Sacrament of Otherness

by the Rt Rev’d Dr Michael Ipgrave OBE, Bishop of Lichfield
co-chair of MTAG




For most British Christians, the figure of Martin Luther is a somewhat distant one, his religious legacy relatively unknown. The English Reformation followed its own course, and theologically was more influenced by Calvin’s Geneva than by Luther’s Wittenberg, and the Lutheran churches in this country have historically been quite small. It was therefore with an enthusiasm to learn more that this summer I set out to lead a group of pilgrims, most of us Anglicans but also including three English Lutherans, on a ten-day journey this summer through Southern and Eastern Germany ‘In the footsteps of Martin Luther’. We were marking the 500th anniversary of his initiating the Reformation through posting 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg. As we visited sites associated with the great Reformer’s extraordinary life and ministry, in churches, castles, palaces and houses in many great cities, we were made aware of the continuing importance through five centuries of German history of his courageous witness – including the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ of 1989, when demonstrators on the streets of Leipzig made their own Luther’s defiant words at the Diet of Worms: ‘Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders: Here I stand; I can do no other’.

hier stehe ich
Photo by ptwo on Flickr

But it was also in Worms that we first encountered the deep historical traces of another German religious tradition, one which has repeatedly intersected with Lutheran Christianity in a variety of ways, some of them shockingly painful. On the edge of the historic city of Worms lies the Heiliger Sand, the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. Its historic graves, particularly that of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, make it a place of pilgrimage for Jewish people from across the world. Our encounters with the memories of Judaism continued across Germany: in Erfurt, a mikveh, a ritual bath, covered by a concrete platform beside the river; in Regensburg, the traces of a historic synagogue marked out in the market place, with plans to build a new one; everywhere in the streets of towns and cities, inserted into the pavements stolpersteine, raised brass plates carrying the names and life dates of victims of the Nazi extermination .

Photo: storebukkebruse on Flickr
Gravestones of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (left) and Alexander ben Salomo, Wimpfen 

While the Reformation 500 anniversary offers much to celebrate in the renewal of Christian life, it also reminds us of much to lament in the division of Western Christianity. However, the first and deepest split within the People of God was not the Reformation, nor even the division of Eastern and Western churches; it was the first-century parting of the ways between synagogue and church. Moreover, no account of the church’s story can be complete without reference to the Jewish presence throughout European – including German – history. So often that has been a presence to which Christians have reacted in a profoundly un-Christian way. Centuries before Luther, the Rhineland communities experienced terrifying violence and dislocation around the time of the Crusades; their powerful poetic laments form part of the liturgy in Ashkenazi synagogues. In the late Middle Ages, a theologically inspired teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism found expression in the disgusting image of the Judensau, showing Jews being suckled by a sow. Our group saw a Judensau sculpture outside the town church in Wittenberg itself, to which Luther refers in one of his writings. In his early works, he had in fact been remarkably friendly towards the Jews of his time, but later he turned against them with violent diatribes and calls for their destruction. There can be no doubt that this injected a further stream of toxicity into Christian thinking about Jewish people, creating the atmosphere within which nineteenth- and twentieth-century antisemitism could grow, with disastrous consequences.

Photo: dierk schaefer on Flickr

Following the Shoah, Lutheran and other German Christians, and wider society, have painfully and honestly sought to face up to this shameful history, and to reappraise their theology in light of that. Beneath the historic Judensau image in Wittenberg, a new monument has been added, a broken paving stone thrusting up from the earth as a protest, with text recalling the murder of six million Jews under the sign of the cross. We saw and heard too something of the growth of Jewish communities in contemporary Germany, particularly strengthened by the arrival of people from the former Soviet Union. German Christians of today are well aware of the shadow side of their history, and of the need to build a new relationship with Jewish people.

bodensplatte (2)
Bodenplatte Stadtkirche Wittenberg

But this is not just a Lutheran or a German issue. Over the centuries, Christians in the West have lived with Jewish people among them, the most significant other in our midst; and our record of building bridges of friendship, trust and partnership with them has been at best scanty, at worst non-existent. Yet we cannot hope to understand who we really are as Christians without acknowledging our relationship to the people of Israel, the first to be called by God, and still bearing witness to his Name in a plural and secular world. At root, this is a spiritual challenge at the heart of our faith: as Cardinal Kasper has memorably remarked, we need to become ‘aware that the faith of Israel is that of our elder brothers. And, most importantly, that Judaism is a sacrament of every otherness that as such the Church must learn to discern, recognise and celebrate’.

text: bishop michael

picture illustrations: anne richards



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