January 15th, 2011
Today is Martin Luther King’s birthday. His name is an unfortunate tribute to the vicious anti-semite, Martin Luther. It’s time to strip the varnish off the man who founded Lutheranism because it was Martin Luther’s rhetoric that became the biggest, darkest cloud in the perfect storm that created Nazism.
MLK was not simply the savior of blacks in America, he was a staunch defender of Soviet Jewry in a time during which they suffered mightily. He was also a firm supporter of Israel. One of his quotes is important in today’s world of coded references: “The antisemite rejoices at any opportunity to vent his malice. The times have made it unpopular, in the West, to proclaim openly a hatred for the Jews. This being the case, the antisemite must constantly seek new forms and forums for his poison. How he must revel in the new masquerade! He does not hate the Jews, he is just anti-Zionist.”
But this essay is not about antisemitism, it’s about historical forgetting. Would MLK have chosen to celebrate Martin Luther? I don’t think so, but Martin Luther King, Sr, gave his son the name. The irony is that MLK Senior had been given the name Michael at birth. He changed it after a visit to Germany in 1934.
It’s hard to understand why a visit to the brand-new Nazi state would have effected such a change. Let’s look at some of Martin Luther’s comments on Jewry. In his sixty-thousand word book “On the Jews and Their Lies” (Von den Juden und Ihren Lugen), published three years before his death, Luther called Jews the “Devil’s People,” advocated burning their synagogues and prayer books, seizing Jews’ property, disallowing their Rabbis to preach, and smashing the homes of these “poisonous envenomed worms.” These words came from Germany’s great Christian reformer three-and-a-half centuries before Goebbels and Hitler did their reforming.
In 1939, Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant Bishop, published a collection of Martin Luther’s writings. Reviewing them, Diarmaid MacCulloch, a church historian at Oxford, argued they were a “blueprint” for the holocaust. Sasse reveled in the burning of the synagogues and pointed out the happy coincidence that Kristallnacht took place on the night of November 9 and 10. November 10 was Martin Luther’s birthday.
Some horrible things have happened in our country, culminating (we hope) in last weekend’s shootings in Tucson. (It is worth remembering that Arizona had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the society of those states which celebrate Martin Luther King Day.) MLK was a Christian in that he followed those teachings of Christ that emphasized love of, and service to, one’s neighbor. Works counted more than faith. Martin Luther emphasized only faith, and it was simply not enough to arrest his basest impulses.
MLK taught us that Doing is more important than Believing.