It’s Halloween, and as I sit in Starbucks with my Styrofoam cup of orange and honey tea (because I flatly refuse to capitulate to the American love affair with coffee) it couldn’t be more evident. Orange lights are dangling from the ceiling, the bright leaves are tumbling off the trees like a crimson rainfall, and ghouls and hags and the odd Captain America are walking about outside with carved pumpkins and woolen scarves. I love Halloween. I loved it back in my homeland when we called it Samhain. We’d light bonfires and stay up late into the night telling ghost stories as we ate goat cheese and candied apples. I love that my gay friends in America refer to Halloween as ‘gay Christmas.’ I love the elaborate costumes, the bite in the air before winter arrives, haunted houses around Chicago. Even an atheist can appreciate that some days, there’s just magic in the air.
On my Facebook feed, it’s a different story.
I have a number of Lutheran friends, and even more Lutheran acquaintances. Several are training to be pastors and teachers in the Lutheran tradition, and even those who aren’t are often very vocal about their appreciation for their religious denomination and especially their revered founder, Martin Luther. For those who are unfamiliar with the German monk turned reformer, Luther was a devout Catholic who was never quite satisfied with his faith. His own study of the Christian Bible convinced him that the Catholic Church was filled with corruption and error. The final straw came when a man named John Tetzel came through Wittenberg, where Luther taught at university. Tetzel was selling indulgences – pieces of paper guaranteeing the forgiveness of sins – to the peasants, using their hard-earned pennies to build the ostentatious throne of the papacy that is today called St. Peter’s basilica. In order to counter Tetzel, Luther nailed ninety-five arguments against indulgences and the church on the door of the Wittenberg church. This act launched what became the Reformation and the formation of the Protestant branch of Christianity. The Catholic Church rebuked Luther and later excommunicated him. Luther’s life from that point on mainly consisted of writing works like the Book of Concord and the Large and Small Catechism. He also translated the Bible into German (the first true vernacular translation), taught and preached, and aided the German princes who protected him against the Holy Roman Empire.
The date that Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door, 31 October 1517, is hailed by Lutherans and Protestants in general as “Reformation Day.”
Which means that my Facebook wall is overwhelmed with pictures of a 500 year old monk and quotes from the Bible about how we’re saved by Grace, not by works. And more Luther quotes than I care to count.
It is tempting, oh so tempting, to respond with some of Martin Luther’s most anti-Semitic quotes and create a firestorm of Facebook controversy and condemnation.
Oh, by the way, Luther hated Jews.
I mean, oh-my-god-I-don’t-believe-in, did Martin Luther ever hate the Jews.
But in order to explain why I despise Martin Luther so much, I need to back up and relay some personal history.
I had just turned fifteen when I immigrated to America from Ireland. Already, I was an apostate in the Catholic faith, essentially an atheist although I wasn’t really developed mentally enough to understand what that meant fully. I just didn’t care much about God, and after fifteen years in the shadow of the Troubles I loathed organised Christianity of any kind. After leaving a nation where Christianity had managed to permeate nearly every facet of life, I thought coming to the United States would be a much-needed breath of fresh air.
How wrong I was.
My Belfast-born, Protestant mother had been involved in the Lutheran tradition before I was born. She had acquiesced to my grandparents raising me to be loosely Catholic, but she now insisted that I attend a parochial Lutheran high school so I could receive a good, sound Protestant work ethic. And so the indoctrination began again. There are several different branches, or ‘synods’ of Lutheranism, and the one that ran my high school was among the most conservative. Religious classes and instruction were held every day, including chapel services were pastors from around the area would come and guest lecture. I quickly went from being vaguely aware that Lutherans existed to studying the Lutheran doctrines on a regular basis with my classmates, including two of my sisters. And from knowing Luther as a historical figure whose influence I generally understood, I grew to know him as the patron saint of Lutheranism, the true vicar of Christ on earth, who is held in equal – if not greater – status to Christ himself.
Seriously, no matter what a Lutheran may tell you, they venerate Luther as heavily as Catholics do the Holy Virgin. You can find him in their paintings, in church art, on the cover of their books. I took classes on Luther’s life, took tests on his works. I read the Catechisms, the Book of Concord, and several others. Even World History II spent two weeks dedicated to the effect that Martin Luther had on the development of the world after the Renaissance. Even as an apostate Catholic/atheist, I had to think to myself ‘Wow, that man did quite a bit. He changed the world!’ I could recite Luther’s most famous quotes with the best of them, rattle off the major events of his life at speed, sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in a clear tenor with the hundreds of Lutheran warriors around me. Of course, internally I was rolling my eyes. But even though I never took his theological views seriously, Luther was the thorn in the side of the Catholic Church. After seeing a car bomb in the Omagh market set off by Catholic militants, that sounded fine to me.
Again, how wrong I was.
It wasn’t until the second half of my last year that I learned the truth. I was working on a brief history report on the Righteous Gentiles, the men and women who saved so many victims from the Nazi death machine back during the War. One of the books I was using made a passing reference to Martin Luther. My interest piqued, I read the few paragraphs that detailed the effects of an essay by Luther that I had never heard of. It was called On the Jews and Their Lies.
I read the paragraphs. And then I read everything about the essay I could find in other books. And then I searched for it in all the books of Lutheran theology and essays found in the vast library my high school kept. It was nowhere to be found. So in the end I downloaded it off the internet and spent two hours at home perusing Luther’s opinions and admonishments towards the Jewish people.
And it made me sick. Physically ill.
I felt cheated. Filthy. Degraded. And above all, deceived. Deceived by men claiming to be righteous into venerating a man who became the cornerstone of the Holocaust. Studying the works of a man who ended up contributing to the deaths of millions of people. Treating a monster like a god. Speaking good of evil. Luther’s hatred was nothing new. I had seen it before. But this time it had been carefully hidden away from me and the rest of my classmates. How had I been almost four years at a school dedicated to Luther and never heard of this? I realised that it had been covered up and brushed under the rug. Another dirty little Christian secret.
Luther didn’t start out by hating the Jews. Quite the contrary, after he broke away from the Catholic Church Luther was very optimistic about the potential to convert the Jewish people to ‘true’ Christianity. He even told his followers to treat them gently and with kindness, so that the Jews might see the truth of the Lutheran teachings. I’ll bet apples to gold that you can guess what happened. The Jews rebuffed this 467th attempt to convert them to Christianity. And quicker than a Connemara pony, Luther turned on them.
Overnight his treatment of the Jews became more hateful, and increasingly more bizarre. Many of Luther’s colleagues begged him to see sense, to keep his ramblings on the Jews to himself and leave them alone. Luther didn’t listen. “Now just behold these miserable, blind, and senseless people,” he said. “We are at fault for not slaying them.” His anti-Semitic rhetoric reached a peak when he published On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543, and it is now the most well-known example of the long history of Anti-Semitism found in Late-Renaissance Germany and Lutheranism.
One of the most important parts of On the Jews and Their Lies outlined the seven points of ‘sharp mercy’ that Luther called for when dealing with the Jewish people. They included:
-Burning their schools and synagogues
-Transfering Jews to community settlements
-Confiscating all Jewish literature, which was blasphemous
-Prohibiting rabbis to teach, on pain of death
-Denying Jews safe-conduct, so as to prevent the spread of Judaism
-Appropriating their wealth and using it to support converts and to prevent the lewd practice of usury
-Assigning Jews to manual labor as a form of penance.
So let’s summarise. Burn down their synagogues and schools, rob them, kill their leaders, destroy their books, enslave them to forced hard labour, and essentially using any means necessary to destroy their communities. This should sound familiar to anyone remotely familiar with the history of Western Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s.
Here are some more tasty tidbits from Luther’s work:
If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country.
…they remain our daily murderers and bloodthirsty foes in their hearts. Their prayers and curses furnish evidence of that, as do the many stories which relate their torturing of children and all sorts of crimes for which they have often been burned at the stake or banished.
If I had power over the Jews, as our princes and cities have, I would deal severely with their lying mouth.
And it’s not a coincidence that Luther’s advice was fulfilled so dramatically during the Nazi Holocaust. Germans revered Martin Luther for hundreds of years after his death. His anti-Semitic works were kept in print and widely circulated. Several Nazi leaders praised him, as did Lutheran bishops. Hitler himself mentioned his influence in Mine Kampf. And on 10 November 1938, Luther’s prophecy fulfilled itself when the Nazis throughout Germany laid waste to German businesses, burned synagogues, humiliated Jewish men, women and children, killed hundreds and deported thousands to the slave labour camps. Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, was held on Luther’s birthday to honour him and the fulfillment of his sharp mercy.
The revered historian William Shirer, who wrote the epic and comprehensive work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, directly linked Luther’s anti-Semitism to the ease of which the Nazis were able to get the general population on their side.
“It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jews. Luther’s advice was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler”
It absolutely cannot be denied that Luther contributed heavily to the Nazi Holocaust four hundred years after his death. Luther had both influence and power and he used them to lay the foundations for what is arguably the greatest evil the world has ever seen.
And the Lutherans still follow him. And even worse, they try to justify him and excuse him.
After learning about Luther’s vile crimes, I marched into the offices of several pastors who taught at my high school and demanded an explanation. The responses I received were…less than satisfactory. Luther was a product of his time, I was told. The Jews said hateful things about Christians too. While he did some regrettable things, Luther did much good and served the Lord well. He was an imperfect being like all of us.
No, I said. I am imperfect, but I am nothing like Martin Luther. And I marched out of those offices, my back turned on Luther and Lutherans and Protestantism forever.
I still feel a great amount of anger for the three and a half years that I was forced to study Luther without knowing who he truly was. Even today I get into passionate debates with Luther-apologists, like this one. The pastor I was debating told me straight out that I was being confrontational (I was), that I was a novice in Luther (I’m not) and that he wouldn’t apologise for Luther being ‘the master of hyperbole.’ In other words, Luther was exaggerating. He denied that Luther really wanted the Jews dead. I told him that he might as well deny that there were gas chambers.
What Luther did was horrific and indefensible, but what is also indefensible is the level that people still venerate him, especially in conservative areas of the United States. And the biggest excuse is that people just don’t know who Martin Luther was. Rachel Held Evans, a prominent Christian writer, wrote a blog post three years ago detailing the shock and horror she felt. And we’re not the only ones. The Lutheran Church has symbolically blown up the crematoriums of their faith in order to hide the skeletons in the closet of their Founder. And as a result, people today are on Facebook not only talking about him and praising him, but celebrating him.
This is what religion does. This is one of its crimes. It encourages you to defend evil. To honour a psychopath. To celebrate the cornerstone of the Holocaust.
The Lutherans and Their Lies. These are things that we cannot tolerate. Things that cannot be defended. It is absolutely essential that we drag these secrets out into the sun so that they’re well-known. Only then will the common view that these evil men were saints wither in the sunlight and die.