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A growing number of Christian leaders have apologized for crimes against humanity. But one church has found actions lead to . . . : The Road to Unity

June 27, 1995|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — If you think it's easy to say you're sorry, ask the Lutherans.

Ever since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly apologized for founder Martin Luther's 16th-Century writing against the Jews, life has been uncomfortable. Since the formal statement, issued in April, 1994, loyal Lutherans have been humiliated. Recent converts to the church have felt betrayed. Some Jews have been slow to trust the apology, and some Lutherans have been angry and unsympathetic.

Emotions came tumbling out one evening last week when about 100 members of St. Mark's Lutheran Church and the nearby Temple Sherith Israel met for supper, a prayer service and study session on Luther's controversial text, "On the Jews and Their Lies."

For the most part, the 452-year-old document has gone silently overlooked by Lutherans. "If you include it, you give it an authorization; if you don't, it seems like a cover-up," said Timothy Lull, dean of this city's Lutheran Theological Seminary, explaining the dilemma the text has presented all these years.

Recently, a growing number of Christian leaders have faced a similar problem and apologized for crimes against humanity by their own denominations. Pope John Paul II regretted the Roman Catholic Church's failure to defend human rights in the face of totalitarian governments of the 20th Century. Pentecostal churches have rejected their all-white-managed Pentecostal Fellowship of North America and formed a new association with an interracial leadership. And Southern Baptists formulated a public apology for the pro-slavery position on which the church was founded 150 years ago.

Of course, once the policy statements are issued and the proclamations signed, it is up to individual parishes to create ways of putting the words into practice. St. Mark's has been a leader on the bumpy road to unity.

Lull led his study session in the main church, standing close to an audience tucked into velvet-cushioned pews. Images in the stained glass windows seemed to support the evening's efforts. The tablets of the law given to Moses in the Hebrew Bible (and the Old Testament) faced the paschal lamb, a symbol of Christ in the New Testament. Behind the altar a deep crack in the wall, left from the last earthquake, spoke of a church in need of making repairs.

That became more apparent when an angry young man stood up. "Unlike many in this congregation, I oppose any continuation of these evenings," he began in a thin, piercing voice. He charged that St. Mark's should do more to reach out to other ethnic groups. With harsh words he said he wanted gratitude from the evening's visitors to the church, not apologies from the evening's hosts.

"We do not live by your charity," a woman shouted across the aisle.

"Yes, you do," he insisted.

"The rest of us don't agree," someone else responded.

Several elderly women scurried toward the door.

It was a long, deflating moment. Yet it helped prove the point of the evening: "Maybe because communication is so immediate today, we're very much aware of what harm is caused by hatreds," said Dorothy Auerbach, a member of Temple Sherith Israel. "Old, tribal hatreds are still wreaking havoc in Rwanda, Bosnia, Israel, Ireland. In my view, whenever one human begins to know another, progress is made."

In his talk, Lull was sharply critical of the monk, theologian and lawyer who founded the Lutheran Church. He compared him to a brilliant but flawed family member who controlled his fits of temper until one day, he snapped.

*

The St. Mark's program has gone beyond simply saying "sorry." The harder work of doing something about it began more than two years ago.

In April, 1994, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--with 5.2 million members nationwide, it is the largest branch of the Lutheran Church--adopted a statement repudiating its founder's anti-Judaic diatribes. The formal statement acknowledged the tragic effects these texts had on later generations. It conceded that anti-Semites still quote Luther's vindictive words to teach hatred toward the Jewish people.

He gave them plenty of fodder: "History shows that one can but regard this nation as a race of veritable murderers of Prophets and adversaries of God's Holy Word," he wrote. Luther proposed that synagogues be burned, that rabbis be prevented from teaching and that resisters be expelled from the country.

"It's like seeing a great scholar go to pieces," said Lull of the text, written years after Luther's best work. "During the Third Reich, there was not a serious moment when the Nazis failed to publish this treatise. Here is the worst about us Lutherans. And it's not a small matter."

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