Here is another entry from my forgotten back catalogue. In this article I critique the way that we airbrush our chosen heroes. I make the point by focusing on the hero of Protestantism, Martin Luther. However, the problem extends far beyond religious traditions. For the sake of truth we would all do well to heed the (apocryphal) advice of Oliver Cromwell to paint our heroes “warts and all”.
For years I had heard about the Martin Luther who was a hero of the Reformation. One who stood boldly against the corruption of the Catholic Church and preached a powerful and liberating gospel of justification by faith.
It took a little longer to discover the vulgar Luther who filled his polemical writings with invective against his opponents. It is this Luther, I discovered with dismay, who dismissed the scholarship of the genteel Catholic humanist Erasmus as dung on a silver tray.
But then perhaps we might point out that such coarse expression was much more common in the brutish sixteenth century.
It is the Luther who advocated intolerance, persecution, violence, and even genocide that I met last of all. It was this Luther that wrote a ferocious pamphlet in 1525 against the peasants who were fighting desperately to improve their standard of living under the oppressive German princes. Instead of supporting the struggling workers, Luther advised the princes: “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog.”
Wow. And I thought that Walmart was anti-labor! If the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide had been extended to economic and social classes, Luther would be guilty of a bald case of incitement to genocide. One can only speculate how many peasants were slaughtered as a direct result of the mandate to murder provided by this hero of the Reformation.
In his defense one might say that Luther was still relatively young (in his early forties). Perhaps then we could cut him yet more slack, and thereby excuse his viciousness as impetuousness.
But then fast-forward to near the end of his life (1543) where we should surely expect Luther to have mellowed with age.
No such luck, for it is this Luther that wrote perhaps his most unspeakably vile work, the little book The Jews and Their Lies, which spews hateful filth against Europe’s Jews on page after page. Surely I must be exaggerating? I could only wish. Luther repeatedly warns us to be wary of the corrupt Jews. The following is typical: “Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in-which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced…”
All this inflammatory rhetoric is for a purpose. Toward the end of the book Luther outlines several steps to take against the Jews. Here’s the first: “to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians….” The subsequent steps are no better.
Granted Luther falls short here of advocating a wholesale slaughter (as if that were a consolation). But then he does add an incitement to murder for good measure: “We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite an their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming…”
At the very least Luther’s seven steps provide a clear and detailed blueprint for cultural genocide.
This is the preeminent hero of Protestantism. And I confess that for all his contributions to Christendom, I find him an intolerable brute.
Here I stand. God help me. Amen.