Some five hundred years ago, give or take a few weeks, an Augustinian Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther, flipped Christianity on its head. He tacked, may be hot-waxed, the details are still in argument, what became known as the 95 Thesis to the Church door in Wittenberg, Germany (1517). Like many a thesis, it’s real title was a mouthful, “Disputation for clarifying the Power of Indulgences.” Some two decades later, give or take a month or two, he penned another tract, named above, that in the late 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s was the platform upon which some 7 million European Jews were murdered. Not many authors have written two papers that have jolted the world the way these two did. Let’s see what happened in between their writing and their impact.
Luther we must understand was putting his theological life on the line in challenging the church. By “broadcasting” his beliefs, the reaction of the church hierarchy could far transcend “me thinks he doth protesteth too much.” “Burn him at the stake” would have been a closer call from those whose job it was to protect the church from heretics. Certainly ex-communication would have been on the list. Yet the bones of his protest became the skeleton of what later became the Lutheran Church and his intellectual act of protest spawned what became known as Protestantism.
Every story has a back story. Martin Luther did not awaken one early morning, having stayed by his candle well into the night writing his 95 protests with countless jabs of quill into ink pot, letting it dry in the wind as he walked to the church, to tack it or otherwise affix it, on the door. No, this faithful monk, out to save his church from what he feared was a drift towards elitism and corruption, had given these thoughts long and deep consideration.
Indulgences were acts of faith and prayer that could be bought. They were supposed to lessen the punishment of earthly sins before one’s arrival at St. Peter’s gates. But as sinner’s often are, many a sinner was wealthy, powerful, and pressed for time. So instead of travelling off to a particular shrine, making peace with the Lord, and leaving a little something for the church, it seemed that the leaving a little something for the church became a primary form of making indulgences….for those who could afford it. Negotiations were done with the Bishop, the details worked out including the bottom line, and at the end that particular sin or group of them could be scratched off the offender’s worry list. The church and her coffers and on occasion the homes of the Bishop’s grew exponentially. While the poor either labored to work off their indulgences or lived a life that doomed them to end up in Hell. Luther was appalled. From his anger at the church establishment came the 95 Thesis.
Like most revolutions, the final act was both end and beginning. It was the end of a process and the beginning of a “now what happens?” phase.
Luther was a smart man, many say a genius of thought and theology. He knew that just making his proclamation, a precipitous action, it would fail. There would have to be a crowd of faithful to take up the cry. He would need supporters. Irony of ironies he turns to the Jews of Wittenberg with whom he had a cordial relationship and who he thought would jump with glee at what was “behind door number 2.” Merchants and farmers, most, of these men, but for the fact that they were Jewish, were well-regarded, well tolerated, but not necessarily well off.
Permit me a small digression. Many moons ago I was an an interfaith conference. The discussion turned to fighting the boycott against Israel. These discussions, in the halls and out, seemed very much like a political convention and at one point I turned to an Episcopal Bishop next to me, and naively said so. His response, was “Son, politics is everywhere and in everything, even the church.” This I should have known, having a Master’s Degree in Political Science earned under a professor who believed there were two things that made mankind’s merry go round, one was politics, the other, from Cabaret (just kidding) money: these schools of thought are called political and economic determination.
So Luther jumped right into the political pot. He offered the Jews, if they converted and supported his thesis, high rankings in the church, a sure-fire path to wealth and respect. Who could turn down such an offer? The Jews, of course. Now we come as Paul Harvey used to say, “To the rest of the story:” The Jews and Their Lies.”
Some 6,500 words, finished in 1543. this document swept the Jews out of society. At one point, really worked up, he opined the duty of the Christians was to burn all the Jews. From word one to word 6,500, “The Jews and Their Lies” physically and socially ghettoized the Jewish community. Christians and Jews could not marry. Jewish physicians could not treat Christian patients. Jewish teachers could not teach Christian students nor Jewish ones, in fact Jewish schools should be burned. Homes should be burned. Money and property confiscated. Rabbi prohibited to preach. Step by step it was a document of marginalization and in the wrong hands, at the wrong time, it was a death sentence.
Another digression. Another back story. It seems that Luther was sinking into a deeper, angrier depression. It is told that he went out into the field to talk to his G-d and got caught in a ferocious thunderstorm and may in fact have been hit by lighting. The “Jews and their Lies” apparently came pouring from him not too long after.
It is not mine to write a book here, nor your intent to be expecting one. I will let you put these two pieces of this theological puzzle together yourself. Google “comparisons of Luther’s, “The Jews and their Lies” and “the Nuremberg laws of the Third Reich”, put together some 400 years later. Here you will find what happened when those writings finally did get into the wrong hands. In fact the “Jews and their Lies” was the foundation for the Nuremberg Laws and all that followed: Kristallnacht, the Holocaust, and millions of murdered Jews and other hapless enemies of the state.
So in 2017 when we see Nazis in Charleston, SC. When we read about educational institutions wrestling with allowing Nazis to speak on campus, when we hear slurs and verbal onslaughts, when power is used against the powerless of any faith, color, sexual orientation or creed it is time to remember this:
“The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for Good People to do Nothing”–Edmund Burke.
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