Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Cross and the Star: A Resource for Unpacking Lutheran Anti-Semitism

What follows is a film review of "The Cross and the Star - Jews, Christians and the Holocaust" that I wrote this past week for my Church and the Holocaust course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The review is meant to assist educators in congregations discuss Lutheran (and general Christian) anti-Semitism, especially with young people. I hope you find this helpful and I'd love to hear what you think!

Some time ago, during my first year of seminary, a member of a youth group I was working with told me a story I will never forget. A couple years ago in history class he learned about Lutheran anti-Semitism and even outright support for Nazi policies during the 1930s and 1940s. Embarking on further research, he discovered the virulent anti-Semitism of Martin Luther, particularly in the reformer’s later writings. Being in confirmation class at the time, he brought the issue up with his teacher, who in turn simply responded by saying it was no longer a problem. From that point on, the young adult told me, he did not think he could ever again consider himself a Lutheran.

We live in a time when the Church is increasingly called to carefully and responsibly work for an end to apartheid-like conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in a time when young people are better educated with easier access to global conversations than ever before. In such a context Lutherans in particular must continually work to name, confess and move forward from the anti-Semitic elements of our collective history. Although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America officially confessed these sins in a statement to our Jewish sisters and brothers as early as 1994, congregational resources for discussing Lutheran anti-Semitism remain somewhat limited. After reviewing a number of films, I believe The Cross and the Star - Jews, Christians and the Holocaust, a documentary released in 1994 and available on Netflix, is the best resource currently available due to its concise history of Christian anti-Semitism and its use of engaging interviews with Holocaust survivors. What follows is a synopsis of the film, an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses and a list of suggested discussion questions for use in the congregation.

Produced by John Michalczyk, a former Jesuit priest and current Chair of the Fine Arts Department at Boston College, The Cross and the Star begins by confronting the viewer with a number of provocative statements. For example, Rabbi Harold Kushner argues Christianity has regularly throughout history improved its standing in the public by denigrating Jewish communities. Rabbi Joseph Polak, a Holocaust survivor, moves even further by suggesting the New Testament’s many anti-Judaic passages should simply be de-sanctified and removed from the Bible. He does however soften this statement with recognition that such an action would leave Christian theology “in shambles.” The film then explores anti-Judaic theology of the early Church Fathers, including John Chrysystom’s characterization of Jews as “a plague” and Augustine’s belief that there is “no salvation outside the Church.” The Lateran Council, which foreshadowed future Nazi policy by requiring Jews to wear yellow stars, is also mentioned.

Moving forward in history, The Cross and Star briefly refers to the indiscriminate murder of Jerusalem’s Jews during the Crusades before discussing the anti-Semitism of Martin Luther.* After alluding to his earlier hope that Jews could be converted, Luther’s more later, more hateful words are read as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” plays in the background: “… next to the devil himself, a Christian has no enemy more cruel, more venomous, more violent than a true Jew.” The film then forms a link between Kristallnacht and Luther’s encouragement to burn and destroy Jewish homes and synagogues. The general theological tenets of anti-Judaic Christianity are also summarized, including the beliefs that Jews deserve to suffer because they bear “the mark of Cain” and that all Jews are guilty of deicide.

Following its summary of historic Christian anti-Judaism, the film next discusses religion under Nazi Germany in detail. Although the 1933 Concordat and the weakness of the Barmen Declaration are aptly criticized, there is a glaring overemphasis on the persecution of Christians under Nazi Germany. Most notably, the Nazis are described as “at war with the Catholic Church” and clergy are listed as a major group of victims along with Jews, Roma and differently abled persons. However, there is helpful exploration of how the faith lives of both Jews and Christians were affected by the Holocaust. Dr. Vera Laska, a Jewish resistor, gives a heart wrenching interview about how she lost her faith entirely, while the poet Sonia Wetz argues we should ask “Where was man?” rather explaining how in no way did the Jews “simply go as lambs to the slaughter.”

The final portion of The Cross and the Star begins with the stories of various Christian rescuers and resistors. For instance, Kaj Munk, a Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright, was martyred for opposing the Nazi occupation in Denmark. In France, Pastor Andre Trocme led the Huguenot villagers of Le Chambon in assisting between 3000 - 5000 Jewish refugees. Pope Pius XII, while heavily criticized for not doing more to stop the Holocaust, instructed Vatican Radio to tell Catholics in Vichy France not to make distinctions between Christians and Jews. Additionally, during the Nazi occupation of Rome, many Jews were hidden directly in the Vatican. Contemporary efforts to atone for Christian complicity with the Holocaust are also discussed, including the liturgical reforms of Vatican II and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Auschwitz. Finally, the films concludes by stating the policies of “the Final Solution” did not form in a vacuum, but rather grew out of centuries of Christian anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic sentiment.

The Cross and the Star has many strengths, particularly for use with young adults. With a short fifty-two minute runtime, the film could easily be watched and discussed over two confirmation classes or youth group sessions. In packing a great deal of history and first-hand accounts into a short timespan, it serves as a strong introduction to Christian anti-Semitism without requiring additional background knowledge. Although the focus on Luther is especially useful in a denominational context, the film could provide a basis for rich ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as well. The stories of rescuers and resistors are inspiring, as are the stories of Jewish survivors struggling with their faith. The rabbis’ statements and the film’s uncompromising conclusion will jar most Christian viewers in a useful way. In a time when so few first-generation Holocaust survivors remain, the film’s many personal accounts make it an invaluable resource.

The Cross and the Star suffers from a number of weaknesses however. There is a clear Roman Catholic bent, particularly in its neglect to mention Protestant efforts to make amends and its casting of the papacy in a decidedly over-positive light. The assertion that a stronger stand by Pius XII could not have helped prevent the Holocaust seems overly pessimistic. As mentioned above, there is an over-emphasis on Nazi persecution of the Church, and particularly its clergy. Now nearly two decades old, the film is also beginning to show its age. Since the early 1990s, the myth that Hitler “brainwashed” the German population has largely been disproven by recent historical research… most bystanders did indeed know something was wrong. Furthermore, the notion that low-level conspirators were “forced” to take part in the Holocaust is simply generally untrue.

In a time when the Church is called to carefully work for justice in the Holy Land and when our global community (and especially are young adults) are more connected than ever before, it is particularly important that we as Lutherans confess and address the anti-Semitism of our collective story. Whether viewed in confirmation class, an adult forum or in an interfaith setting, The Cross and the Star can provide the necessary basis for such confession and dialogue through its concise overview of Jewish/ Christian history and its stories from first-generation Holocaust survivors. This review concludes with related discussion questions for use in the congregation:
  1. What aspects of Christian anti-Semitic history were you surprised about? What did you know before watching the film?
  2. How do you affirm your Christian faith and follow Jesus’ call to share the Good News without implicitly putting down Jews and Judaism?
  3. Do you think God was present amidst the Holocaust? If so, how? Is that even the right question to ask?
  4. Why do you think so many Christians and Lutherans in particular, both in Germany and elsewhere, showed such complicity with Nazi policies towards the Jewish people?
  5. How can we continue to make amends and strengthen our bonds with our Jewish sisters and brothers, both locally and around the world?
  6. Could something like the Holocaust ever happen again? Has it or is it already? What does Christ say to us amidst such horrible events?
* Throughout this review I carefully minded the difference between anti-Judaism, the religious opposition or hatred of the Jewish faith one finds in some New Testament passages, for example, and anti-Semitism, the racial opposition or hatred for the Jewish people.  While “race” did not exist as a category for human beings until at least the 17th century, and 
the concept of “anti-Semitism” did not exist until the 19th century, many of Luther’s diatribes are squarely leveled at the Jewish people themselves (including the quote above) and thus could be described as anti-Semitic.


Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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