Last year was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 1517 proclamation of objections to Catholic Church practices. At age 33, Luther, chair of theology at the University of Wittenberg, wrote a scholarly treatise titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, later called his 95 Theses. He sent it to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg.
Luther’s criticisms were well founded. Representatives of the Pope traveled around selling indulgences, the right to confess all sins on the death bed, thereby giving the buyer complete absolution. Some Christians were not confessing their sins in church, because they could buy this right to confess everything at the end. In Wittenberg, indulgences were advertised as paying for the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the funds were used by Archbishop Albrecht to pay debts from purchasing his archbishopric from the Pope. Luther wrote, “Any Christian who is truly repentant has a right to full remission of all penalty and guilt without any letter of indulgence.”
Luther swiftly broadened his attack on the Catholic Church and the Pope as its head. In his pamphlet “To the Christian Nobles of the German Nation” in 1520, he argued that the Church does not need worldly possessions and that a congregation should select its own priest. He later wrote that a Christian achieves salvation by faith alone, without needing a hierarchical church structure, and that the Pope does not have the exclusive right to interpret scripture.
Luther was forced to defend himself before Papal representatives, who demanded that he recant, and at the Diet of Worms, an assembly of many German states in the Holy Roman Empire. When the Pope issued a papal bull threatening to excommunicate him, Luther publicly burned it. He was excommunicated and forced to hide from arrest.
Unlike others who had challenged the Catholic Church and the power of the Pope, Luther masterfully used the new technology of printing to spread his ideas. Courageous and determined, he successfully appealed to common Christians. Communities across northern Europe and, more important, their local rulers adopted his religious reforms, transforming Europe by splitting the Protestant North from the Catholic South.
Luther’s followers in Wittenberg created a community chest administered jointly by town, church, and congregation to feed the hungry, allow poor students to study, and offer credit to poor artisans. Luther believed that everybody should be educated to read the Bible in their native tongue, so primary schools were expanded, including for girls.
At first, Luther appeared to be sympathetic to Jews. He wrote in 1519, “What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them—that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?”That behavior was publicly exhibited at Luther’s own City Church St. Mary’s of Wittenberg. High on one outside wall was a “Judensau”, a relief depicting Jews suckling at a pig, with words degrading rabbis and Jewish ideas about God. It had decorated the Church for two hundred years.
Luther was a great reformer of Christian religious practice and social thinking. But the religious community he wished to create was welcoming only for those who followed his lead. Luther condemned in the strongest terms anyone who refused to give up their religion for his. He named the Pope the Antichrist. He pronounced the harshest sentence on Jews who remained true to their beliefs. In “On the Jews and Their Lies” in 1543, Luther advised his followers to burn their synagogues, confiscate their valuables, take away their holy books, forbid them from owning houses, and prevent their rabbis from preaching. That year, Luther wrote a pamphlet defending the Wittenberg Judensau as correctly depicting the source of Jewish holy books in the pig’s anus. Good Christians must prevent Jews from living as Jews.
Many organized religions represent communities of exclusivity, where insiders are promised glorious rewards and outsiders suffer unending torment. For centuries after Luther, Protestants and Catholics warred against each other. Christians only stopped killing Jews a half century ago. Muslim Shia and Muslim Sunni kill each other in the Middle East. Despite powerful moral exhortations about non-violence, Buddhists attack Muslims in south Asia. After suffering near extinction in Europe because of their religion, Jews destroyed Palestinian communities in the 1940s.
A highway billboard near our home in Wisconsin says I will go to hell, because I don’t share a particular form of Christian belief. Orthodox Jews have enough power over Israeli politics to enforce religious rules which exclude me and my children.
Religions are the strongest propagators of peaceful messages, but religious communities have killed millions of people who follow other beliefs. The contradictions in Luther’s teachings eventually forced the world’s Lutheran churches to disavow his writings about Jews, but only after the Nazis had put into genocidal practice his written instructions.
Even such disavowals often come with caveats. The official statement of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church about Jews deplores discrimination, but is mainly concerned that Luther’s words could provoke anti-Lutheranism, and ends with the hope that Jews will finally see the light and convert.
Luther was a great and flawed man. Like all human creations, religions can raise us up or bring us pain.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 13, 2018