Seeking Lutheran Identity in the 21st Century

The High line park near my Church was busy as always on a bright Sunday morning. Many people enjoyed the late fall sun before the icy winter would send cold winds through the New York street canyons.

A small scholar in black and white stood in front of a huge graffiti while Henry Taylor´s art work „The floaters“ talked in bright colors about a relaxing day at a pool. The little Playmobil toy set a more earnest tone. Holding a scribes quill in one hand, „Little Luther“ held the Holy Bible in a tight grip as it was glistening in the morning sun. The black letters spoke in a self-confident and brief way of a serious matter that is woven through Martin Luther´s Theology: „The End of the Books of the Old Testament … The New Testament translated by Doctor Martin Luther„. (1)

When I first received the small toy from Germany, I didn’t grasp it´s significance and how deeply embedded into lives this difficult theology can be. Generations of Theologians like Martin Luther and many others saw Judaism coming to an end with Jesus as the Messiah. (2) This misconception of salvation raises difficult questions for a Christian-Jewish dialogue: How can we reconnect even though generations before us have set us so far apart on the basis of these theological misconceptions? How can we rediscover the common ground of the Thora after turning against our Jewish brothers and sisters? What first seemed as neat toy for young and old, is becoming a increasing issue for me as I grow deeper into the Jewish-Christian Dialogue in New York City.

As part of the so called Generation Y, I have been raised with a dominant and strong picture of a perfect reformer, who lead Christianity into freedom from oppression. Who wouldn’t know the different, almost folk like tales, when Martin Luther threw the ink against the wall to scare away the devil? Or when he nailed the 95 thesis to the Church door in Wittenberg?

While emphasizing the German hero Martin Luther, most of the difficult facts have been successfully kept from us during our childhood. And like peeling an onion, layer by layer, the negative sides of the foremost „brilliant“ reformer come to the surface. And this uncovering is causing a identity issue within Lutheranism:

Martin Luther´s strong anti-Judaism, which played a huge inspiring role in leading Nazi-Germany towards the crime of the Holocaust. His words might have been part of a larger societal crime, but neither his grief for the death of his daughter nor his senility can ever explain his false theological opinions. Or his political misconceptions, where Luther sacrificed the peasants to their oppressors in order to endure in the power struggles of Church, Lordship and the normal people.

Layer after layer the Lutheran Identity is challenged. We are now facing a long overdue and cleansing identity crisis within Lutheranism. The „great hero“ of the Reformation is demasked as failing and sinful person. His own words may be a consolation to us in the midst of transformation: we all are sinners and saints.

The 500rd celebration of the Reformation might be the perfect time to reflect and to uncover the „real“ Martin Luther learning from his theological brilliance AND his terrible theological failures. A great opportunity might be at hand to bring Luthers core discovery to its true significance: Transforming Lutheranism as a means of hope beyond failure, grace beyond sin.

(1) Playmobil has altered its 1st edition, deleting the „Ende“ due to the difficult theological implication of the writing.

(2) Paul in contrast states that the Jews are saved – see Rom 11.

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