Sometime during October 31, 1517, the day before the Feast of All Saints, the 33-year-old Martin Luther posted theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The door functioned as a bulletin board for various announcements related to academic and church affairs. The theses were written in Latin and printed on a folio sheet by the printer John Gruenenberg, one of the many entrepreneurs in the new print medium first used in Germany about 1450. Luther was calling for a “disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences out of love and zeal for truth and the desire to bring it to light.” He did so as a faithful monk and priest who had been appointed professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg, a small, virtually unknown institution in a small town.
Some copies of the theses were sent to friends and church officials, but the disputation never took place. Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, sent the theses to some theologians whose judgment moved him to send a copy to Rome and demand action against Luther. By the early months of 1518, the theses had been reprinted in many cities, and Luther’s name had become associated with demands for radical change in the church. He had become front-page news.
I asked a Lutheran friend of mine about how she was celebrating the decade leading up to the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther. The year 1517 marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, when Luther, a young, radical preacher, nailed his 95 points (theses) of disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, previously a sleepy little town deep in the heart of Germany’s Thuringia region. Luther sparked a revolt, a radical restatement of what Christianity was all about, and a renewal of the whole Church through the call to go back to the Bible, back to Jesus, and back to the simple message of the Gospel.
My friend replied that she, like the 75 million Lutheran Christians around the world (now often described as members of State Churches, or Evangelical Churches – though is not quite the same as what those in the Uk or USA understand as “Evangelicals”) had had many celebrations and commemorations of Martin Luther over the decade, known as the Decade of Martin Luther.
I asked her what the Lutheran Churches were doing about Luther’s shocking anti-Jewish teaching – his violent rhetoric in “Against the Jews and their Lies” and many other writings, calling for the Jewish people to be expelled from Germany, their books burned and their synagogues destroyed. Luther’s writings had been used over the centuries to stir up anti-Jewish feelings, and Hitler had used Luther’s writings, which the Nazi party reprinted to argue for the “Final Solution” the extermination of the Jewish people in the Concentration Camps between 1939-1945.
Her answer was understandable, but deeply unsatisfying to me, a Jew whose family come from Germany, and some of whom lost their lives in the Holocaust. She said
I am not sure. Perhaps we ourselves have forgiven Luther for his terrible last chapter and agreed to remember him for something else. When we disagree among ourselves and discuss what he meant about this or that or what the implications of his teachings should be today – and here we disagree a lot to the point that some of us will say we cant use him at all, it is never on the issue of what he said in his last chapters on the Jews. Because all agree that this is wrong and a big mistake. So there is nothing to discuss here.
But perhaps we are slow to realize that it is remembered by others and from time to time also used by others – among them also Jews who use it to say why Christians in general and Lutherans in particular should be avoided. Perhaps in my own Scandinavian context theologians have had so few Jews to interact with that we have not really understood the impact of this.
I am a Jewish believer in Jesus, so I belong both to the Church and to the Jewish people in the way I understand the important impact Martin Luther had, both in his own life and teaching, and in the legacy that he has left down through the centuries and to Christians and Jews today. I long for unity and reconciliation between the different Christian churches, especially Protestants and Roman Catholics, but even more, between my people, the Jewish people, and the Church. I realised that the Church’s teaching against the Jewish people, and its complicity in the destructive anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, are one of the main stumbling blocks to my people coming to hear the Good News of the Messiah Jesus with an open mind, or even meeting those who call themselves Christians without suspicion and fear in their hearts.
Prayer: Lord, the life of Martin Luther, his teaching and his legacy, loom large over world history. Despite the great things he achieved in affirming the truth of the Good News of the Messiah, for our people his teaching and behaviour have too often been bad news. Have mercy, O Lord! Pardon, O Lord! Forgive, cleanse, reconcile and restore, O Lord, so that your people may see your Son our Messiah without the stains of prejudice and persecution that too often have distorted the very message that Luther tried to proclaim.
Further study: Richard Harvey, Luther and the Jews (forthcoming book)