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From Lutheran Forum (New York), June-July, 1971, column by Editor Glenn C. Stone, “What If…”
Originally published in the October, 1971 issue of Jewish Currents
A RECENT VOLUME OF LUTHER’S WORKS, the last in a series on the Christian in society, prompts us to wonder what would have happened if Martin Luther had died before 1540? For one thing, his most vicious tirades against the papal Church, the Turks and the Jews would not have been written. For that favor, we all would have been better off. As Luther grew older, his tongue and pen grew sharper, his personality more irascible.
To their credit, the editor and publisher of Vol. 47 (The Christian in Society — IV) make no excuses for what is undoubtedly Luther’s most horrendous treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” 170 pages of non-stop anti-Semitism. And this is not all; Vol. 15 of Luther’s Works will contain his similar treatment of “The Last Words of David.”
In a preface, the author and publisher explain their misgivings about publishing “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Undoubtedly, they admit, this treatise will be misused by religious bigots and Aryan supremacists, as it has been in the past. Yet it is only right that Lutherans in particular be made aware of the blossoming of medieval anti-Semitism within the “evangelical” tradition.
The “proper” use of this treatise (and others like it) is the “alien” work of God’s law—to hammer into our consciences the guilt we bear because thoughts about the Jews exemplified by the “older” Luther have been so intertwined with our history. His suggested solution to the “Jewish problem” is only a step or two removed from Adolph Hitler’s “final solution.” If there is not a direct line from Luther to Hitler, there is at least a parallel line between Christian and secular anti-Semitism, so that one has helped to support the other. We can only cry out to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and to our fellow worshippers of that God, our Jewish brethren — for forgiveness. Which brings us to another conjecture.
What if the publishers of Luther’s Works (Fortress and Concordia) turned over the monies realized from the sale of Volumes 15 and 47 to Jewish organizations as a token of reparation for the harm done by anti-Semitism among Lutherans. Such a sign of repentance can, of course, never atone for that blight. One Jew has already atoned for the sins of us all. But because we believe in a once-for-all atonement, we believe that the way of repentance and amendment is open to men who will acknowledge their complicity and guilt. The payment of reparations would be a sign of our firm intention to repudiate Luther’s views as expressed in “On the Jews and Their Lies.”