Luther’s Jewish Problem


Nuremberg, 1946

In 1946, Julius Streicher was on trial for his life. He had published the anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, and had been captured at the end of World War II. The Allies put him on trial alongside 23 other prominent Nazis at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. During the trial Streicher was asked: “Witness, what aims did you pursue with your speeches and your articles in Der Stürmer?” Streicher replied:

I did not intend to agitate or inflame but to enlighten. Anti-Semitic publications have existed in Germany for centuries. . . . In the book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent’s brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them. Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants’ dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution.

Streicher was a propagandist who devoted his life to spreading slander and falsehood, but on this occasion he was telling the truth.

Wittenburg, 1543

The book Streicher mentions, The Jews and Their Lies, was written by Luther in 1543, three years before his death. It was closely followed by another anti-Semitic treatise: Vom Schem Hamphoras (On the Ineffable Name). Oxford University historian Lyndal Roper summarizes the content of these two works in her recent highly acclaimed biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet [review]:

The Jews, he alleges, look for biblical truth “under the sow’s tail,” that is, their interpretation of the Bible comes from looking in a pig’s anus. . . . They defame Christian belief, “impelled by the Devil, to fall into this like filthy sows fall into the trough.” If they see a Jew, Christians should “throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away.” Luther calls for the secular authorities to burn down all the synagogues and schools, and “what won’t burn should be covered over with earth, so that not a stone or piece of slag of it should be seen for all eternity.” The Jews’ houses should be destroyed and they should be put under one roof, like the gypsies. The Talmud and prayer books should be destroyed and Jewish teachers banned. They should be prevented from using the roads, usury banned, and the Jews forced to undertake physical labor instead. Assets from moneylending should be confiscated and used to support Jews who converted. This was a program of complete cultural eradication. And Luther meant it. . . . 

Luther’s anti-Semitism then reached a crescendo of physical revulsion. He imagined Jews kissing and praying to the Devil’s excrement: “the Devil has emptied . . . his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews, and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat, drink, and worship.” In a kind of inverted baptismal exorcism, the Devil fills the mouth, nose, and ears of the Jews with filth: “He stuffs and squirts them so full, that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes, it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.” Whipping himself into a frenzy, Luther invokes Judas, the ultimate Jew: “When Judas hanged himself, so that his guts ripped, and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss (as one calls it) with the other relics, and afterwards together they ate the shit and drank, from which they got such sharp sight that they are able to see such complex glosses in Scripture.”    

This summary provides only a sampling of Luther’s hate-filled vitriol. Multiple passages in his 1543 writings against the Jews are just as abhorrent.

America, 2017

October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Exasperated by the widespread selling of indulgences—pardons for sin sold by the Roman Catholic church to fund clerical debt and architectural projects in Rome—Luther bravely declared that Christ’s merits are “freely available without the keys of the pope.” Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses set in motion the Europe-wide revival of biblical faith we call the Reformation. Luther has accordingly been the historical figure placed front and center in this year of commemoration known as Reformation 500.

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, however, Reformation 500 puts me in a strange position. Luther’s gospel service cannot be denied; I myself have benefited from it greatly. But his attitude toward my own race was one of unrestrained hostility. How should I think about such a man? To frame the question more broadly, how should Luther’s anti-Semitism affect his legacy?

I have three proposals.

1. Luther’s anti-Semitism should be acknowledged without qualification.

I’ve noticed a pattern when Christians address the subject of Luther’s hostility to the Jews. First there’s acknowledgement; then comes an attempt to dial down the awfulness and make it less troubling. The desire to defend Luther is understandable—we owe him so much. But the excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, at one recent conference a speaker said this: “Luther was wrong . . . but this isn’t necessarily anti-Semitism. That’s really a 20th-century phenomenon. . . . It wasn’t an ethnic motivation that prompted Luther to this; it was a theological one.” You can almost hear the audience’s sigh of relief. But the notion that anti-Semitism is a modern phenomenon is a fallacy. Although the term itself is relatively recent (according to the Anti-Defamation League it was first used in 1873), the reality it describes dates back to the 5th century B.C., when Haman “sought to destroy the Jews” simply because they were “the people of Mordecai,” his enemy (Est. 3:6). Whenever Jews are singled out for hostile treatment, that behavior can rightly be described as anti-Semitism. In any case, there’s ample evidence that Luther’s theological opposition to Jews was paired with ethnic hatred. Why else would he repeatedly picture them smeared with pig manure? To take a people’s distinctive feature—in this case Jewish avoidance of pigs—and maliciously turn it against them is textbook racism.

Others attempt to defend Luther by stressing that in his younger days he had been much friendlier to Jewish people. In his 1523 tract, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, he reminded readers that “the Jews are of the lineage of Christ” and called for better treatment of Jews than they’d received from the popes. While it’s true Luther wasn’t anti-Semitic throughout his life, it’s a serious mistake to make too much of the point. Imagine suffering vicious racial persecution. Would you gain any comfort from knowing your persecutor hadn’t always been a racist? What’s more, Luther’s friendliness to Jews in the early 1520s seems to have been predicated on the progress he expected them to make toward faith in Christ. So from the Jewish perspective, he wasn’t necessarily offering them safe harbor, come what may.

A third way people try to reduce the horror of Luther’s anti-Semitism is by presenting him as a person of his time, a fellow traveler in a generation given over to Jew-hatred. According to this argument, while Luther should be faulted for failing to overcome his culture, we shouldn’t be too quick to condemn, because every culture, including our own, has its blind spots. The problem with this argument is that Luther had in fact overcome his culture’s blind spots, at the time of the 1523 tract mentioned above. It’s like a white pastor in 1930s Mississippi calling for a radical easing of Jim Crow laws, only to double down on segregation two decades later. The one thing you couldn’t say in that pastor’s defense, given his earlier record, is that he simply went along with his generation’s blind spots.

I would advise anyone addressing Luther’s anti-Semitism to say it was evil, and the more closely you look at it, the worse it gets. Any temptation to sugarcoat this bitter pill should be resisted.

2. Luther’s anti-Semitism should—as far as possible—be understood.

The inevitable question raised by Luther’s anti-Semitism is how someone who did so much to glorify Jesus could disobey him so flagrantly in this area. The New Testament describes Jewish people who reject Jesus as “natural branches” broken off the “olive tree” of God’s people. It says to Gentiles, “Do not boast over those branches. . . . They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:18–23). Luther knew those verses. He translated each of those words from Greek into German! Why did he put them to one side, and others like them, in order to pour forth his white-hot hatred? 

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions. Explanations can easily morph into excuses like the ones discussed above. But insofar as they’re possible, explanations can help us avoid the same evils by revealing the missteps that take a person down dark paths.

Our urge to understand shouldn’t lead us too quickly to rational explanations. Sin is profoundly irrational, as all of us know from our own hearts and actions.

The main factor leading Luther toward anti-Semitism was his longing for a unified Protestant society. He wanted the “two kingdoms” of church and state to create a community that crushed or banished all threatening groups. In this way he sought a kind of Protestant medievalism. The theological changes he introduced were enough for him; in every other respect he wanted to preserve the medieval order.

So when the 1525 Peasants’ War threatened the medieval political settlement, Luther urged the German princes to “smite, slay, and stab.” When Anabaptists threatened Protestant unity, Luther and his colleague Philip Melanchthon accused them of sedition and blasphemy, and in a 1531 memorandum they argued such offences merited the death penalty. Luther’s comment on this action is telling: “Although it seems cruel to punish them with the sword, it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the truth and in this way seek to subvert the civil order.” Luther’s unwillingness to see the civil order subverted either politically or theologically meant he ran out of patience with the Jews and could no longer endure their presence in Protestant territory.

He felt he had a God-given right to live in a unified society in this world, and that error fueled his anti-Semitism. Surely there are lessons here for Christians in America today.

3. Luther’s anti-Semitism should harm his reputation.

The essence of the Reformation is that we’re saved not on the basis of our own deeds, but through faith in Jesus. That is why, in the brilliant novel The Hammer of God, a Lutheran pastor joyfully says, “I go about my duties as might a prison warden who carries a letter of pardon for all his criminals.” The pardon Jesus offers through his atoning death covers all our sins, even those as vile as Luther’s. To use Luther’s own formula, the believer is simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and a sinner).

And yet Luther himself writes, in his 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian, “The inner man, who by faith is created in the image of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in whom so many benefits are conferred upon him; and therefore it is his one occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in love that is not constrained.” That is indeed the Bible’s vision for the Christian life (see Romans 6:15–23), and why we should particularly celebrate those Christians who, by the Spirit’s power, live out that vision most comprehensively.

With that in mind, it seems to me Luther is a man we should honor but not celebrate. Let’s honor him for confronting the hollow deceptiveness of the Roman Catholicism of his time. Let’s honor him for translating the Bible into the language of ordinary people, so they could read for themselves the words of eternal life. Let’s honor him for releasing countless monks and nuns across Europe from lives of cloistered ritual and mandated celibacy. Luther was a mighty instrument of awakening, deserving honor in this anniversary year. But this honor shouldn’t rise to the level of celebration. Our memory of Luther must be tempered with sadness because of his sin and its consequences.

Luther is to me both hero and anti-hero; both liberator and oppressor. Spiritually speaking, he has been my teacher, but in relation to my family he has acted as persecutor. Soon after Kristallnacht (when the Nazis destroyed Jewish synagogues and businesses), Bishop Martin Sasse published a tract titled Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them! Sasse quoted from Luther’s 1543 writings and argued Luther’s goal was finally being achieved. Through Sasse and others, Luther’s name and work were used to prepare the ground for the Holocaust, in which my own great-grandmother was murdered and my great-uncle and great-aunt were brutally incarcerated. The Holocaust was fully underway by 1943—exactly 400 years after Luther shut his ears to the Bible and unleashed his anti-Semitic furies. As we commemorate Reformation 500, we do well to remember that other anniversary.


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