Lutheran Churches worldwide are getting ready to honor the 500th anniversary of their founder Martin Luther. Martin Luther's well-known anti-Semitic diatribes and biblical commentaries have been worked through and are in disrepute with many Lutheran Christians. A generation ago, in 1994, the Lutheran leadership in the US, "in concert with the Lutheran World Federation" (LWF) condemned Luther's anti-Semitism and expressed its desire to "love and respect" the Jewish people:
"In concert with the Lutheran World Federation, we particularly deplore the appropriation of Luther's words by modern anti-Semites for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day. Grieving the complicity of our own tradition within this history of hatred, moreover, we express our urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people."
At that time the LWF was under the leadership of President Gottfried Brakemeier, a Brazilian of German origin, and a Professor of theology. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was headed by the Presiding Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom. Both clergy are still well-respected men of faith who have set the Lutheran Church on a recognizable Christian track. Now, that effort seems to be lost under the influence of two present Lutheran leaders, LWF President Munib Younan and ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton.
Lutheran anti-Semitic hatred of old against the Jewish people is back to life. This became clear, again, at the triennial assembly of the ELCA in New Orleans, August 8-13, under the title "Freed and Renewed in Christ: 500 Years of God's Grace in Action." Celebrating such an acclaimed kind of freedom and renewal, the assembly approved of the destruction of Israel in the Memorial on "peace with justice in the Holy Land." There were two resolutions, one to end all US aid to Israel and one to divest from Israel. Both resolutions, de facto, intend the destruction of the State of Israel. The anti-Israel character of the resolutions fits the old-style Lutheran anti-Semitic diatribes.
The resolutions were spearheaded by a group within the ELCA called "Isaiah 58." It is a self-described "group of Lutherans working for peace and justice in the Holy Land." The head of the group is named as Jan Miller, a Rocky Mountain Synod member. Information about Jan Miller leads to the initiative "Peace and Walls" where he is listed under the "Rocky Mountain Synod Peace and Walls Working Group" and as a "trip planner" for June 2016 to the Holy Land.
The website informs:
"Peace and Walls connects ELCA members to our Palestinian Lutheran companions—promoting dignity, full respect for human rights, healing and reconciliation. With our companions in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), we also accompany Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims working together for peace with justice."
There are two sources recommended for a successful trip. One is the book by Bethlehem Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb, Faith in the Face of Empire (2014), which recommends Islamic sharia law as the remedy against Israeli occupation. The other is the 2009 Kairos Palestine Document of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which aims for the elimination of the State of Israel. One of its signatories is the Head of the Lutheran World Federation, who is also the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL). It is precisely that connection between the ELCA Synod and ELCJHL plus LWF that Miller wished to consolidate with a trip in June 2016. This was the mental boost given to successfully lobbying those two anti-Semitic ELCA resolutions.
If the connection of the ELCA's Isaiah 58 with Bishop Munib Younan's ELCJHL and LWF is not enough, the cooperation with the World Council of Churches is at hand. The Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum (PIEF), cooperating with the ELCA has the theme of "peace and walls" as its center, just like Miller's "Peace and Walls Synod Working Group," and calls for a "World Week of Peace" in September 2016 under the motto "God has broken down the dividing walls." It will be "a week of advocacy and action in support of an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine and a just peace for all in Palestine and Israel."
At the ELCA assembly, Isaiah 58 received further support from well-known anti-Israel allies such as Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (USA), American Friends Service Committee, Friends of Sabeel – North America, New Orleans Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
The strategy was simple: Isaiah 58 (Miller) and the network of the current head of the LWF (Younan) teamed up for the preparations of the anti-Israel resolutions. The organized lobbying work in New Orleans produced the desired results. To make sure that no mishap occurred, the ELCJHL Pastor Khader Khalila from Bethlehem addressed the ELCA assembly on the alleged Israeli occupation of Bethlehem (which of course has been controlled by the Palestinian Authority since 1993). It worked like clockwork. There was no recognizable group of Lutheran Christians that was able to defend its own turf against such anti-Semitic usurpers.
The one resolution, to stop US aid to Israel, passed with a compelling majority of 751-162 votes. It urged Lutherans to
"call on their U.S. Representatives, Senators and the Administration to take action requiring that to continue receiving U.S. financial and military aid, Israel must comply with internationally recognized human rights standards as specified in existing U.S. law, stop settlement building and the expansion of existing settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, end its occupation of Palestinian territory, and enable an independent Palestinian state."
In other words, it calls on the U.S. government to end all aid to Israel if it does not stop building settlements and "enable an independent Palestinian state." The resolution is determined to harm the State of Israel.
The other resolution picked up the divestment issue and passed with an even bigger majority of 821-92. It called for the church to "increase positive investment in Palestine" and adopted a human rights-based investment screen for its social responsibility funds to ensure the church is not profiting from human rights abuses, and mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by name.
The two resolutions do not face reality. Each one presents a hopeful fantasy that is immediately contradicted by facts, such as, the on-going successful negotiations between Jerusalem and Washington for a long-term aid program. These concessions continue as if that Church clique of some 4 million US citizens does not exist. Like a small-town lobby group, the ELCA sought a halt to all investment in companies that profit from Israel's "occupation" and called on the president of the United States to recognize the State of Palestine. But nothing happens. Who listens? Who is interested? Who profits from such an old-style anti-Semitic diatribe that once had been shelved by a former enlightened leadership?
An answer points in the direction of the present Palestinian leader of the LWF and his machinations. He and his constituency in Jerusalem are known for being close cooperators with Palestinian aspirants, including the ELCA. Unlike some of his predecessors, the present LWF bishop is known for not upholding the renunciation of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in Geneva. He is also known for cherishing the widely dismissed anti-Semitic Palestinian Liberation Theology, including the Kairos Palestine Document. The introduction of the Prayer against the Occupation (i.e. Israel) on each 24th day of the month also appeared under the leadership of that same bishop. The ELCA is one of the most faithful followers of that anti-Semitic urge to pray against Israel on every 24th day of any given month, including in December!
So who is interested in the anti-Semitic Lutheran resolution? The conclusion is that all those are cheerful about this resolution who like to see Israel disappear, be it with a one- or two-state solution; all those who distribute millions of dollars to Hamas in Gaza to enable the destruction of Israel while the intended recipients -- namely the children in Gaza -- remain deprived; all those who turn a blind eye to the education of Palestinian children in summer camps and schools where they are taught to murder Jews and to destroy the allegedly non-existent State of Israel; all those who fail to put the record straight about the just and right support that many Israelis give to Palestinians. Those are the ones who are listening to the ELCA resolutions.
Even if the democratically elected political structures do not pay much attention to fringe groups such as the ELCA assembly, such resolutions might gain momentum. Anti-Israel NGOs might be invigorated and the undecided might get encouraged to jump on the bandwagon. Once before, Lutherans were influential in tilting the scale against the Jews, as the ELCA declaration of 1994 said with remorse:
"Lutherans belonging to the Lutheran World Federation and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America feel a special burden in this regard because of certain elements in the legacy of the reformer Martin Luther and the catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews in places where the Lutheran churches were strongly represented."
While politicians might be able to afford to ignore old-fashioned and outdated resolutions on Israel and continue with their business as usual, the good leadership of the Lutheran Churches worldwide should not. There are the examples of inspiring Lutheran leaders such as Bishop Brakemeier and Bishop Chilstrom. Do they still have followers in the Lutheran church? Is there outrage from Lutheran Church leaders in Europe and Lutheran lay people about the anti-Semitism presented by the Isaiah 58 group and its (many synod) followers? Is there anybody who will take to task the ELCA leaders who, in order to broaden anti-Israel manipulation, called on the US government not to prevent the application of the State of Palestine for full membership in the UN and, in coordination with the UN Security Council,
"to offer a new, comprehensive and time-bound agreement to the governments of Israel and Palestine, resulting in a negotiated final status agreement between Israel and Palestine leading to two viable and secure states with a shared Jerusalem."
All this is known Arab Muslim parlance on the floors of the UN. But now, it is not meek and just to demand a return to proper Church language, to the good use of the church as a place of divine worship and of "action of God's grace" which, by the way, in Christian thought includes Israel?
Such would be a way to put Luther's old anti-Semitism to sleep again.
Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt is Director of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity, Jerusalem.