A Lesson from the Judensau

As we move into a new year, we say goodbye to the formal 500 th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses. Nevertheless, I cannot leave behind what happened when I visited Wittenberg last Fall. My tour group was greeted by protestors, complete with long banners, calling for a reform of their own. Our tour guide explained what was going on when we got to the Town Church.

The tour group stood by the outside wall of the church where Luther routinely preached to the town’s folk. Looking up, 26 feet high, we gazed at a very strange sculpture set into the wall. It predated Luther by a couple of hundred years, although insulting words for the Jewish name for God—from Luther’s own writing—were added after Luther’s time.

The image was that of a Judensau, or “Jewish Pig.” It depicted a sow suckling Jewish people, with a rabbi peeking under it’s tail. That’s an over-the- top expression of anti-Semitism, isn’t it? The modern protestors wanted the image removed. However, the church responded to this issue, almost 30 years ago, by adding another sculpture directly at the bottom of the Judensau. Led by the youth of the church (note: this was before the fall of East Germany), with the endorsement of a nearby Jewish community, the newer image was set in place on the 50 th anniversary of Kristallnacht (1988), as a Holocaust memorial. The newer image depicted doors being forced open, with hands and faces beginning to poke through. Around the doors are the words: “The true name of God, the maligned Chem Hamphoras, which Jews long before Christianity regarded as almost unutterably holy, this name died with six million Jews under the sign of the cross.” Also included are words from Psalm 130: “Out of the depths, I cry to you.” The two images, together, are meant to declare, “Never again!”

In interim ministry, I’ve been privileged to see a few churches humbly seek to address their horrific mistakes of the past:

  • A church known as being a “preacher killer” church, for firing pastor after pastor, sent letters to their former pastors. “We treated you horribly. We are sorry. We ask your forgiveness. We pray God has blessed you.” They even did this against the advice of legal counsel, because they determined it was the right thing to do.
  • Another church had for a long time shut out its neighborhood. They posted “For Church Use Only” signs on their playground. They pointed visitors to “more appropriate churches” down the street. They surrounded the entire perimeter of their property with a six-foot brick fence. The church’s community reputation sullied the very name of Christ. This church eventually created a banner like the one I saw in Wittenberg. It crisscrossed the church’s corner front lawn, so it could be seen from cars passing in any direction. It read simply, “Please Forgive Us!” Everyone in town knew what it meant.
  • Still, another church had a moral failing by the pastor, which was covered up by the deacons. They mistakenly thought hiding the sin would protect that pastor’s family, the church’s reputation, and the name of Jesus. As the fellowship cracked, and then split widely apart, the deacons realized they’d made a huge mistake. So, they told the truth. They also confessed their role in creating a bigger mess. They introduced an outside expert who helped the church begin to process the events. They advertised help for those who needed additional attention, and especially for others who might have also been violated by the former pastor.

Some churches are spiritually burdened, even dying, because of the spiritual baggage of unacknowledged, unconfessed, un-amended sin in the church. The Judensau offers a very simple lesson: SOMEONE must have the guts to say, “We’ve got to deal with this issue.”

THE PAST IS NEVER DEAD. IT’S NOT EVEN PASSED. — William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

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