UPDATE: Added a paragraph below, showing how Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress” applies to this subject.
Luther’s Deadly Doctrine
I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that those miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews and who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them. I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jews into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself. However, the devil is the god of the world, and wherever God’s word is absent he has an easy task, not only with the weak but also with the strong. May God help us. Amen.
Martin Luther, The Jews and Their Lies
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Last Saturday, eleven people who went to pray on Shabbat at Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh were gunned down in the worst antisemitic attack against Jews in American history. We know the motive was antisemitic because Robert Bowers, the accused shooter, left a trail of white nationalist, anti-Jewish vitriol on social media.
On Tuesday, Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Eli Sasso, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter who is the author of a book about the white nationalist movement called Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. It tells the story of Derek Black, son of Don Black, who founded the largest white nationalist website, Stormfront. Derek began following in his father’s footsteps, but ultimately renounced white nationalism. Before he did, he and his father helped create and disseminate the language and talking points contemporary white nationalists use in advancing their views.
One of those phrases is “white genocide,” by which they promote a conspiracy theory that immigrants are fomenting a “race war” designed to make the white race subservient and ultimately destroy it. And they think “the Jews” are playing a prominent role in encouraging this.
Yeah. I mean, in the horrific sort of hierarchy of white nationalist beliefs, they really consider Jews their primary enemy. What white nationalist believe, although it’s ridiculous and awful and scientifically inaccurate to say, is that people of color and immigrants are by and large inferior to white. And left on their own, they would not be able to challenge the white race. But white nationalists believe that Jews are, while not white, very smart and sort of scheming and also are trying to propagate a scheme of multiculturalism which will weaken the white race.
So they believe that Jews have used immigrants, people of color and pushed for greater immigration, pushed for things like now this caravan to change the demographics of America so that ultimately white people will become a minority. And then white nationalist believe Jews will have even more power than they do now in the country.
That’s why they identify Jews as their No. 1 enemy. And it’s why throughout the history of the white nationalist movement we’ve seen more attacks on synagogues and more bombing threats on Jewish schools than we have almost any other demographic group.
Robert Bowers’s attack on the synagogue worshipers was prompted specifically by white nationalist paranoia about the so-called “caravan” of migrants now in Mexico, moving toward our southern border — or “invaders” who are “assaulting” America, as they would say. His last post on the social media platform Gab was about HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a nonprofit that assists refugees. Right before the attack, Bowers tweeted: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
All this highlights that there is an undercurrent of antisemitism in our country that has been emboldened in recent years and disseminated through technology now available to create communities online that can strengthen and refine messages of conspiracy and hatred. But antisemitism has a long and varied history, and we who are Christians, particularly those of us who practice our faith in traditions that grew out of European Christendom and the Reformation must realize that antipathy toward the Jewish people has been a theme running through our religious story as well.
In this Reformation season, a tragedy like that in Pittsburgh reminds us of our forbears’ shortcomings in this regard. Martin Luther himself is a notorious example. His 1543 tract The Jews and Their Lies is an infamous example of public defamation against the Jewish people. His call to burn their synagogues and books calls to mind for modern readers the terrorizing of the Jews in Germany on Krystalnacht in November 1938. Indeed, the Nazis displayed Luther’s inflammatory words at rallies as they agitated the German people against their Jewish neighbors. And this week we saw a similar kind of racially motivated anti-Jewish hatred explode in a deadly shooting spree in our own country.
There are many differences in the type of antisemitic views Luther held vs. what white nationalists say today, but both hatreds are grounded in conspiratorial fears of a culture that thinks it is under attack.
Early on in his career, Luther had some sympathetic things to say about the Jewish people with regard to their resistance to the Roman Catholic church. But Luther grew ever more passionate over the years about the success of the Reformation, and when few Jewish people converted to Protestant faith as he had expected, he began viewing them as enemies of Christ and the gospel.
Luther’s views grew out of his eschatology. Luther was convinced that the Last Days were upon the world. Luther thought that the Jewish people would have a great change of heart about Christ in the chaos of those days. However, when they didn’t, he grouped them with the Pope, the Turks, and the Anabaptists as those who were stubbornly fighting against God’s ultimate intervention in history. In this stark light, the reformer was alarmed because he believed the true faith was under seige. This was war and no time for forbearance. So, to guard the gospel, Luther wrote about the Jews along with God’s other “enemies” using as much hostile, scatological venom as he could muster.
At the root, what I think Luther should be criticized for was his apocalyptic mania.
Luther’s measure of time was calibrated with yardsticks other than those of modernity and enlightenment, progress and tolerance. Knowing that the renewal of the Church could be expected to come only from God and only at the end of time, he would have had no trouble enduring curbs on the Evangelical movement. According to Luther’s prediction, the Devil would not “tolerate” the rediscovery of the Gospel; he would rebel with all his might, and muster all his forces against it. God’s Reformation would be preceded by a counterreformation, and the Devil’s progress would mark the Last Days. For where God is at work — in man and in human history — the Devil, the spirit of negation, is never far away.
To understand Luther, we must read the history of his life from an unconventional perspective. It is history “sub specie aeternitatis,” in the light of eternity; not in the mild glow of constant progress toward Heaven, but in the shadow of the chaos of the Last Days and the imminence of eternity.” [emphasis mine]
So, you can see that Luther and today’s American white nationalists do have something in common: an apocalyptic worldview that heightens the intensity of every aspect of life by placing it unequivocally in terms of God vs. the Devil, truth vs. lies, absolute purity vs. absolute evil, total darkness vs. eternal light, heaven vs. hell.
You might want to think about that the next time you sing “And tho’ this world with devils fill’d should threaten to undo us/We will not fear for God has will’d his truth to triumph thro’ us…” The “devils” in Luther’s great hymn were not abstractions, but real people he considered deadly enemies of the gospel in the Last Day.
Standing between God and the Devil, Luther would take no prisoners in protecting the true faith. Apparently, neither will some white nationalists.
This is the zero sum game writ large.
And it is deadly as hell.
We weep with our Jewish brothers and sisters this week.
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Photo by Christopher Martin at Flickr. Creative Commons License