Celebrating Reformation Day with Luther…and Hitler

If you are a candy-eating pagan who thought today was Halloween, well, I’ll pray for your soul. Today is Reformation Day.

Besides sending a long letter to Google about why its homepage features scarecrows and monsters instead of the Wittenberg Door, I decided to celebrate by writing about Martin Luther, the one who basically started the Protestant church on this day in 1517. (It’s more complicated than that, of course. But hey, this is my blog post. I’m summarizing.)

Luther

The problem is, my relationship with Luther is…interesting.

Back in high school, a few of my friends called me “Marty” after Martin Luther. Not because I was super Protestant (though I was), but because I played the famous reformer in a debate. (Not your classic here-I-stand-I-can-do-no-other debate. As I recall, it was against Zwingli on the topic of transubstantiation. I promise this was a class assignment at my public high school. I was not nerdy enough to do this on my own.)

The point is, I identified with Martin Luther. I thought he was just the coolest, because seriously, who wouldn’t want to talk about grace and dramatically nail stuff to doors and sneak nuns out of a convent in barrels, Hobbit-style?

I was a fan.

Then, in college, I read Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It described one of the Nazi regime’s tactics to get the German people on board with anti-Semitic policies: quote Luther in their literature. According to the book, Luther said some really awful things about Jews (including an entire book The Jews and Their Lies), and Hitler and Co. gleefully printed each and every angry, sometimes violent sound bite all over their propaganda.

This cannot be a real thing, I thought, quickly checking reliable sources (ie, doing a Google search) to see what I could find.

It was a real thing. Luther seemed to undergo a shift in his life, becoming more and more bitter toward the Jews and their teachings. Many of his words about them do not sound like the thoughtful theologian you thought you knew, but more like angry, ranting letters to the editor sent in by an old man who has lost his grip on what it means to love others. (Metaxas and others have pointed out that this kind of is what happened to Luther later in life…he was old and in declining health when he made his most horrifying statements.)

I was…sad. You know the feeling if you’ve had a pastor resign or a read an interview with a beloved author who contradicted what you believe or double-checked the Christianity Today headline to make sure you were really hearing news that that person did that thing.

But this, this one seems to go beyond that. I mean, let’s face it: Luther pretty much gave Hitler impressive theological pull quotes for his crimes against humanity.

"With Luther and Hitler for faith and nationality." Kind of like a "Vote Hitler--Luther Would" bumper sticker.

“With Luther and Hitler for Faith and Nationality.” Kind of like a “Vote Hitler–Luther Would” bumper sticker.

It made me think about four things:

One: If you are a teacher, you will be held responsible for what you teach (See James 3:1 if you need proof that I’m not making this up). Thousands of Germans fought back their sense of discomfort about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews because, “Well, Luther did say…” Because of Luther’s position of authority, his words had authority. And in this case, he used it badly.

Two: Don’t accept something just because a pastor or theologian said it. Even one you respect. Take the teaching back to the Bible and the character of God. Every. Single. Time.

Three: We need to think about how much we should revere our “heroes.”

Four: …and what we should do when they (inevitably) let us down. Sometimes we enthusiastically applaud a particular person’s teaching…until he or she does something spectacularly awful later in life. What do we do with the words of wisdom and truth the leader spoke earlier on? Should we discard them all?

Or, to get more specific, should we stop reading books by Mark Driscoll after his resignation? Should we stop listening to Gungor because of their less-than-literal view of Adam and Eve? Rob Bell, The Shack, World Vision a few months ago, and the many others flirting with the fringe of orthodoxy…what do we do with them? Let me know if you figure it out—I need to know how many book burnings I should attend this week. (Given that Bathsheba incident, I’m considering adding David’s psalms to the list too.)

Seriously, though, it’s a hard thing to know, because we are shaped by the people who teach us. We are shaped by their words and attitudes and the example of their character. (This is why I sit through the first half-dozen video Bible studies or podcast sermons with eyebrows raised and arms crossed—“I don’t know you, Matt Chandler. Why should I listen to what you say?” I have serious trust issues.)

How do we find the balance between revering great men and women of the faith and recognizing that they are, after all, sinful humans? When does a person’s reputation impact the credibility of what they say—or what they’ve said in the past? What does it mean to call someone a man or woman of God when there are such glaring exceptions in their life and teaching?

It seems a little silly, but sitting here, I wish I could tell Martin Luther, “You were just a man. And I used to treat you like more than that. I’m sorry. And I forgive you for disappointing me.”

But I’m still sad. And maybe that’s the feeling we’re supposed to get. Frustration with imperfect heroes and our imperfect selves living in a place where both bad theology and genocide exist…and sometimes contribute to each other.

4 comments

  1. As always, you provide great food for thought! This topic has been on my mind lately, having just returned from a trip in Ireland were we visited places with history steeped in trust and distrust between orders of monks, monks and bishops, sects of Christianity, ecc. (And in light of Driscoll ‘ s story). I remember a time when Driscoll was quoted in Bible classes and theology of my fellow students measured by his words. I remember I time when I thought all Bishops were corrupt and ALL the leaders of the church between the 12th and 16th centuries all at falt. And yes, the days when Luther could do no wrong. But lately, I’ve started to wonder when we decided we should worship the men of God instead of the Son of God. I agree, our heros shape us. We should be careful how we let our theological mentors to shape how we view God and the world. We are also called to do our own study of the word and of God. We are so willing to rely on the study of others, we forget to learn ourselves. What does it look like to allow the Son of God and the Word of God to teach us first and to allow men of God to teach us second? I don’t pretend to know, but I am becoming convinced that we all need to wrestle with this question and allow our way of life to reflect the conclusions we come to.

    1. I love this. All of it. But particularly “I’ve started to wonder when we decided we should worship the men of God instead of the Son of God.” It’s apparently a pretty human tendency (like the squabble about following Paul or Apollos or Peter in 1 Corinthians). I’ll have to think about what it looks like too, because if I’m honest, I know I depend a bit too much on other people and their words about God.

  2. As always a wonderful post, and i certainly agree with some points you made.
    It also had some historical facts i didn’t know, which fit in quite nicely with my current historical period study. 🙂

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