The 16th century intellectual and spiritual leader that kickstarted the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, had a very negative, anti-Semitic side to his personality. It impacted major social and political actions over the next four hundred years.
Luther wrote astoundingly hateful things about the Jews. Through his power of ecclesiastical authority, despicable behaviors and vengeful ideas were boldly promoted against God’s original “chosen people” who were distinctly outside of Christian community. Many strands in the mainstream of Christian theology have long asserted that followers of Christ are the new chosen people, thus filling the position instead of the Jews. Within the long tradition of heartily confident “messengers of God” and since he was undergirded by many easily appropriated biblical mandates God gave in the Old Testament, Luther was able to convince generations of Germans (up through at least the mid-20th century) that the Jews, as an entire race and without individual exception, deserved to be regularly humiliated, robbed of their money and property, removed from the country, and even killed. (See quotes from and links to Luther’s writings on the Jews at the bottom of this article.)
Luther’s violent intolerance of non-believers was guided and fueled by many passages from the Holy Scriptures like this one:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:10-18 NIV)
In deep contrast to the idea of loving other people groups as themselves, the biblical God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide upon their polytheistic, “heathen” neighbors. This laid a foundation that would ethically allow disciples of Jesus around the world to look at non-believers with severe disregard and dehumanizing attitudes. It would enable believers to kill other Christian groups because only one of them could be correctly interpreting the Scriptures. It would give them moral strength to stand on God’s side against the demonic powers of non-biblical society. They could invade the Middle East to conquer Jerusalem during the Crusades and justify annihilating an enormous number of “infidels”, a term long used by Christians to describe Muslims and other non-believers. Followers of Christ were able to feel morally justified while abusing, enslaving, or exterminating millions of Native Americans and Africans, people groups that practiced animistic, polytheistic, or Muslim forms of religion. Straightforward examples of deeply inhumane teachings from the Old and New Testaments like the one mentioned above were used to motivate the Spanish Inquisition to imprison, torture or execute any suspected doubters, heretics or apostates. The historical record shows many more horrific results that came from imitations of various biblical teachings. This was overt bigotry and cruelness in the extreme, specifically presented and framed in the holy texts as being divinely commanded or authorized. God said. Thus saith the Lord.
Consider the precedent established by passages like this one in which God directs the Jews to murder people that worship other gods, either as individuals or entire cities:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. (Deuteronomy 13:6-15)
An article in The Guardian sketches out how the command of God in the Old Testament to murder the entire Amalekite people group, including all children and livestock (1 Samuel 15:3), affected the beliefs and actions of many Christians thousands of years later:
The story of the Amalekites has been used to justify genocide throughout the ages. According to Pennsylvania State University Professor Philip Jenkins, a contributing editor for the American Conservative, the Puritans used this passage when they wanted to get rid of the Native American tribes. Catholics used it against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics. “In Rwanda in 1994, Hutu preachers invoked King Saul’s memory to justify the total slaughter of their Tutsi neighbors,” writes Jenkins in his 2011 book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperCollins).
On the Jews and Their Lies, written by Luther in 1543, is the most anti-Semitic writing that I have ever heard about, on the same level with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. After reading it, I am not surprised that many historians credit Luther as one of the forefathers of modern anti-Semitism. Hatred and bitterness toward the Jews certainly existed in Germany and elsewhere long before Luther wrote this, but he is considered by many historians to be a very influential force within Protestant European history toward developing these excessively malevolent and dehumanizing views of the Jewish people.
As the Evangelical Church in Germany said in 2016:
In the lead-up to the Reformation anniversary [the year 2017] we cannot bypass this history of guilt. The fact that Luther’s anti-Judaic recommendations in later life were a source for Nazi anti-Semitism is a further burden weighing on the Protestant churches in Germany.
It’s very sad and yet strange that the kinds of abuses the Jews experienced throughout Western history by believers in the Judeo-Christian God were much the same as the types that Jews (because of commands from this God) used against the multiple nations they stole land from and mass murdered in the Old Testament. The first genocides against and conquests over the Jews’ neighbors were justified, according to God, due to the grand wickedness of the surrounding people groups near them. Later, when particular Christian leaders, such as Luther, appealed to the Bible to support actions that appear quite evil to most everyone now, they needed merely turn to one of many passages in their Bible to reference the blueprint for that order of deed in that sort of situation.
The obvious correlation between multiple atrocities committed in the name of the biblical God throughout world history after Christ’s earthly life and what numerous readings in the Scriptures actually teach is denied by contemporary orthodox Christians who say that individuals, whether revered and experienced Christian disciples or not, have the choice to carry out horrendous injustice or to trust in God and demonstrate loving action to other people. The logical difficulty with this assertion is that history provides countless examples of people who followed gruesome, often arbitrary, biblical commands with precise religious adherence and therefore embraced the habits of deep cruelty, indifference and severe destruction of human life (and sometimes non-human aspects of nature as well). As I explained in another post, although many positive results in the progress of human culture have occurred through Christianity’s influence, the despicable aspects of this belief system and religion are just as strong. To its monumental shame, the Bible directly or indirectly endorses or reinforces inhumane conventions such as misogyny, seasonal and colonial warfare, genocide and slavery.
One possible reason as to why traditional Christian leaders today, as official representatives standing by “God’s one holy book”, do not take considerable responsibility for the toxic effects of these portions of the Bible is that they are viewing it from within the unique position of a modern, democratic, post-Enlightenment and individualistic society that expects each person to critically examine how to apply instructions from religion, philosophy and spirituality in appropriately different ways for each circumstance. However, because separation of church and state is a fairly recent concept historically, whenever Christians of past eras came into political, economic or military power, they often chose the apparently best model to follow in governance: the Old Testament patterns of theocratic authoritarianism and violent defense of national religious purity. Unfortunately, the Bible didn’t provide clear enough tools with which to sort out the morally antiquated or irrelevant teachings within itself when Christians encountered complex problems and didn’t have the “voice of God” present to tell them exactly how to proceed (assuming that God, if directly engaged in conversation, would have objected to these forms of political power in post-biblical times). Many Christian scholars of the past who are recognized by traditional believers to have had brilliant intelligence and mostly saintly character (especially in regard to the spiritual and theological quality of their writings), used the Bible to advocate and/or justify abhorrent conduct: Tertullian (misogyny), John Chrysostom (misogyny), Augustine (misogyny), Thomas Aquinas (misogyny), Martin Luther (murder of non-believers), John Knox (misogyny), Ulrich Zwingli (murder of non-believers), John Calvin (murder of non-believers), Jonathan Edwards (slavery), George Whitefield (slavery) and numerous others. Were they ill-informed? Were they radically immature in their spirituality? It seems quite far-fetched to think these men were incapable of figuring out in their hearts or minds the very basic ethical components of “loving one’s neighbor”. Instead, the evidence reveals substantial (but not total) culpability first with the Scriptures themselves because of the virulent content found in many of its texts.
After reading the excerpt below from the Wikipedia page for On the Jews and Their Lies, it should not be difficult to see how the Nazis found common ground with and even much guidance from Luther’s plan to brutally remove the Jews from Germany or eliminate them altogether. A search through the text on Google Books shows that the Wikipedia entry is accurate.
In the treatise, Luther writes that the Jews are a “base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” [They are] an “incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and…should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing “we are at fault in not slaying them.
Here is Wikipedia’s full description of it.
These are some highlights and excerpts.
This is the full text.
Because of the facts illustrated above, I believe it’s very important for Christians and non-Christians to be aware of many reasons why critics question the morality of the ideas and practices from church history’s greatest theologians, along with the Scriptures that influenced them. The Bible is said by many conservatives and traditionalists to be completely trustworthy and virtuous in what it teaches. Yet, great errors and barbarisms have spread numerous times because Christians rigorously applied certain themes, precepts or sections from it. This occurred because particular elements of the texts set a very destructive model or example to follow. These were not the “love your neighbor as yourself” type of messages and they were not ambiguous in their brutality or the righteous fervor that justified it.