Martin Luther and Anti-Semitism
Martin Luther and Judaism
Luther initially preached tolerance towards the Jewish people, convinced that the reason they had never converted to Christianity was that they were discriminated against, or had never heard the Gospel of Christ. However, after his overtures to Jews failed to convince Jewish people to adopt Christianity, he began preaching that the Jews were set in evil, anti-Christian ways, and needed to be expelled from the German body politic. In his On the Jews and Their Lies, he repeatedly quotes the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:34, where Jesus called the Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees) of his day "a brood of vipers and children of the devil". In the book written three years before his death, he listed seven recommendations to deal with the Jews:
I shall give you my sincere advice: First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.... Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies.... Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. ... Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. ... Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. ... Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3:19). ...
In spite of these seven recommendations, he added:
But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, - servants, cattle, etc., if they had to serve and work for us - for it is reasonable to assume that such noble lords of the world and venomous, bitter worms are not accustomed to working and would be very reluctant to humble themselves so deeply before the accursed Goyim - then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., compute with them how much their usury has extorted from us, divide this amicably, but then eject them forever from the country. For, as we have heard, God's anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!
Luther's harsh comments about the Jews are seen by many as a continuation of medieval Christian anti-Semitism, and as the above quote shows, reflects earlier anti-Semitic expulsions in the 14th century, when Jews from other countries like France and Spain were invited into Germany. When Luther writes that the Jews should be expelled from his homeland, he expresses widespread feelings of his times. Since Luther's statements were widely read at the time, it is possible that this tract fed anti-Semitism, leading to the Nazi era about four centuries later.
Luther was zealous toward the Gospel, and he wanted to protect the people of his homeland from the Jews who he believed would be harmful influences since they did not recognize Jesus as their Saviour. In Luther's time, parents had a right and a duty to direct their children's marriage choices in respect to matters of faith. Likewise, Luther felt a duty to direct his German people to cling to the Jesus the Jews did not accept. It should be noted that church law was superior to civil law in Luther's day and that law said the penalty of blasphemy was death. When Luther called for the deaths of Jews, he was asking that the laws that were applied to all other Germans also be applied to the Jews. Jews were exempt from the church laws that Christians were bound by, most notably the law against charging interest.
In 1983, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod made an official statement disassociating themselves from Luther's anti-Semitic statements.
In 1994, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected the parts of Luther's writings that advocated government action against practitioners of Judaism.