My parents immigrated from The Netherlands to the U.S.A. in 1958; I was born in 1961, making me a first generation American. Growing up, my parents would tell many stories about the old country, about our diverse European ancestry, about life in Holland, about surviving the Nazi occupation, and about the difficult years of rebuilding after the Second World War.
One story about my ancestry involves how my maternal line went from Jewish to Catholic to Protestant in just three generations. My great-grandmother’s Jewish family was converted to Catholicism under persecutions in the eastern part of Poland. When my great-grandmother grew up, she married a Catholic man and moved westward, ending up in The Netherlands and giving birth to a daughter—my grandmother. Because of the early death of my great-grandmother, my grandmother was placed in a convent. My grandmother, therefore, was raised to become a nun. However, a copy of Martin Luther’s Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans had been smuggled into the convent. As the story goes, my grandmother read Luther’s work in secret and, on the day she finished, walked out of the convent never to return. She later married an Amsterdam banker, a Protestant (my grandfather) and eventually, I became a Lutheran pastor who went on to get a PhD in Church History with a specialty in the Reformation and Martin Luther.
Luther’s original intent with the 95 Theses was to arrange an academic debate regarding the effectiveness of “indulgences.” Luther’s critique of the Church’s practice of selling what amounted to a “fastpass” to heaven struck a chord all over the Holy Roman Empire. Within weeks of their initial appearance, the 95 Theses were printed and reprinted all over Europe. Over the next three years, Luther’s criticisms of the Church’s official teachings expanded to other, more central subjects. Consequently, Luther was called on the carpet. He was given several opportunities to renounce his writings and recant his teachings but he would not. Luther’s teachings, centered on the notion that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28), inspired other reform-oriented teachers and political leaders. The Protestant Reformation was on!
I was 25 years old when I read my first Luther biography: Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, by James M. Kittelson. The book had been recommended to me by a friend. I read it as a recent college graduate who had little to no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Fast-forward twelve years. I found myself returning to school to begin doctoral studies in Church History under the tutelage of—wait for it—James M. Kittelson, the man who wrote the Luther biography that had so influenced me more than a decade earlier. I co-authored the second edition of the book.
One of the many major amendments of the second edition involves Chapter 16’s subsection titled, “Concerning the Jews.” The second edition devoted twice as many words to the topic as did the first edition. Thirty years ago, there was less awareness of Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and attitudes than there is today. An internet search for “anti-Semitism Luther” turns up hundreds of sites that deal with the issue. Luther’s “dirty little secret” about his regard for “the Jews” is no longer little or a secret. However, it is still quite foul.
Here’s the sordid story:
Early in his public career, Luther had written a treatise that showed great favor toward Medieval Europe’s Jewish population. In That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523), Luther extolled the Jewish people, the Torah, and the patriarchs and prophets, the heroes of Ancient Israel. Luther urged Europe’s princes to treat the Jews within their territories with kindness and forbearance. Luther understood that if he had been a Jew, and treated as badly as Christian Europe had treated the Jews, he would have “become a pig” before he’d convert to Christianity. The irony of using the non-kosher pig demonstrates Luther’s penchant for cutting irony—an irony that often cut both ways. In any case, in this treatise, Luther also wrote, “I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets, and patriarchs.” Here Luther demonstrated his belief at the time that (a) Christians had been guilty of mistreatment of the Jews, and (b) that given the return of the true Gospel (as taught by Luther), the Jews would eventually “come around.”
Twenty years later, Luther wrote a lengthy screed titled, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1543). Most of Concerning the Jews represents Luther’s attempt to contradict the teachings of the medieval rabbis and to show them from Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah. However, in the last section, he addressed what he thought should be the political response to perceived public blasphemies against Christ emanating from certain synagogues. “Set fire to their synagogues…and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn.” In addition, he recommended that Jewish books be confiscated, that Jews be forced from their homes, and that they be made to give up all commercial activities, and instead work the land as day laborers.
Luther’s proposed measures against the Jewish citizenry of German lands well exceeded anything that he had previously proposed in regard to other enemies. Even Luther’s own colleagues and supporters were dismayed by the vehemence of Luther’s writing Concerning the Jews.
There have been several strategies for arriving at an understanding (without sugarcoating) Luther’s awful words about his Jewish neighbors. One strategy is to chalk it up to the fact that Luther was in his last years at this time. He was in bad health, used up, disillusioned, cranky. Another strategy involves pointing out the fact that everyone was anti-Jewish at the time, from Erasmus to Shakespeare. A third strategy is to point out that Luther was not anti-Semitic in the racial sense; instead, Luther counted several baptized Jews as friends and correspondents—his complaint was not against the Jewish bloodline but against medieval Jewish religion. The three strategies help us understand Luther’s context and circumstances. However, I’m with those who believe that Concerning the Jews was the result of two main factors: (1) a simmering disappointment with the rabbis’ failure to recognize Jesus as Messiah, and (2) a desire to avoid divine punishment for failing to speak out against rumored Jewish blasphemies concerning Jesus and Mary.
One more question remains: to what extent were Luther’s writings against the Jews used by Germany’s leaders between 1933 and 1945? The general consensus seems to be that these writings did not come to light until later in the Third Reich’s evil age. And when they did come to light, they were “merely” used to reinforce policies and crimes already in place. Today, of course, from a historical perspective that includes the deaths of six million Jews in concentration camps during the 1940s, Luther’s counsel is reprehensible, indefensible, and tragic.
Christians who identify as “Lutheran”—Christians like me—have struggled deeply with what it means to be associated with a tradition of a man who wrote such horrible, hateful words. Many of us have wondered and discussed Luther’s failure to apply his own well-developed understandings of God’s grace, mercy, and might on behalf of all, including his Jewish neighbors at the time.
Speaking for myself, Luther’s anti-Jewish sentiments represent the deepest flaws of a deeply gifted man. In the end, we Christians can and should regret and condemn the errant words of this long-dead sinner, while at the same time recognize and lift up Luther’s good words when and where they help proclaim Christ crucified and risen.