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The Uncivil Servant: Protestantism at 500

Mitchell Abidor
August 29, 2017

Discussed in the essay: Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper. Random House, 2017, 540 pages.

WHEN ON NOVEMBER 7 we observe the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution, which died a slow, ugly death after a life of barely seventy-five years, we should not forget the far greater revolution celebrating its 500th anniversary just a week earlier: On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed (or pasted) his 95 Theses to the door of the cathedral of Wittenberg, setting off what is modestly called the Protestant Reformation. Lyndal Roper‘s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet is as good, as concise, as well-written, as well-argued an account of Luther, his life, and his revolution as we can expect to read for some time.

I say it is modestly called the Protestant Reformation because Luther, in the span of just a few years, managed to provoke as thorough a revolution in religious life and thought as can be imagined. Moving from attacking the rather recondite issue of the purchasing of indulgences, which released souls from purgatory while filling the coffers of the Catholic Church, Luther was soon attacking monasticism and mortification of the flesh, the role of Mary as an intermediary between human beings and Jesus, the cult of relics. He attacked the Pope as the antichrist and insisted that all are equal before God, that the prince had no more might and the pope had no more insight than the merest of God’s creatures in the realm of religion. In a world as ferociously hierarchical in all spheres as Renaissance Europe, a world in which religion dictated all, such notions make those of Lenin in modern Russia seem those of a Scandinavian social democrat.

Everything in Luther’s Germany and the rest of Europe was religion. Philosophy served religion; art served religion; religious figures wielded enormous temporal power. Luther's attack on the religious foundations of this society should have made him a foe of the existing order, whose hierarchical structure was nothing more than a reflection of that given us by heaven, but as we shall see, Luther pulled up short before this final and logical step.

The methods he employed in his battle against ecclesiastical authority were -- to be anachronistic -- eminently populist. Though gifted in the style of angels-on-a-head-of-a-pin disputation of his time, his most important achievement was appealing to the common mass of Germans, largely by employing a discourse that centered on the body and the flesh, one full of easily grasped scatological references. In some ways, he can be considered the inventor of the German language, or at least as Roper calls him the man who “shaped the German language, creating the modern vernacular as we know it.” In his translation of the Bible, as Roper writes of his translation of the New testament, “His style is direct and unadorned, using alliteration and the rhythms of everyday speech. He writes in populist German, not in Latinate prose . . . This is a Bible designed to be read aloud and to be heard by ordinary people.”

IT IS IMPORTANT to note that Luther was first, last and foremost a German, living his life within a circumscribed corner of his homeland, traveling but once outside it to Rome, a trip which caused him to develop a lasting hatred of Italians. In a sense, that he would reject a church that styles itself as universal was almost to be expected, since cosmopolitanism was foreign to his nature.

So, too, was the more radical political implications of his religious doctrine. From Luther's youth, Roper explains, “[h]e naturally expected power to descend from above, not legitimacy to be conferred from below.” Later, as the full-blown reformer, head of a vast movement, he would be a firm advocate of freedom from imposed interpretations of religious texts (because such an interpretation was not needed, the text being crystal clear), while insisting that secular authorities had to be obeyed. If, in the long, run the result would be Lutheran complicity with the Nazis, in the short run it would place Luther in firm opposition to the revolutionary protestants behind the Peasant Revolt led by Thomas Muntzer that broke out in 1524. When the rebels issued their Twelve Articles of the Peasants, Roper notes, “the key concepts of the Reformation -- 'freedom,' 'Christ alone,' 'Scripture as the only authority' -- were applied to the peasants’ situation, creating a forthright program that found support all over Germany.” They would learn to their dismay, however, that their expansion of Luther’s religious ideas to the political and social realm would not meet with the approval of the man who had set the movement in motion. Roper writes that “Luther could not control how others interpreted his words and deeds,” and Luther’s hatred of the revolt, about which Frederic Engels wrote so well, is clear from the title of his main work about it: Against the Robbing Murdering Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

One can’t help but think that in this case Muntzer and his followers, who died in their thousands, understood Luther’s ideas -- or at least their implications -- far better than he did. Luther, Roper reminds us, was not “modern,” but within his ideas, undeveloped by him, were central ideas of freedom that others would develop, against their inventor.

AN ASPECT of Luther’s ideas that would require no development or expansion in order to serve as the basis for future political movements was his nearly pathological hatred of Jews. This was a constant throughout his life; even as a young man, he feared falling ill as a result of inhaling Jewish breath. Indeed, the parish church of Luther’s town of Wittenberg featured a "Jewish" sow, which Roper describes in some detail: “ . . . a large sow with dangling teats, which are suckled by two Jews . . . Another grips a piglet by the ears and tries to ride it, while a fourth large Jew has his head close to the sow’s backside. The sculpture suggests that Jews are not only pigs themselves but that they look into the pig’s anus.”

Virulent anti-Semitism was an important fixture in Luther’s, and later Lutheran and, of course, German, worldviews. In 1543 he produced his most infamous text, On the Jews and Their Lies. Echoing that Wittenberg church sculpture, he wrote of how Jews seek truth “under the sow’s tail,” and admonished his fellows that if they saw a Jew they should “throw sow dung at him . . . and chase him away.”

But this is not the depths of Luther’s thought on the subject. Synagogues should be burned down, and “what won’t burn should be covered over with earth, so that not a stone or piece of slag of it should be seen for all eternity.” Jews should be forbidden individual homes of their own, and all of them forced to live under one roof. The Talmud and prayer books were assigned to the fire and teachers forbidden. Use of rods should be denied them, usury banned, and Jews forced to work with their hands.

Sows’ anuses were not enough for him; his mad vision of Jews led him to write in a later work that after Judas Iscariot had hung himself, “and as happens to those who are hanged, his bladder burst, then the Jews had their golden cans and silver bowls ready, to catch the Judas piss . . . and afterwards together they ate the shit and drank, from which they got such sharp sight that they are able to see such complex glosses in Scripture.”

It need hardly be said that the posterity of these images and the measures advocated include the Nazi government of four centuries later. Luther’s genius, his centrality in German history, provided these ravings with an imprimatur of legitimacy, and it is all to Lyndal Roper’s credit that she in no way seeks to excuse or explain away Luther’s murderous antisemitism by saying “everyone was doing it.” Rather, she states that “medieval antisemitism had also often insisted on toleration for Jews; Luther’s views were not a medieval relic but a development of it.”

Nor was it an artificial element grafted on to his philosophy. The Jews had to be denigrated in this way for Protestants to assume their role as the new Chosen people. As Luther wrote: “We foolish Gentiles, who were not God’s people, are now God’s people.”

It is again to Roper’s credit that though she spent ten years on this book, she is willing to admit that “Luther is a difficult hero.” She goes on that “unless we appreciate his thought in its own unfamiliar and often uncomfortable terms, we shall not see what it might have to offer us today.” Martin Luther was an unpleasant man who was able to shake the unfettered power of the Catholic Church and lay the groundwork for alternatives of all stripes. Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet is a reminder of how enormous a task its subject undertook and how great was his success.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.