So on Saturday I learned that the great Reformer, Martin Luther, was an anti-Semite.
And I mean a real, burn-down-their-houses-and-cut-off-their limbs anti-Semite. He called for violence, dismemberment, arson, expulsion, and death, and provided material that would later be used by Nazis to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment among the German people.
In a book entitled On Jews and Their Lies, Luther wrote:
“My advice, as I said earlier, is: First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire...Second, that all their books-- their prayer books, their Talmudic writings, also the entire Bible-- be taken from them, not leaving them one leaf, and that these be preserved for those who may be converted...Third, that they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country...Fourth, that they be forbidden to utter the name of God within our hearing. For we cannot with a good conscience listen to this or tolerate it…The rulers must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow. Such a procedure must also be followed in this instance. Burn down their synagogues, forbid all that I enumerated earlier, force them to work, and deal harshly with them. If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs."
I had no idea.
I know, I know. I’ve been a Protestant all my life and a politically correct progressive for the past five years, so this is something I should have known about.
But I didn’t, and the news hit me hard.
I ate an entire plate of leftover pasta at 3:00 in the afternoon.
I had to put five pennies in the jar.
It’s a bit like finding out that your favorite uncle deals drugs, or that your most beloved poet killed herself, or that your childhood pastor defrauded the congregation for years. It throws off your equilibrium, rocks your sense of security somehow.
I already knew that Luther had some skeletons in his closet. I’d read his strong words about women, Catholics, and those “fools” who proposed that the earth moved around the sun, but I chalked all that up to context and figured he was ahead of his time in every other way.
But the kind of hate found Luther’s writings about the Jews is so visceral, so contrary to the teachings of Jesus, it made me wonder. Didn’t the Apostle John teach that “he that loves not knows not God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8)?
So I mentioned this on Facebook (because that’s how I roll), and was a little surprised by how quickly many of my friends rushed to defend Luther’s reputation. They said that everyone was anti-Semitic in those days, that Luther was frustrated after trying to convert the Jews, that this was all based on a misinterpretation of Scripture. Luther should not be remembered for this “flaw,” they said, but for his great contribution to Christian theology.
The response was so dismissive at times, it sounded like the familiar evangelical refrain—“Oh we’ve already figured this one out. It’s got an easy answer. No big deal”—to which I wanted to plead, “Please remember, if just for a moment, the horror you felt upon learning this for the first time, before all the scholarly articles dulled the blade and blurred the faces of actual human beings into flat, emotionless ideas. Please, if just for a moment, remember the tension and admit that this sucks.”
Because once again I am living in the tension—my compassion, my conscience, and my convictions in tact—and I’m not so sure I want to get talked out of it again.
The Apostle Paul said: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
How can we say that Luther had good theology when he failed to love?
And what about the Anabaptists? Doesn’t their legacy prove that followers of Jesus do not have to be violent in a violent culture? Luther had as much access to the Gospels and the history of the early church as they did, and yet he chose violence while the Anabaptists practiced peace.
Maybe I just need a little time to process this—to file it away in that same part of my brain where I keep Joshua 6:21 and Psalm 137:9.
But for now I have a heavy heart, a disquieted spirit…and yet another plate of pasta to consume.
But I’d rather live in the tension that pretend that it doesn’t exist.
So how do you process information like this? Does it affect the way you feel about Protestantism or Christianity? Is there a constructive way to talk about this skeleton in Luther’s closet?
(Check out Wylio.com, where I got the photo above. It's a project that Dan and some friends have been working on so that I and other bloggers could use photos easily and legally.)