Thursday, December 08, 2016

Luther: The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows seven times higher than ordinary thieves

The following is from the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth, under the heading "The Jews":

"The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows seven times higher than ordinary thieves" (Weimar, Vol. 53, Pg. 502.)

Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With these quotes, they attempt to show while Christ taught "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," Luther held the opposite in regard to the Jews.

Luther Exposing the Myth cites "Weimar, Vol. 53, Pg. 502." It is probable that the quote actually was taken from  Peter F. Wiener's Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor (1945). Wiener states,
It will be found, at close inspection, that Luther's laws are much more strict, or at least as severe, as those of Hitler. Very often he repeated his order, “The Jews have to be expelled from our country.” Or he gave the Christian advice. “The Jews deserve to be hanged on gallows seven times higher than ordinary thieves” (W53, 502).
The reference, "W53, 502" is accurate. It's from Luther's treatise, Von den Juden und ihren Lügen (On The Jews and Their Lies, 1543). Here is WA 53:502. The text being referred to is lines 8-10 ("Denn ein Wucherer ist ein Ertzdieb und Landreuber, der billich am Galgen sieben mal höher denn andere Diebe hengen solt") from this paragraph:

Von den Juden und ihren Lügen was a response to a letter from Count Schlick of Moravia. The Count had sent Luther a Jewish apologetic pamphlet allegedly containing a Jewish attack against Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Christian exegesis of the Old Testament. The Count asked Luther to refute it. Unfortunately, this letter and attack have been lost, so we are unaware of the exact tone of argument Luther was responding to. Whatever was in that Jewish writing, Luther erupted in vicious polemic, attacking not only through theology, but also in antagonistic ad hominem as well. Luther moved from his earlier writings of attacking Jewish theology to attacking Jewish people.

This treatise has been translated into English in LW 47. The quote can be found at LW 47:241-242. This treatise was translated "only to make available the necessary documents for scholarly study of this aspect of Luther's thought" and its translation "is in no way intended as an endorsement of the distorted view of the Jewish faith and practice or the defamation of the Jewish people which this treatise contains" (LW 47:123).

If they were not so stone-blind, their own vile external life would indeed convince them of the true nature of their penitence. For it abounds with witchcraft, conjuring signs, figures, and the tetragrammaton of the name, that is, with idolatry, envy, and conceit. Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch-thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security. For a usurer is an arch-thief and a robber who should rightly be hanged on the gallows seven times higher than other thieves. Indeed, God should prophesy about such beautiful penitence and merit from heaven through his holy angel and become a flagrant, blasphemous liar for the sake of the noble blood and circumcised saints who boast of being hallowed by God’s commandments, although they trample all of them under foot and do not keep one of them [LW 47:241-242].
The context shows Luther was totally convinced of the medieval stereotype of the Jews as thieves, in this context, because of the practice of usury. The editors of Luther’s Works explain,
The practice of usury, in the simple sense of the taking of interest on loans (without any connotation of exorbitant rates), is prohibited in such texts as Exod. 22:25, Lev. 25:35 ff., and Deut. 23:19 f., but only with respect to fellow Israelites. The Deuteronomy text is the most explicit with regard to dealings with others: “To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest” (23:20). The practice of usury was strictly forbidden to Christians by the medieval church, but permitted to Jews. They prohibition began to break down during the Reformation period; Luther himself, however, steadfastly maintained the medieval position [LW 47: 169 (footnote 31)].
Even if Luther was right that the Jews practiced some sort of usury, the situation during the sixteenth century was not as simple as Luther makes it out. Eric Gritsch explains,
In a sermon of 1519, Luther joined the discussion on the use and abuse of money-lending, linked to the practice of "usury." Jews were accused of usury. But the charge was linked to an arrangement between Christian princes and Jewish merchants: the Christian political authorities permitted Jews to charge interest rates, but also made the Jews pay considerable sums for protection. It was a form of pawn-broking or of retail trade. Jewish traders offered discount prices, and Christian artisans complained about being cheated, using popular anti-Semitic rhetoric. Roman Catholic Canon Law prohibited usury, referring to Luke 6:35 ("lend, expecting nothing in return") [Eric Gritsch, Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism, Against His Better Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eermans, 2012), p. 57].
In Luther studies there have been a number of researchers who conclude Luther's later anti-Jewish tracts were written from a position different than current anti-semitism. Luther was born into a society that was anti-Judaic, but it was not the current anti-Judaic type of society that bases it racism on biological factors. Luther had no objections to integrating converted Jews into Christian society. He had nothing against Jews as “Jews.” He had something against their religion because he believed it denied and blasphemed Christ. If one frames the issues with these two categories (anti-semitism, anti-Judaic), Luther was not Anti-semitic. The contemporary use of the word "anti-semitism" though does not typically consider its distinction from anti-Judaism. The word now has a more broad meaning including anti-Judaism. The current debate centers around whether the evolved use of the term is a significant step towards describing previous history or if it's setting up an anachronistic standard for evaluating previous history [see my entry here in regard to Eric Gritsch]. As I've looked at this issue from time to time, I'm beginning to think more along the lines of evaluating Luther with the current understanding of the word anti-semitism.

I don't have anything to gain by an exoneration of Luther's obvious societal stereotype against the Jews. Luther was not infallible. He said a number of things ranging on the scale of brilliant to typical to ridiculous to offensive. From my perspective, Luther's theology neither stands nor falls because of statements on the negative side of the scale. It's my opinion that Luther's attitude toward the Jews is part of Church history, and, to point a finger at Luther one needs to consistently point the fingers beyond Luther as well. This would be the consistent thing to do. There are though a number of Rome's cyber-defenders that think the Third Reich began with Luther and think posting Luther's dreadful comments from The Jews and Their Lies is a meaningful argument against Protestantism. Consider what Luther, Exposing the Myth states:
While I leave to the reader to draw his own conclusions, it suffices to say that what Luther really was; and the picture that is presented of him today by modern scholars, Lutherans and Protestants alike is far from the truth. Given this fact, it’s not difficult to see how a nation like Germany was able to blindly follow a person like Hitler if it had previously so readily embrace a person like Luther. Adolf Hitler himself was indeed no doubt a true (spiritual) son of Luther and in many ways was only being logical to the principles set forth by Luther in his approach to things. Hitler himself declared the reality of this point in one of his speeches saying: “I do insist on the certainty that sooner or later – once we hold power – Christianity will be overcome and the German Church established. Yes, the German church, without a Pope and without the bible, and Luther, if he could be with us, would give us his blessing.”
Despite the slander against the nation of Germany (as if there is something intrinsically wrong with them), it's simply illogical to think Luther invented Jewish oppression and that the church collectively didn't play it's part in creating the anti-Judaic culture Luther lived in. If Luther's spiritual son was Hitler, whose spiritual son is Luther? Nope, many of Rome's cyber-defenders won't touch that one. The story of Luther's negativity towards the Jews is really to tell the story of medieval Christianity and medieval society's negativity towards the Jews.

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