work in non-profits and commitment to social justice issues.
I was born in Israel and spent most of my childhood there. I was raised in an entirely secular family, I didn’t even do a Bar Mizvah. On the other hand, my father was a dedicated peace and social justice activist and I followed in his steps. So although we weren’t practicing an organized religion – Judaism – I always viewed us activists as ‘religious’ people, people of faith. We were very dedicated to moral and ethical principles; we were a small minority advocating equality and solidarity between Jews and Arabs in a mainly Jewish nationalistic society. Our meetings, rallies, and demonstrations were our form of ritual.
I moved to the US with my ex-wife and son in 1988 and rather consistently stayed away from organized Jewish institutions due to their blind support of Israeli policies. In the mid 90’s, my son turned 12 and decided he wanted to have a Bar Mizvah – his cousin had told him that if he didn’t his sins would fall on me – little did he know that I hadn’t had one either. We joined a Reform Jewish Congregation and started going to Synagogue regularly. This congregation had a long history of involvement in social justice movements, in particular, the civil rights movement, and openness to a critique of Israeli policies. I felt at home there until Rabbis changed and it became a more mainstream congregation. And so, although I had never met a practicing Lutheran before, somehow Sara’s religious choices did not seem that foreign to me.
Before long I was accompanying Sara to Sunday services at Resurrection Lutheran, mainly because I had fallen in love and wanted to spend as much time with her, but I also really enjoyed hearing the thought provoking sermons of Pastor Brian Hiortdahl. I met Sara’s wonderful parents, her father is also a retired Lutheran pastor, and found we had many values in common. I was invited to a lunch to be assessed/approved by a certain Lutheran Pastor called Erik Christensen who was an old friend of Sara’s. So here I was encountering practicing Lutherans left and right. By the time we decided to get married it was clear we’d ask Erik to officiate, and we joined St. Luke’s shortly after. Here I had met even more Lutherans, people with a deep commitment to activism on social justice issues, people of all ages, and from all walks of life. It just kept getting better…
And then Pastoral Intern Erin asked me to do this testimony as part of the 500-year commemoration of Luther’s 95 theses. I knew very little about Luther apart from him being the name associated with the birth of Protestantism. So I figured I better educate myself and started reading about him online. I had an inkling he was anti-Semitic – but the extent of his hatred shocked me:
“Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.” Still, this wasn’t enough.
Apparently this was a later development; in his earlier years, he advocated tolerance in the hope of being able to convert them. But as he realized that wouldn’t work he gradually came to hold these hateful positions. In the words of Dr. Eric W. Gritsch,
Luther was not a racist; this was a theological position, coming from a “frustrated biblical scholar who fell victim to what his friend Philipp Melanchthon called the ‘rabies of theologians:’ drawing conclusions based on speculations about the hidden will of God. Luther erred because he presumed to know God’s will.”
Socially Luther was also quite conservative. His repudiation of the establishment of the Catholic Church coincided with a broader movement of rebellion and social unrest in Germany. The so-called Peasant Rebellion was apparently the first popular uprising on the continent before the French Revolution and was supported by some radical theologians. Luther supported the violent suppression of this revolt:
“Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel … For baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul; and the gospel does not make goods common, except in the case of those who, of their own free will, do what the apostles and disciples did in Acts 4 [:32–37]. They did not demand, as do our insane peasants in their raging, that the goods of others—of Pilate and Herod—should be common, but only their own goods. Our peasants, however, want to make the goods of other men common and keep their own for themselves. Fine Christians they are! I think there is not a devil left in hell; they have all gone into the peasants. Their raving has gone beyond all measure.”
I appreciate Luther’s struggle against corruption in the Catholic church. But as a prophet or as a source of inspiration he fails me. To me Luther’s theology is confusing; it seems to diminish humanity to a passive role of simply having faith. I prefer to listen to the words of Moses, the prophets, Jesus, Marx, Gandhi, Mandela and his namesake – MLK, and feel that they guide me in terms of their social ethics. I strongly believe that these ethics represent a divine message that stands above the different religions and denominations and that can unite people in action towards a more just world.