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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Beyond tolerance

Living together in a diverse world

What do you think of when you hear the word “tolerance”? Perhaps your local school has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs or violence. Perhaps you know someone with a high tolerance for pain or a low tolerance for alcohol. Some people consider tolerance a virtue, a quality to be praised. Other people equate tolerance with anything-goes permissiveness. The word is much debated and opinions differ, as the quotes in the sidebar show.

How we feel about tolerance also depends on whether we’re on the giving or receiving end. Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi recognized rightly that the language of tolerance often implies a dynamic of superiority and inferiority: from my position of privilege, I get to decide whether to tolerate you — or not.

Being tolerated is better than being the victim of intolerance, but it falls far short of full acceptance and affirmation. If I have a different skin color or a different political affiliation or a different sexual orientation than you, I don’t want you merely to tolerate me. I want you to recognize and welcome me for who I am.

A complex history
Throughout history, there have been attempts to legislate tolerance, but the results are mixed.

The Edict of Toleration issued by the Roman emperor Galerius in 311 ended persecution against Christians. We might not be believers today had it not been for this edict. But subsequent imperial laws went further. Christianity was promoted and the practice of other religions was forbidden. Tolerance for Christians quickly became intolerance for others.

On our own shores, the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 prescribed fines or even imprisonment for using offensive language against members of other Christian groups. Doubtless this was intended to ensure that people of differing beliefs could live together peacefully, without the fear of being verbally abused by others. This legally enforced tolerance extended only to Christians, however. The punishment for denying the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus Christ was death. Is that toleration?

The historical record is also mixed among Lutherans. When Martin Luther defended his views before the imperial Diet at Worms in 1521, he said it is “neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” There was no tolerance for Luther, who was both excommunicated and outlawed. But as Lutheranism spread, Luther and his fellow reformers weren’t always tolerant of other viewpoints, even though they continued to assert the right to follow their own beliefs.

The Evangelical Church in Germany, a federation of Lutheran, Reformed and United churches in Germany, designated 2013 as the year of “Reformation and Tolerance.” This is part of its Luther Decade, 10 years of special emphases leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. The theme “Reformation and Tolerance” provides Lutherans today — in Germany and in the U.S. — the opportunity to wrestle with our complex history of religious tolerance and intolerance.

Our failures
Anabaptists and Jews were two groups that suffered greatly from Reformation-era intolerance. 

Anabaptists were Christians who rejected infant baptism. They thought baptism was something believing Christians needed to request for themselves once they had come to a mature faith.

The Anabaptist movement began in 1525, less than a decade after Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by posting his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Anabaptists considered their new understanding of believers’ baptism to be a natural outgrowth of the Protestant belief in justification by faith alone, but this view was rejected by other Christians.

One thing that 16th-century Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Swiss reformers could agree on, despite all their differences, was that the Anabaptists were wrong. Church leaders were quick to condemn Anabaptist teaching, but political leaders also took action. Because Anabaptists chose to separate themselves from society (like the Amish and [Old Order] Mennonites today), they were considered a threat to the social order as well as to traditional church teaching and practice. In some territories, the punishment for being an Anabaptist was death.

The Augsburg Confession, the statement of faith that the Lutheran reformers presented to the emperor in 1530, explicitly condemns the Anabaptists in five of its 28 articles. The Formula of Concord, a later Lutheran confessional writing, states that the Anabaptists “profess doctrines of a kind that cannot be tolerated either in the church, or in the body politic and secular administration, or in domestic society.”

This rejection of the Anabaptists was motivated partly by the Lutherans’ desire not to have their teachings confused with the Anabaptists by the authorities who threatened them both.

While some Lutheran leaders argued against imposing the death penalty on Anabaptists, they were hardly lenient. In Eisenach, home to the Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, a farmer named Fritz Erbe was imprisoned for 16 years because he refused to have his infant baptized. The freedom of conscience that Lutherans claimed for themselves didn’t extend to other Christians.

Luther’s attitude toward the Jews is another painful example of intolerance. Anti-Semitism was common in Europe long before the Reformation. The Town Church in Wittenberg where Luther frequently preached had an anti-Semitic sculpture carved into its exterior, dating back to 1305. The image, called a Judensau (Jewish sow), depicts Jews nursing from a sow alongside her piglets. It’s hard to imagine a more deliberately offensive image, given that Jewish law classifies pigs as unclean animals.

Early in his career, Luther had written positively about Jesus’ Jewish heritage. He believed that once Jewish people heard the gospel clearly, they would become Christian. When 20 years of evangelical preaching had not led to Jewish conversion, Luther’s writings became hostile. He described the Judensau on the local church approvingly.

In a book called On the Jews and their Lies (1543), Luther recommended destroying Jewish synagogues and homes, forbidding rabbis to preach (on pain of death) and even abolishing safe conduct for Jews traveling through Christian territory. While Jews had already been expelled from Saxony several years before Luther wrote, that doesn’t excuse the harshness of his words.

Adolph Hitler’s persecution of Jews in the early 20th century was based on race rather than religion, but the motive for persecution matters little to the people who are being persecuted. German Christians used Luther’s anti-Jewish religious writings to support the Nazi agenda of establishing a pure Aryan race.

In November 1938, a German Lutheran bishop celebrated the fact that Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass” characterized by violence against Jewish people and property) coincided with the anniversary of Luther’s birth.

Going far beyond Luther himself, some Protestant theologians in Hitler’s Germany argued that Jesus wasn’t Jewish but Aryan. In 1939 they established an Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life in Eisenach. The word “Hallelujah,” for example, was banned from Lutheran worship because it was of Hebrew origin.

Moving beyond failures
As Lutherans, we confess our need for forgiveness, not only as individuals but communally. In recent years we have not only learned from these failures in our history but have attempted to make amends for them.

In 1988, the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the congregation in Wittenberg asked if they should destroy the offensive Judensau carving on the side of the Town Church. In conversation with the Jewish community, they decided removing the image would make it too easy to forget the hatred and violence Christians had directed at Jews for centuries.


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