Luther and the Jews

On Monday, at our monthly faculty forum, my colleague, Brooks Schramm presented the new book he and Kirsi Stjerna wrote:  Martin Luther, The Bible, and the Jewish People–and I have to say, my mind was kind of blown!  First, if you don’t already know it, Luther wrote some really, really horrific things about the Jewish people that should cause every card-carrying Lutheran to blush.  It’s a shameful part of our history, and something that many Lutherans would like to either forget or ignore. Or, if neither of those solutions are possible, we would prefer to explain them away somehow, saying either that they are tangential to his main theological/biblical analysis, or that they came only at the very end of his life [when he was old, crabby and in lots of physical pain] and don’t represent his true thinking.  In, fact, however, as Brooks convincingly argued, neither of those things is true.  Instead, Luther’s understanding of the Jews is deeply woven into the heart of his biblical exegesis and his theological understanding of Scripture; and while the tone may have taken a nasty turn toward the end of Luther’s life, the basic sentiment is consistent from start to finish.  Brooks writes, “Luther’s unrelenting negative toward Judaism and those who practice it, the Jews, never changed.”  Finally, to put it most bluntly, Brooks argued that if you take out these anti-Jewish writings [and the sentiment behind them], you simply don’t have “Luther” anymore.  Again, Brooks:  “When one reads Luther with a careful eye toward ‘the Jewish question’ [and without a predisposition to exonerate him], it becomes apparent that, far from being tangential, the Jews are rather a central, core component of his thought and that this was the case throughout his career, not only at the end.  If this is in fact so, then it follows that it is essentially impossible to understand the heart and building blocks of Luther’s theology [justification, faith, salvation, grace, freedom, Law and Gospel, and so on] without acknowledging the crucial role played by ‘the Jews’ in his fundamental thinking” [3-4].

Days later, I’m still wrestling with it.  We all know that no one is perfect, and, as Brooks reminded us, there is no “pure” theology behind which we can retreat:  every single theologian bears the stain of the time in which she wrote–for both good and ill–but the limitations that particularity imposes sometimes are glaring.  For me, the larger question becomes:  When do we disavow a theology entirely because the positions it endorses are so repugnant to us?  At what point do we simply reject a theologian altogether?  Obviously, no one in the Lutheran Church is ready or willing to do that–and some Lutherans actually distort Luther’s writings to make the sting of his position less painful [look at the LCMS statement on Luther’s anti-Semitism, for example…]–and I guess I don’t want to do that, either, and yet…..What AM I to do?

This is a particularly important issue for those of us deeply engaged in interreligious dialogue [and Brooks, of course, is one of those], as we wrestle with our own theological sources who may have held convictions diametrically opposed to our own regarding the religious “other.”  Brooks has said before that he believes the Jewish-Christian dialogue is the interreligious dialogue, and while I wouldn’t say that, it is clear that there is at least an implicit Jewish/Christian dialogue going on as part of the subtext of every other religious dialogue Christians have.  I wonder what it means for me, for example, when I use Luther in the context of Buddhist/Christian dialogue:  am I making an implicit statement about Judaism at the same time, without even knowing it, or thinking about it?  I don’t have any answers–I’m still working through it–but I know I’m glad to have had my eyes opened.  This is a theological challenge worth accepting.

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