The blog of a lutheran pastor, writer, and political animal.
Sunday, August 02, 2015
Sermon: “What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
second to last Sunday in our summer sermon series “8 questions from the pews”
is a heavy one. The question is this: “What can Lutherans say about our
complicity in the Holocaust?”
of me would simply like to respond with a time of silence.
I think, today calls for confession and understanding.
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.
there was also a portion of the faith that resisted Nazism, but it wasn’t
enough and didn’t go far enough.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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
Rome called on Jews to denounce
Christianity as a new cult—an innovation and therefore not exempt from Emperor
and the Roman Empire called upon the
early Christian movement to denounce Jews as rebels to be expelled from Rome
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.
idea that the Church replaced Israel and the New Testament replaced the 10
commandments—still haunts the Christian heart to this very day.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“What can Lutherans say about our complicity in the Holocaust?”
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.
Lutheran hesitancy to challenge secular authorities ensured that resistance to,
or even questioning of, “The Final Solution” was limited.
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
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.
Today’s, on this, our 6th sermon in the Summer Sermon Series “8
Questions from the Pews,” I’ll be tackling a topic that you might say is one of
my hobby horses, maybe even a fixation: the
connection between religion and violence.
It was on this subject, nearly 4 years ago, on the 10th anniversary
of the attacks of 9/11, that I preached my first sermon as St. Stephen’s
pastor. Since then, at Pub Theology and in other sermons, I’ve covered similar
In fact, judging by today’s question, I
may have, in these last 4 years, made my case too forcefully—that I’ve made a
solid link between religion and violence in you all’s mind.
The question is this:
“Religion is a source of hope and salvation for many, yet it has been the basis
or cause of so many wars over time, why? And how do the positives negate all
the negatives of war and radicals?”
answer this questions we’ll look at our text from Joshua in order to think
about how violence can be connected to religion both in scripture and in
history—then we’ll consider why this connection get’s made, and then finally
I’ll suggest a few ways these negatives can be upended or at least balanced.
It would be foolish to ignore the
connection between religion and violence found in scripture.
Consider the fanatical acts described
in the book of Joshua, utterly
destroying towns and people in the name of Moses and the name of God. Truly
this is disturbing stuff found in our scriptures.
And it’s not the only place in
scripture where we find dark acts dedicated to God.
We find rules about
slavery and the oppression of women,
Calls to kill
Babylonian and Assyrian Children,
Guidelines for war
that are more concerned with trees than people,
And maybe there is a larger point that
must to be made about these things:
Often scripture is
being descriptive instead of prescriptive
—it’s showing and
telling, not ordering
—describing a lived
reality, not making a program for life now.
It’s faithful people
at a particular time and place saying “wow, in the midst of it all God is here”
so that we too might trust even in the most violent and strange of times, that
God is here.
For that matter, it would be foolish to
ignore the connection between religion and violence found in history.
Take for example a common interpretation
and use of the book of Joshua from
the 15th-17th century. When the Conquistadores, who
took South America, read this biblical book—they did so in a prescriptive instead of descriptive way—they read themselves
into the book
They justified their
slaughter of natives and taking of land as a parallel to the taking of Canaan
in the books of Joshua and Judges.
In fact, frequently colonization and
invasion has been justified by faith—it is often said colonizers
bring guns and germs,
and leave with gold.
And there is that icky question
left—once you get into it, why?
Why is religion linked to violence? Why
does invasion and war often have a religious tint? Why is religion woven into
matter of statecraft and splattered all over the history of war?
It could be that religion is innately
or that it encourages
countries to colonize, or something like that,
but I think not,
instead, religion speaks to our deepest selves and about those things
which are most important to us both individually and collectively. Everything
else is of secondary importance—imagine
what kind of motivator our faith is!
For example, an American drone kills
your kid on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border—you want revenge… how much more of
a motivation is it if you’re told not only will you get revenge for your kid,
but also God wants you to get that revenge!
What I’m saying is religion is often a
justification for war and other acts of violence, not the actual cause.
Take, for example, the most “religious”
of wars, the Crusades. The initial Religiousjustification—when Pope Urban the 2nd
declared “Deus Vult” “God wills it” it
was a call to defend Christians traveling to Jerusalem, and throughout the
Middle East, from attacks by Muslims. Yet, somewhere along the line it became
more profitable to pillage fellow Christians in Constantinople and throughout
Asia Minor, so the religiousjustification for such actions shifted
to fighting incorrect understandings of the trinity.
Two different acts of violence, both
conveniently justified with a religious pretext.
So, what do we do with all that—how do
we, to put it crassly, “come out ahead?”
How can we be sure religion is “worth
Well, firstly, it’s important that we
continue to wrestle with the ways in which our faith has fallen short—more than
that, we ought to repent of it.
I think of former Presiding Bishop Mark
Hansen’s moving words about representing the ELCA as part of the Lutheran World
Federation in Stuttgart Germany, where they confessed to and repented of our
historical persecution of the Mennonite tradition—there our Mennonite sisters
and brothers accepted our repentance and declared us forgiven.
And that right there—receiving forgiveness—for me that would
be enough, that would upend all the negatives of being a religious people—that
would, to quote the questioner be the positive that “negates all the
That this is a space where we can be
honest about our faults and find forgiveness
—find a grace we don’t
—that alone is of
infinite worth. As Paul writes all else is rubbish.
wait, there’s more!
While it can be deeply misused,
religion is the language of our deepest values. It frames our existence,
cultivates holy habits, and tells stories that give life meaning.
Also it gives us comfort like nothing
else will—just think back to the last time you heard the 23rd Psalm,
all that is packed into that, how those words travel with you through the very
shadow of death.
Christ’s words we read today “No more
of this” ring so true, in the face of violence both scriptural and historical, “No more of this.”
Faith is for healing the hurt, not
hurting the healed. Yes, of course faith can be misused, but so can so many
—If a child hits
another child with a book, do we burn all books, or teach them to read?
The abuse of Religion, bad religion, can be best balanced by
And that’s part of our calling—to put
away swords and bring healing.
To do what Christianity has always been
called to do, to recognize the good in those things that are warped into evil,
and redeem them! Bad religion is not to be banished, but transformed.
To conclude, my answer to the question
The violence we find
in scripture describes God’s relationship to a brutally violent world.
The violence we find
in history often uses faith as a motivator.
We ought to confess to
this and make amends.
In so doing we find
the core of faith—forgiveness.
Faith expresses the
ultimate, it comforts as few other things can, and Christ calls us to be
religious in such a way that we can redeem religion.
Sermon: Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will
Foreknowledge, predestination, and
is the 4th sermon in the sermon series, “8 Questions from the pews,”
we will tackle the question, “Matthew 13:10-15—Is this an example of
pre-destination? It seems rather harsh and final, that whatever little they do
have will be taken away.”
My short answer is, “No. Matthew 13:10-15 is
not about pre-destination. It’s about why Jesus speaks in parables.”
that wouldn’t be a very satisfying answer.
all, there are larger questions lurking behind this question—questions about
pre-destination and the harshness and finality of some of our sacred scripture.
think about these questions we’ll touch on the section of Matthew’s Gospel we
read today, but more concretely we’ll consider Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
we’ll be looking at pre-destination and
the harshness of scripture.
we consider pre-destination we tend to balk and then climb into one of two
camps—the puppet camp or the free will camp.
the first, we consider Pharaoh, and take the author of Exodus at his most literal. That the hardening of
Pharaoh’s heart, was a puppet show. God takes Pharaoh’s heart, his will, and
forces it in a certain direction.
heard the phrase, “Jesus take the wheel,” this would be a little different, “Oh
my, God has hijacked the vehicle!”
LORD walks Pharaoh through a thought process and across a stage like a
marionettist would his puppet.
we go too far down this road we start to call everything fate. We become
nothing more than debris on an ocean current. We lose a sense of agency and
becomes a character of Greek myth—the Fates. Three old Crones creating the
lives of mortals on a mystical loom. As the thread thickens, so does our heart,
when the thread snaps, our life is done.
least, in this view of things, there is someone else to blame.
the second camp, the free will folk, we turn into a young child, stamping our
feet and always saying, “I can do it my
take the tact of the Philistines in the book of Samuel, and interpret Pharaoh’s
hard heartedness as something he has chosen.
We believe we have that power of choice.
respond to John Donne’s famous line, “no man is an island,” with “Na-ah, I’m an island!”
ignore any outside influence upon our lives. How our society shapes us, how our
family forms us. We ignore that our self only exists in relationship with other
we ignore that we are “part of the main,” because this radical individuality gives us a sense of power,
and control in a fickle world.
as Lutherans, we affirm that our will is bound, “we are bound to sin and can
not free ourselves.”
profess that we’ve sold out.
say this often, but what does this mean? What does this look like?
saying that of course Pharaoh didn’t
not because he was a puppet pulled around by
the LORD, but because he was a human
confronted by a power greater than himself, something that threatened his
narcissistic sense of control,
dived into himself.
defended his non-existent free will, shaped by forces he neither understood nor
LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart simply by being the Law for Pharaoh there
—by giving limits to a man who
considered himself god,
by pointing out to him “you are
mortal, I am God,”
Pharaoh’s heart grew recalcitrant,
because, outside of the Gospel message,
this is almost inevitably the human response to being shown where we stack up
in the universe
—seeing the world as it is, without
also seeing God as God is, inevitably leads to a hardened heart.
for the question about harshness and finality, we can think of it this way: is
this judgment on Pharaoh too harsh or too final? It is not.
heart is hard, as are our own. We
just aren’t often reminded of this fact.
is it hard to say, as it says in Matthew:
“if you don’t meditate on the
parables of Jesus, the message will be lost on you/
but if you listen to his message it
No, it is not too hard… because this
is how Parables work, if you work on them, they work on you.
I say every chance I get, you chew on Parables until Parables chew on you. You
read them until they start to read you.
yet it’s simply something like a law of the universe… a spiritual law sort of
like physical laws… it is harsh only…
if gravity is harsh.
if Chemistry is harsh.
if cause and effect is harsh.
these things are harsh, and yes these things are final—immutable things.
I thank God every day that Jesus’ love steps beyond the harsh cause/effect relationship of our world.
thank God that the way the world works, the way our hard hearts respond to an
honest assessment of our place in the universe,
the way our unlistening ears ignore
the best and deepest truths…
that the final word is not by these
—the final word is His.
it is not harsh, but instead a word of comfort,
a word that plucks us out of our alternating throws of fatalism and false
takes our hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh.
takes our ears and unstops them so that we might here the final word—the gentle
comfort of the Word Made Flesh.
you God, that in your greatness you free us from our bondage.
you God, that in your greatness you unite us to yourself and to one another as
sister and brother.
with this freedom and this fellowship, My heart… my soul…can not help but sing
How Great thou art.