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Luther and the Jews

1

One of the remonstrations that Lutherans are always hearing, and often repeating, is that the Reformer Martin Luther was responsible for the holocaust which occurred nearly 400 years after his death. Some writers make hazy connections, others draw a straight line from Luther to Hitler. You may be hearing some of these polemics as we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 2017.

So what are the facts?

The facts are that Luther engaged in strong rhetoric against the Jews but they were theological polemics, not personal ones. He did the same against all whom he considered to be his religious opponents: the Pope, Bishops, the Swiss Reformers and the Anabaptists to name a few. It wasn't in his make up to modulate, and that is unfortunate. But again keep in mind that his polemics, including those with the Jews, were theological disagreements, not personal ones.

But there is more.

There are a few places in his writings where he suggests burning down the synagogues of the Jews so that they could no longer teach against the gospel of Christ. That, of course, was taking things too far. To suggest such things aloud takes debate from cold war, to warm war, which is just one step away from hot war.

Luther never did this, nor did the Lutheran princes when he suggested it. They knew better, thank God.

However, as stated above, there are those who feel it is their duty to impugn Luther to one degree or another on this account. I don't know their motivation considering that Luther is long dead. And considering that, to my knowledge at least, there is not a Lutheran on the planet who would harm a Jewish person motivated by his Lutheran faith. A writer's motive could be an attempt at intellectual honesty, or it could be the love of destroying heroes, which is so prevalent today. I suppose we would have to ask any such person.

None the less to blame Luther for Hitler (to any degree) doesn't comport with logic. There simply is no proof. There are many assumptions. There are speculations. There are writers who echo other writes till a sort of echo chamber is formed. A perceived reality which is just that. Perceived. And, truth be told, it plays. It seems to be the national sport these days, to use ancient injustices as a pretext for burning the world. But I know as a Lutheran theologian, and from my years as an FBI chaplain, that some men just love to watch the world burn.

One argument I recently read goes like this:

  1. German culture, including its pervasive anti-Semitism, made Naziism possible.
  2. Luther had a massive influence on German culture.
  3. Luther's influence included his polemics against the Jews. 
  4. Therefore Luther's work contributed to the holocaust.

The connections here are squishy at best. That is usually the case when frail assertions need to be propped up with adjectives such as "pervasive," and "massive."

However let us assume that there was proof. Let us imagine that there were a record from Adolph Hitler's diary, for example, that said he was inspired in his quest by Martin Luther the Reformer. Even then I would not lay the blame at Luther's door.

Why? Because there is no justification for the evil Hitler did. A person might give a hundred reasons, inspirations or contributing factors, but it doesn't matter because evil is evil. The recent case of Stephen Paddock, who murdered 58 people and wounded over 500 others in a shooting spree, is an example. No one knows why he did it. He may not know why he did it. It does not matter why. Only that he did it, that it was evil, and if he did not punish himself society would have: even as it punished Hitler. 

I also recently read the suggestion that since Luther's rhetoric was uncharitable and inexcusable for a Christian it is to be repented of. Inexcusable it may be. But Luther is dead and unable to repent. So what are we supposed to do with such a suggestion?

We can learn.

Unmodulated rhetoric, so common today in politics and on social media, where you needn't face the person you are belittling, is out of control in my opinion. We must learn to think rather than emote. To control ourselves, to modulate, and to display charity as often as possible. But even when we must speak strongly let our speech be as reasoned and seasoned, as it is definitive.

1 Comment

Pastor K.,
greetings and God's blessings from Mexico's northernmost state. some years back I read heiko oberman's bio of luther in which he explained luther's second tract on the jews : luther hated the notion of putting one's own righteousness forward as a substitute for our Lord's sacrifice on the cross. oberman didn't think that luther hated the jews having done this any more than he hated the papists having done so.
I'm sure I'm just stating the obvious here.
my own feeling is that luther's biggest weakness was his anger and this often led him to say/write things that could have been said more charitably. it is a weakness that I, unfortunately, share.
I enjoy your posts.
God's blessings,
geoff

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