Luther and the Jews I: The Problem

Most preachers and teachers have what one student of mine calls `the candy cane class' -- that sermon or lecture which is in the back pocket, so to speak, committed to memory and there to be pulled out at a moment's notice if, on a Sunday morning, somebody requests that you preach or teach at the last minute.   For me, it's what I call my Luther shtick: a brief account of his life up to 1518, culminating in an exposition and application of his teaching on what it is that makes a theologian of the cross.

Some years ago, I became aware, however, that each time I gave this talk, one of the first questions to come from the audience would be some variation on this basic theme: `But didn't Luther hate the Jews and write pamphlets about them that led to the Holocaust?'   

Of course, if like Rousas Rushdoony -- for those at the creepier end of the Christian Life and Worldview spectrum, the doyen of historical scholars (`scholar' being their term for him, not mine) -- you don't think the Holocaust happened, this isn't a problem (see my posts of some years back); back on Planet Earth, however, the question has some urgency for those of us who want to make the case for Luther's continued relevance.  We can't really dodge this one by referring to a few skinhead historians or writing foaming-at-the-mouth taxi-driver style blogs accusing our opponents of being educationally sub-normal bleeding heart liberals.

Indeed, given the fact that racism and genocide played prominent and evil roles in the history of the last 100 years, such a question is, of course, always more than just a question of the `Didn't Luther suffer from constipation?' variety.  If Luther did hate the Jews, then surely he was a racist; and if he was a racist, couldn't this be seen as a good gauge of his theology?  And should we not therefore dismiss it as bad -- at best a dead end, at worst an ideology of evil?

Certainly this view has found some significant supporters.  Most famously, the American journalist, William Shirer, a man who witnessed the rise of Hitler while working in Berlin in the 1930s, proposed a positive and direct connection between Luther and the German anti-Semitism which fueled the Holocaust.  Then, if you care to spend any time researching Holocaust Denial on the web, on the myriad anti-Semitic sites out there, you will find quite a few which link to Luther's writing on the Jews.  In addition, certain strands of the New Perspective on  Paul, have posited links between Luther's theology of justification and racism.   This is all significant evidence that, yes, there may well be a huge theological problem here.

To put the case in a nutshell, the piece of writing which stands at the heart of the question is On the Jews and Their Lies, a work from 1543.  Now, anyone who has read any of my recent posts will no that, when it comes to uncritical fans of Luther, I am right up their with the best of them; but even for a benighted Lutherophile like myself, this book is vile.  Its rhetoric is revolting, and many of its suggestions -- not least locking up Jews in their synagogues and burning the buildings to the ground --are not only horrific in and of themselves but, in light of events in Europe between 1933 and 1945, horribly prophetic.

Thus, the question I became accustomed to being asked at Sunday School hour  is indeed a good one: did Luther and his theology in some way inspire or cause the Holocaust?  If he did so, and this connects directly to his theology, then clearly such theology is morally repugnant.

There is the problem in a nutshell.  Tomorrow, I hope to offer some lines of reflection that, if not absolving Luther of being in this regard a vile bigot, at least point to the fact that the tirade of 1543 is an aberration from his overall theology, not an integral part of it.