Anti-Semitism and Holocaust

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"Away With Them"
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"Away With Them"

That was Martin Luther's hope for solving the "Jewish question" of the mid-1500s.

Centuries later, the Nazis appropriated the anti-Semitism of Luther, and set up camps such as Buchenwald.

by Michael McAteer, Toronto Star, June 24, 1995

"For, as all can see, God's wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better. So away with them at all costs."

As this statement suggests, Martin Luther - the 16th-century former Roman Catholic monk who launched the Protestant Reformation - not only made vicious comments about papists and peasants. He also didn't like Jews.

"Away with them at all costs" was Luther's proposal for solving the "Jewish question" of his day. Others, which make him sound, in hindsight, like an avid Third Reich-supporter, included the burning down of Jewish synagogues, schools and homes, a prohibition on rabbis from teaching and the expropriation of all Jewish cash and valuables.

Luther's anti-Semitism was in fact appropriated by the Nazis, who quoted his writings to justify and legitimize their persecution of the Jews. This unpalatable fact has been a source of embarrassment for many Lutherans, particularly after the full horror of Jewish persecution at the hands of the nazis was revealed to the world.

In Winnipeg next month, delegates to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCC) convention - the church's highest decision-making body - will be asked to adopt a resolution calling for the repudiation of the anti-Semitism in Luther's writing. Church officials acknowledge it is a sensitive issue that may well open up old wounds.

Although they don't go in for "saints," many Lutherans have elevated Luther to the status of sainthood and feel that he is beyond criticism. Others wonder why there is need for yet another acknowledgement of Christianity's complicity in the persecution of the Jews.

But Kenn Ward, editor of the ELCC's magazine Canada Lutheran, says that while the convention's resolution may be a small gesture, it is appropriate and timely.

"Is this really past history or are we being naive about the depth of anti-Semitism?" Ward asked in an editorial in the magazine's May issue. "I continue to hear anti-Semitic slurs from some of our members in casual conversation. Signs of anti-Semitism continue to appear in Canada, Fringe groups spout neo-Nazi slogans and some deny that the Holocaust ever happened."

Ward has always felt there is a strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the Lutheran Church, he told The Star in a telephone interview. "It has really been very difficult for our church to get at because people are not willing to talk about it openly," he said.

On the other hand, there are Lutherans who fear that the church is not going to be candid enough in its condemnation of Luther's anti-Semitic utterances. The resolution's wording should make it clear that the church is not pulling any punches., Ward said.

"Some of the stuff Luther said was blatantly anti-Semitic, there is no way of getting round it," he said. "The resolution itself is very candid. In his old age, Luther got crotchety and said some hateful things. I don't care who the person was, he should not have said them."

Anti-Semitism apparently came late to Luther. "In his younger days, there is no evidence of it at all," said the Rev. Larry Denef, the Lutheran church's director for theological education and leadership. "He wrote several papers that were really positive toward the Jewish community. It was in his later years that this anti-Semitism developed."

Most scholars attribute Luther's about-face to the fact that he had expected Jews to embrace the Reformation and to accept the "free" Bible that had been written for the ordinary people, Denef said.

"He thought that 'God's people' surely would recognize the reality of that gospel, and by that, he meant the Jewish people," Denef said. When they failed to do so, Luther turned on them.

There is nothing new about the upcoming call for a repudiation of Luther's anti-Semitism, said Denef, a specialist in Christian-Jewish relations. In world-wide Lutheranism, there have been similar resolutions adopted by various church bodies over the past 20 years, he said.

But because the 204,000-member ELCC is a relatively new body - it is the result of a 1986 merger between two Lutheran denominations - and because this is the 50th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps, the time is opportune for making a statement, he added.

Although Lutheran pastors and scholars are aware of Luther's anti-Jewish tracts, most Lutherans in the pew are shocked when they hear them, he said.

Lutherans globally have for some time been reviewing Luther's writings in an attempt to address the question of racism, particularly in Canada, said the Rev. David Pfrimmer, director of the Lutheran office for public policy, and chair of the church's Division for Church and Society. The society was responsible for drafting the resolution.

"Luther wrote on a lot of things, and some of his writings were not reflective of the kind of theological truths that we believe are in the Christian tradition," he said. "This was one of them. It's a source of concern for the church that it might convey to people that Lutherans accept everything that Luther wrote."

Even today, some people use Luther's writings to try to legitimize their racist anti-Semitic views, Pfrimmer said. "We could not tolerate that any further and we wanted to make a statement to that fact.

"It was felt that this kind of declaration to the Jewish community in Canada would be an important statement for them - that we clearly disassociate ourselves from these anti-Semitic elements in Luther's writings."

Because Luther's writings make up more than 50 volumes, Pfrimmer said most Lutherans have not read Luther's anti-Jewish statements, and making them public will no doubt pain Lutherans of German ancestry for whom the Holocaust is a "great source of pain and shame."

The resolution does not seek to denigrate Luther or to detract from tradition or theological positions, he said. The main objective is to make it clear that Luther's anti-Semitic writings are "not central to the core teaching of Lutheranism."

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