Question: After reading more about the anti-Semitic views of Martin Luther, I have become so disturbed by them.  I understand that today’s Lutheran church bodies have repudiated Luther’s anti-Jewish writings.  But those writings have given me great pause.  How could someone who got so much right, be so wrong on the Jewish people?  How does one reconcile this paradox?  How can Luther be revered with this terrible stain?  As cantor of my parish, I am leading a hymn festival on the hymns of Martin Luther soon, and now I feel less enthused about it.  Help!

Frank answers: I have encountered this situation before. A student in a doctoral seminar I was offering in the history of Christian liturgy was not able to give an adequate class presentation on Luther’s German Mass because she had had a course in which she read Luther’s 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies and was not able to deal with Luther, even his liturgical work, until she came to terms with a more comprehensive awareness and balanced assessment of the total man.

Any attempt to deal with Luther, especially in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, needs to come to terms with his anti-Jewish writings because we live in a post-holocaust situation. This also means that it is difficult to be objective in dealing with Luther’s anti-Jewish diatribes.

There was a historical context for the treatise Against the Jews and Their Lies. In 1536 Elector John Frederick expelled the Jews from electoral Saxony.  Jews felt that the elector had to be implored to rescind his edict or at least allow Jewish merchants to travel through the electorate. Jews appealed to the Alsatian Jew Josel von Roscheim to present their cause to the elector.  He decided to prevail on Martin Luther, who in 1523 had seemed to be a friend of the Jews, through the humanist Wolfgang Capito, to intercede with the elector.  (Yes, Luther had written a tract in 1523 in which he was optimistic about relations with the Jews and believed that God would lead them to confess Jesus as the Christ.) Luther refused to play this role of mediator and advocate with the elector and felt that his friendship with the Jews had not brought them any closer to conversion but instead was making them more obstinate and bold in rejecting Christian claims about “their cousin Jesus.”  The infamous treatise was directed to the rulers and in part chastised them for relying on Jewish usury. That’s why Luther recommended that the Jews be returned to the land and to agriculture. But what really stuck in his craw was their rejection of Christ. Hence the scurrilous 1543 treatise.

We have to come to terms with the fact that Luther’s anti-Jewish tirade of 1543 is simply inexcusable. Given our post-holocaust perspective, it was over the top. The fact that this was written late in his life when his body was wracked with illnesses is no excuse for the vile things he said or the hateful recommendations he made. There is no excuse for what Luther wrote. The fact that Luther used insults and invective as a rhetorical device throughout his career is no excuse. The fact that Luther was disappointed that Jews didn’t come to Christ when, as he thought, the gospel was made clear, is no excuse. The fact that Luther’s anti-Jewish views occurred in a continuum of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in Christian Europe is no excuse. The fact that at base Luther had a theological argument against the Jews is no excuse.

Even if he disagreed theologically with the Jews he had no reason to recommend that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books be destroyed, their rabbis be forbidden to preach, their homes be burned, their property and money be confiscated, and that they be forced to return to the land. His message lay dormant for several centuries until it was revived in the late 19th century,  Luther’s treatise  carried great weight with later German attitudes toward the Jews and was used by the Nazis for their propaganda. However, he didn’t call for Jews to be put to the sword, like he did with the “murdering peasants” in the Peasants’ War. (Luther’s reaction to the peasants’ revolt is his other big black eye.)

Having said this, I think two things need to be pointed out. First, Luther was not anti-Semitic as this is understood in the modern racist sense; he was anti-Judaism. He was not against Jews as an ethnic or racial group the way the Nazis were. If, as he had hoped early in his career, the Jews would come to believe the gospel and be baptized, he would have welcomed them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Second, Luther knew nothing about the ideology of Nazism five centuries later. Since he was always seeing things in theological terms I’m sure he would have rejected Nazi ideology as neo-pagan and the German Christian movement as a heresy, as Confessing Christians like Karl Barth and Didetrich Bonhoeffer did. These theologians were among his theological heirs. But this does not exonerate Luther for what he wrote in his own time, and the Lutheran Churches are correct to reject it, disassociate themselves from the views expressed in this vile treatise, categorically condemn anti-Semitism, and develop a different theological assessment of the role of Judaism in salvation history than just Christian supercessionism.

You raise the issue of what it does to our estimation of Luther and his contribution to Christian thought and church reform that he expressed such views—and how we feel about given our postmodern sensibilities.  Luther himself provides one answer in his profound understanding of human nature. Even those who are baptized into Christ are simul iustus et peccator. We are “saints and sinners at the same time.” This does not mean we are sometimes saints, sometimes sinners. It means we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Luther often cited Isaiah: “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). Our best thoughts and efforts are tainted with sin and we are always in need of repentance, confession, and forgiveness. Luther was known to spend a lot of time in the confessional, not only when he was a pious monk but also when we was a reformer and teacher.  We should take seriously his own self-assessment that he was a sinner.

A second answer is that once something written or composed or crafted has gone forth from its author, composer, or artist, it takes on a life of its own—especially if it is embraced by a whole community. To take the example of another hero with clay feet, look at Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American “Declaration of Independence.” His glowing words about “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” did not apply to the slaves he owned or the other African-American slaves in the emerging United States. In fact, while he tried to model humane treatment of slaves, when one of his young slaves sought liberty to pursue happiness by running away a second time, Jefferson had him flogged in the presence of other slaves. Our founding father was also known to have his way with slave women. This does not disqualify the “Declaration of Independence” as a document that gives expression to our ideals as a nation. We honor Jefferson as its principal author, but it is now our Declaration, ratified by the Continental Congress with other signatures appended to it.

Among Luther’s vast writings and many contributions to the life of faith are his translation of the German Bible, his Catechisms that have taught the faith to generations, and the hymns that have enabled people to worship and praise God in their own language. These literary products came from Luther’s pen, but they have been affirmed by official church orders, bundled among our symbolical books in The Book of Concord, and included in countless hymnals. These are our catechisms and hymns. They have withstood the test of time and have been owned by generations of faithful Christians, taught by pastors to congregations and by parents to their children. As you know, many composers have also worked with these hymns and songs, not least Johann Sebastian Bach in his church cantatas and chorale preludes. People love to sing songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” even if they don’t know the circumstances under which it was written (which are, of course, debated).

I recommend an essay written by a retired professional historian, Dr. Gregory Holmes Singleton, for Let’s Talk, the online theological journal of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Professor Singleton has dealt with many generations of university students who discovered that their heroes had clay feet and provides some helpful suggestions for dealing with our disappointments. See http://mcsletstalk.org/reformation-jubilee-500/martin-luther-peasants-war-anti-semitism-quincentennial-rumination/.

I hope this helps, because you really should give your people their hymn festival and lead it with enthusiasm. I pray for God’s blessing on your event.

Pastor Frank Senn