Monthly Archives: January 2016

Hidden Inheritance: A Lutheran Pastor’s Discovery of Her Jewish Roots

51f-80kdFpL._AA160_I just finished reading Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark’s book, Hidden Inheritance: Family Secrets, Memory, and Faith. And I was deeply affected by on it several different levels. Her story begins when, out of the blue, she learns that her grandparents had been Jewish. Not only that, they’d been sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp by the Nazis, where her grandfather died. The revelation was even more confounding because her father had been (she thought) a life-long Lutheran: baptized, confirmed, and very active in his congregation. Pr. Neumark, raised in this setting, went on to seminary and has served as a Lutheran pastor for 30 years. 

The book is powerful, just on the merits of a heart-wrenching story of the Shoah (her preferred designation) and its aftermath. It also stirred things up for me personally, a Lutheran pastor with a name that had been changed generations ago from the “Jewish” spelling. I’ve never been able to get any good answers about this, just speculations, and any relatives who might have known more are now gone. Could there be a Jewish great-grandmother or great-grandfather on my family tree? Quite possibly. As difficult a journey that Neumark had to undertake, I envy her a bit in the discoveries and self-discoveries she experienced.

The third level of interest is the intrafaith questions Neumark raises. Her first chapter is entitled “Crossing Over,” and I smile because I learned my intrafaith methodology from John S. Dunne’s The Way of All the Earth:
What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.

Neumark certainly has had a crossing/ passing over and coming back experience, but I would call it a far deeper experience than a spiritual adventure. More like a spiritual earthquake.

Take the sacrament of Holy Communion. While visiting ancestral villages in Germany, she learned that in 1510, Neumark Jews were expelled under the charge of desecrating the host. She laments,”How is it possible that I, descendant of these Jewish outcasts, stand at the altar every Sunday, saying prayers of blessing over bread and wine and repeating the words, “The body of Christ given for you” “The blood of Christ shed for you” as I place the host in the hands of my congregants? I’ve done it for 30 years now without thinking of those slaughtered Jews, my namesake Jews, who died over a perversion of this very sacrament. Now, I cannot do it without their painful presence beside me.”

And on the sacrament of Baptism. “As a pastor who has perfumed hundreds baptisms, rejoicing at every single one, I find myself in a very unexpected and undesirable place. My grandparents drowned their Judaism so their children might rise as newly created Germans, pure as any Aryan. Baptism can even be seen as an assent to Nazi propaganda; being a Jew is no good. What can we say when . . . baptism itself is a demonic act that defies God? How can I unreservedly find my identity at the font?”

At one point, she asks, “With this legacy, how can I be a Lutheran pastor?”

Pastor Neumark does not leave us in the depths of this despair. She allows us to listen in as she works through this painful “coming back” to Christianity. But when she says, “I’m getting stuck here and I wish the Church would pause to get stuck with me,” I want to say that I wish we would, too.

Recovering and honoring the Jewish roots of our Christianity is long overdue. For Lutherans, acknowledging and understanding the dark side of our history, is a necessity that should never be glossed over. We should view our scriptures and rituals taking these into account.

 I feel privileged to have read Pastor Neumark’s story. But I also believe that it isn’t necessary for all of us to have similar life-changing revelations in order to bring our “coming back” insights, questions, struggles, and learnings into our churches.

This is how I find I can be a Lutheran pastor. And I’m glad that Heidi Neumark is one, too!

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Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy

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Students chant “Reinstate Doc Hawk,” as the bell rings for the first chapel of spring semester at Wheaton College. Religion News Service photo by Emily Miller

If you haven’t been following the news from Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Wheaton, Illinois, the story is this: larycia-hawkins
In December, Larycia Hawkins, a tenured associate professor of political science at Wheaton since 2007, decided to show solidarity with Muslims by wearing a hijab and stating that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”

The college almost immediately placed her on paid administrative leave. They said that this would give them time to explore questions regarding the theological implications of her recent public statements.  On January 5, they issued a Notice of Recommendation to Initiate Termination-for-Cause Proceedings.

attachment-1Since then, there’s been a firestorm of protest against Wheaton’s action. Numerous petitions calling for the reinstatement of Dr. Hawkins (including moveon.org and change.org) have been circulating. Christian clergy of various denominations and leaders from other religious traditions have rallied in support.

Which is all well and good.

However, what we have here is a classic example of our need for an intrafaith conversation.  For some Christians, the statement that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” poses no theological problems. For others, it’s an impossible statement to make. Members of each group consider themselves to be faithful Christians. Although I don’t know any of them, I seriously doubt that the administrators of Wheaton College are bigots. Dr. Hawkins herself has written on her Facebook page, “Friends, Embodied Solidarity is not demonizing others in defense of me” and asks for “prayers and actions that emanate love, grace, peace, and if necessary, forgiveness.”

We are confronted with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity: “How do Christians deal with this phenomenon (religious pluralism)? Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.”1

There are a number of ways to answer the question. Within our congregations, we’ll find exclusivists, inclusivists, and pluralists of various stripes – all faithful Christians. How will we help them to listen to one another, respect one another, and come to some agreements of how we will love and work together? 

As Kristin Johnston Largen of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg has written: “. . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.”2

We should be taking the theological position of Wheaton College seriously. We should be taking the theological positions of Dr. Hawkins and her supporters seriously. Petitions won’t solve the underlying problem. Only our intrafaith work will do that.

 

[1] Suchocki, Marjorie, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism, p.9.

[2] Largen, Kristin Johnston, Finding God Among Our Neighbors, Neighbors: An Interfaith Systematic Theology, Fortress Press, 2013, 137.

 

 

 

 

Baptism in the INTRAfaith Conversation

baptism_JesusThis Sunday , which commemorates the Baptism of Jesus, is a leap forward in time. Seems like we just celebrated his birth, and now here’s the adult Jesus down at the Jordan River getting baptized. They grow up so fast!

What this Sunday does for progressive Christians, however , is raise a lot of questions about what baptism is. It also raises questions for those of us who have come to regard other religious traditions as equally valid. It was much simpler in the days before our interfaith engagements caused us to question how we Christians propagate an (often unintentional) exclusivism and triumphalism. Our theology of baptism should be a central topic in the intrafaith conversation.

I am indebted to Pastor Dawn Hutchings, a colleague from the Lutheran Church in Canada. Her recent blog post, A Progressive Christian Wades into the Waters of Baptism, is a fine piece of writing on this theological task. I re-post it here as a conversation starter.
http://pastordawn.com/2016/01/06/a-progressive-christian-wades-into-the-waters-of-baptism-3/

Then the next step is to broaden the topic into the interfaith arena.

I encourage you to look over your baptism liturgies, hymns and prayers. But read them through the eyes of a person of another belief system.

What are the issues, questions, and concerns that arise for you? How has your theology of baptism changed/ evolved through your interfaith encounters?

How might you adapt these changes in the congregation?

What is baptism to you?

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