From Martin Luther to Alfred Balfour
Many Christians celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31. In 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) posted his 95 theses in opposition to the abuses of the Catholic Church on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, which ultimately led to the split between the Catholic and Protestant churches.
Luther objected initially to what he saw as the commercialization of religion. His target was papal indulgences, an important way of raising money for the pope through forgiveness of sins. (I must say that I think many of us Jews have kept that tradition alive in the way that we dole out money to pseudo-kabbalists, miracle-working rabbis and those who claim to pray for others.) Luther was offended by the role that money played in the church.
Luther also wanted to make the church more open, popular and accessible. He wanted everyone to have access to the biblical texts, and he translated the New Testament into German. Other Reformers, like the Swiss Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), were ready to reinterpret much of the Gospels and Christian ritual, whereas Luther was a literalist and a fundamentalist.
The truth is that Protestant ideas began to appear long before Luther. John Wycliffe in England (1330 -1384) was a popular reformist hero in his day. He challenged the central authority of the pope. He translated the Bible into English, and insisted on its study and accessibility to the masses.
Jan Hus (1369–1415) was an even more impressive. He too challenged papal authority, criticized the corruption of the Church and stressed the importance of the Old Testament. Because his followers rejected the worship of saints and the adoration of relics, contemporary Roman Catholics accused them of being a Judaizing sect and called them Zionists.
Huss was declared a heretic and burnt to death. I guess when we Jews get upset at what the Church did to us, we should remember that it tended to treat its own dissidents just as badly.
What gave Luther the edge over the earlier reformers was his use of the printing press. He was the first best-selling author, by far. But there were other political factors in the rise of protest movements. Rulers like Henry VIII of England played politics with religion. He attacked Luther as an evil heretic in a book that he wrote in 1521 for which the pope gave him the title of Defender of the Faith (which English monarchs use to this day). But when Henry split with Rome in 1532 because he didn’t get his way over divorcing Katharine of Aragon, he set up his own Protestant church.
Luther was excommunicated. But he escaped burning at the stake, because within the German states there were rivalries and competitors who undermined each other. Besides, the Emperor Charles V, who hated Luther, had bigger problems when the Ottoman Suleiman invaded and got as far as Vienna.
In other words, it was a confluence of political, social and religious factors that turned Luther into such an important figure — which is probably why he failed to support the rebellions of peasants protesting against their rulers, despite his pleas for the common man.
We Jews remember Luther for his virulent antisemitism. He hoped initially that the Jews would all convert to his cause because of his emphasis on the Old Testament. But when they did not accept him, he wrote the abusive tract On the Jews and their Lies (1543), in which he said such humane things as, “Their synagogues or schools should be set fire to … in honor of our Lord and of Christendom. The houses of Jews should be razed and destroyed, their prayerbooks and the Talmud burnt, their money and treasures of silver and gold confiscated. They should receive no mercy or kindness, given no legal protection, and drafted into forced labor or expelled. Christians who did not slay them are at fault.”
It is true that you can find such ideas in the Bible regarding Canaanites. But that was, after all, 3,000 years ago — and was declared inoperable by our rabbis 2,000 years ago.
Not surprisingly, Luther became favorite bedtime reading for Hitler and the Nazis. Luther’s book against the Jews was widely disseminated and quoted in Nazi public rallies, and his portrait publicly displayed alongside his invective. The popularity of his views has certainly influenced the antisemitism that remains endemic in much of Western society.
But the accepted narrative is that his laudable emphasis on education for boys and girls, and his emphasis on being good towards other human beings (so long as they agree with you) acts as a cover for his racism and intolerance. He is applauded as a symbol of freedom of expression, free speech and the right to challenge authority.
The fact is that the Enlightenment in Europe owes more to pagan Romans than to Christians. The sacking of Constantinople in 1453 led to the dissemination and spread of ancient Greek and Roman ideas. There is a book by Stephen Greenblat called The Swerve. In it, he charts the career of Poggio Bracciolini and his work in unearthing ancient manuscripts lying neglected in isolated monasteries in the century before Luther. Amongst his great discovery was De Rerum Natura by Lucretius, who lived in the century before Christianity began to emerge.
It is a brilliant poem in praise of Epicurus. Everything, said Lucretius, is made of invisible particles. All particles are in motion in an infinite void. The universe has no creator. Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve (in atoms). The swerve is the source of free will. In fact, it shares a great deal with Ecclesiastes and indeed Ecclesiasticus. It pricks bubbles and undermines false theories. It became incredibly popular amongst scholars and thinkers, as Bracciolini had copies made and distributed (before Gutenberg). But its influence was enormous. In terms of inspiring the Enlightenment, it was far more positive than Luther. The amazing thing is that it was not put on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Church.
The pro-Luther lobby was on display in The Wall Street Journal last week, when Joseph Loconte argued in an opinion piece that “Luther delivered a spiritual bill of rights.” So long as you are not Jewish, I guess. A bit like claiming that the KKK advances the fight against racism.
If anything, the ideals attributed to Luther owe more to giants of scientific inquiry and freedom of thought such as Jan Hus and Giordano Bruno, who were burnt for their honesty. Or scientists like Copernicus and Galileo, who were persecuted by the Church and yet were free of hatred or vituperation. Now those were genuine humanists whom I would rather celebrate.
Ironically, this week is also the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
The Protestant emphasis on the Old Testament was a major factor in generating sympathy for the Jews. It changed the perception from seeing them as the Catholics did — as spawn of the Devil to be eradicated — and instead as an exiled noble tradition longing to return home. Even before Zionism was a political movement, whether it was Oliver Cromwell or the great novelist George Eliot, Protestantism developed a strain of philosemitism that was behind Alfred Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild supporting a Jewish homeland in 1917.
How ironic that today Israel garners more support for Israel from Catholics and Southern Baptists than it does from the Lutheran Church.
I was fascinated to see how many members of the English petty aristocracy have been so vociferous in attacking the Balfour Declaration. After all, it was not Balfour but the San Remo Conference of 1920 that granted the British Mandate over Palestine, and formalized the rights of Jews to a homeland. It also created the Arab states of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and later Jordan. All states that had never existed before — forcing disparate, opposing tribes and ideologies together in artificial entities.
If people want to blame Israel on British imperialism, they should disband all those other products of imperialism too. Perhaps reinstating the Ottoman Empire (without Erdogan) is the solution. The venom of the Israel-haters came out in full view for the Balfour anniversary. Which proves that Luther’s poison is still very much alive today.