Synagogue, Lutheran church heal wounds of history

Words of redemption, forgiveness and friendship echoed throughout Resurrection Lutheran Church and Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland during a special rite of repentance, procession and service of reconciliation.

The April 14 event commemorated the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's 1994 declaration that publicly repudiated the anti-Semitic teachings of Martin Luther.

Church members acknowledged their "particular and contemporary sins of prejudice, violence, hatred and ill-will," and asked God for forgiveness and guidance.

The program, titled "Healing the Wounds of History," began with a confessional service at Resurrection Lutheran after the regular Sunday liturgy, led by the Rev. Lucy Kolin.

Nancy Nielsen, president of the Northern California Ecumenical Council, read a letter from Bishop Robert Mattheis of the Lutheran Church's Sierra Pacific synod.

"I am sorry for the ways in which I have spoken of the Jewish community," Mattheis wrote. The declaration "represents our desire to separate ourselves from all anti-Semitism, particularly the vitriolic words of Martin Luther."

After the service, Rabbi Mark Diamond of Temple Beth Abraham; Richard L. Jaeger, president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of American Jewish Congress; Nielsen and Kolin led a procession to the synagogue a few blocks away, where about 50 people participated in an interfaith service.

Nielsen presented Diamond and Jaeger with a plaque of the ELCA declaration.

"We thank you for your courage, your sensitivity, and your special friendship that means so much to our congregation and our community," said Diamond.

Jaeger of AJCongress, which co-sponsored the event, also commended the ELCA and Kolin for taking a stand against anti-Semitism.

"The Evangelical Lutheran Church has blazed a path of true reconciliation," he said. "They reached into their history and courageously tore out a page."

Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, wrote several tracts including the 1543 essay "About the Jews and Their Lies," condemning Jews for not converting to Christianity. Luther also advocated burning synagogues, confiscating books and forbidding Jews to teach.

On April 18, 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a declaration that rejected the anti-Jewish teachings of Luther. The ELCA claims approximately 5.2 million of the 8 million Lutherans in this country as members.

The declaration states: "We recognize in anti-Semitism a contradiction and an affront to the Gospel, a violation of our hope and calling, and we pledge this church to oppose the deadly working of such bigotry, both within our own circles and in the society around us."

It also recognizes the contribution of Luther's words to the "catastrophes, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century, suffered by Jews" and denounces "the appropriation of Luther's words by modern anti-Semitism for the teaching of hatred toward Judaism or toward the Jewish people in our day."

Kolin said many of her congregants were surprised to learn that Luther had viewed Jews so unfavorably, especially in his later years.

"When we heard that our churchwide denomination had made the declaration and told the truth about what our leader had said, for many it was a revelation," she said.

Larry Hoenig, a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church and an usher at the service, said he wasn't familiar with Luther's anti-Jewish sentiments before the declaration and suspected that the church had been suppressing them out of embarrassment.

"I think it's a good idea to formally take a position and retract Luther's anti-Semitism," said Hoenig.

As part of the declaration, ELCA churches have embarked on a journey of re-education, which pleases Kolin.

"We have a long way to go, but it's beginning to take hold," she said.

The service at Temple Beth Abraham closed with a Benediction read by Diamond, Kolin and the Rev. John Eastwood of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland. Cantor Linda Hirschhorn of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro led participants in a song of reconciliation.

Pat Klassy, a member of Temple Beth Abraham, said the service was a necessary reminder that we are all part of the same world.

"There is so much experience of hatred that people have to keep in mind that we are all neighbors," said Klassy.

The synagogue and church, which enjoy an ongoing partnership, have worked together on a number of occasions. Over the past five years, members of both congregations have planned and participated in several joint projects, including annual pulpit exchanges, adult education classes and Oakland's Adams Point community fair.

They also co-sponsor monthly friendship dinners for local residents living with HIV and AIDS.