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Lutherans to apologize to Jews

Published Oct. 16, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

(ran LT, CT, NT)

Martin Luther's words began a revolution 500 years ago that Protestants today are thankful for. But his words have also been used over the centuries to justify the killing and persecution of millions of Jews.

American Lutherans have decided it's time to apologize for those words of bigotry.

In a 90-page tract written in 1543 entitled "On the Jews and their Lies," Luther calls Jews "bloodthirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom. . . We are at fault in not slaying them." That passage is among the milder language Luther used.

Nazis used his words extensively during the 1930s to justify their actions against the Jews. Many German Lutheran pastors were Nazi sympathizers.

Some leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) say Luther's words are still being used by hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation. There were almost 2,000 reported incidents of anti-Semitism in 1991.

At the ELCA's recent assembly in Kansas City, delegates voted overwhelmingly to work up a strong statement that repudiates Luther's words and apologizes to the Jews. At first, delegates considered putting the action off for two years, but when church leaders began reading some of Luther's words to the assembly, the mood changed and more than 95 percent of the delegates voted for it.

Some ELCA leaders have been concerned that earlier Lutheran statements decrying Luther's anti-Semitism weren't strong enough and that the church should say clearly that the words are wrong and destructive.

"We've got to put the reality out there," said Bishop Mark Herbener of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod of the ELCA. "German Lutherans supported Hitler. Even Lutherans in this country did."

"Over the years I've seen different Lutherans try to explain (Luther's words) away," said Mort Ryweck, retired director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Anti-Defamation League of Minnesota and the Dakotas. "They try to minimize it in that regard. From a practical viewpoint, it still can have a deleterious effect on Jews and on Lutheran-Jewish relations."

The Rev. William Rush, director of ecumenical affairs for the ELCA, said, "It is true to a degree, that Lutherans here have a special burden. Jews articulate it to us in one form or another. It's legitimate when they say to us, "You have a problem.' There is the historical record."

"It's been a dirty little secret, and we've kept it from ourselves and our children long enough," said the Rev. John Stendahl, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Amherst, Mass. "But our Jewish neighbors very often do know about it, and our own children will learn of it in their history classes.

"Visitors to the new Holocaust museum (in Washington, D.C.) will learn that his words were extensively used by the Nazis in justifying their actions."

Delegates in Kansas City particularly wanted to strengthen a statement on Luther by the Lutheran World Federation in 1984. Some saw it more as a rationalization than an apology.

"We need to come out and disavow (Luther's statements) as strongly as we can," said Bishop Robert Isaksen of the ELCA's New England Synod. "There's too much potential for anti-Semitism, for racism, for reasons for people to turn on other people."

"In a church that believes in saints and sinners, I'm not troubled by pointing out that Luther had a bad side," he said. "Luther's not our savior."