Luther, the holocaust, homosexuality and the scriptures.
When I was in my early 20’s I sat and got quietly drunk one night in the company of an old German gentleman. He told me that in WW2 he was a guard of one of the Nazi death camps. I didn’t know what to say. Eventually he broke the silence and said…
“6 million Jews! It can’t be true. It’s not possible!”
I guess that’s how he has resolved things in his own mind.
What I remember most about that man was how pleasant and… well… normal he was. An ordinary person. A person, dear reader, just like you and me.
Last month saw two significant and related days of commemoration. First there was Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day in Israel) followed by IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia Transphobia and Biphobia). It is entirely appropriate that these two commemorations neighbor each other in the calendar.
In 2012 I first learned that along with Jews, gypsies and the disabled who suffered in the death camps some 10 000 LGBT people were also imprisoned, tortured, experimented on and killed by the Nazis.
A few weeks ago I stood in the Holocaust museum in Washington DC. It was an appropriately disturbing experience. The part of my visit that effected me most was not all the horrific photos and film clips of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves or images of people being subjected to inhumane medical experiments. It was not the gas chambers or even the bags upon bags of human hair.
The thing that effected me most was the towering gallery of photos taken of the holocaust victims prior to those shocking events in the 1930’s and 40’s. These were photos of ordinary people living their ordinary lives. People like my family and friends.
People like you and me.
As I stood in the gallery looking up at the faces I remembered my elderly german drinking partner from 30 years ago and was struck by a disturbing thought.
Those who perpetrated these atrocities…
the authorities who planned it,
the thousands of people, military and civilian, who did all of the administrative things necessary to make it happen,
the millions of mainly Christian people who because of their prejudices and fears remained silent to what was happening around them,
these people bear responsibility for the holocaust.
People like you and me.
There was a wrought iron sign in the museum. “ ARBEIT MACHT FREI” (work will make you free). These words adorned the entrance to many of the death camps. Something about those words reminded me of how the founder of my own church contributed to this atrocity. The Nazis used the writings of Martin Luther to help stir anti-jewish prejudice. His disturbing 200 page invective entitled “Against the Jews and their Lies” included the following 7 recommendations.
First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn
Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.
Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.
Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.
Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews
Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.
Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow. (1)
Luther’s writings on the Jews need to be understood in their cultural context. I say this not to excuse them but as a statement of fact. For the 1500 years leading up to Luther and the 400 years following, the Christian Church routinely marginalised, demonized and persecuted the Jews.
Christians today, post holocaust Christians, might largely have forgotten how some passages of the Bible had been interpreted and used by Christians to condemn all Jews. John 8: 39-47 was understood to classify Jews as liars, murderers and “of the Devil”. Matthew 27:15-26 deemed Jews to be “Christ killers”. Acts 7:54-60 was seen as proof that Jews were persecutors and killers of Christians.
Few Christians today would interpret those passages in that way. But they did. For nearly 2 thousand years of church history select Bible passages were used by Christians the world over to condemn an entire race of people. Luther was not alone in his anti-Jewish views.
If we had available today a gallery of pictures of the pastors and lay people who held these anti-Jewish prejudices prior to 1945 we would see that they were ordinary people, people like my family, friends and the members of my church.
People like you and me.
I was looking for something in particular when I visited the holocaust museum. It didn’t take me long to find it. The pink triangle. While the Jews were made to wear the star of David on their striped uniforms the LGBT people who were imprisoned were made to wear a pink triangle. Some report that those who wore the pink triangle were so despised by the Nazis that they were singled out for the worst treatment.
When the allied forces liberated the camps they were appalled by what they saw. Some of the film footage that I saw showed the tenderness and care afforded by the allied soldiers to those who had suffered so much. The Jews who survived the atrocities were eventually provided with some financial compensation to help them get their lives back together.
Not so for those who wore the pink triangle. As shocking as this may sound, many of the gay people who were initially liberated from the death camps were soon re-interred by the allied authorities. Homosexuality was deemed to be a criminal offense. They received no compensation and were not acknowledged by the authorities to be holocaust victims. (2)
Before we judge the allied authorities too harshly for their treatment of the gay holocaust survivors we should remember that homosexuality continued to be a criminal offense in Australia as recently as 1997. The injustice toward and inhumane treatment of LGBT people continued long after the war. It was perpetrated not by nazis or fiends or villains but by ordinary people.
People like you and me.
On 14 November 2014 leading US evangelical ethicist Dr David Gushee spoke about the things mentioned above. He spoke of how the Bible had been misused to marginalize and condemn a class of people. See if you can work out who he was talking about from this section of his presentation.
I want to talk about a small minority group that was for almost 2000 years the object of a tragically destructive religiously motivated contempt on the part of the church of Jesus Christ…
it was grounded on knowledge sources at the very centre of christianity: Scripture, tradition and major church leaders, what they said generation after generation.
Everyone just knew that the group that was the object of this negative teaching was well worthy of the churches rejection and disdain. Everyone just knew that this disdain was biblical and that it was attested by the highest authorities of the church. indeed , expressing rejection and disdain for this group became a core part of christian identity, even christian piety.
The churches negative teaching about this group was comprehensive. The church warned its adherents about association with this group. The church ascribed particular vices to this group including sexual degeneracy and violence, especially against children. Even the term used to name this group became a slur in itself. The church, at times, were willing to welcome individual members of this group into its fellowship but this welcome was equivocal…Often their group background came up especially in relations to church leadership or ordination. This reflected a lingering taint associated with this group.
While the leaders of the church almost never explicitly taught that its members should perpetrate violence against this group this unfortunate group was regularly victimized by violence. Because these outbreaks of violence were so frequent a special term was coined to name them, a term which survives to this day.
Meanwhile in everyday life bullying was common against the members of this group. Name calling was constant. Social separation was routinely enforced. Preaching regularly communicated contempt for this group. No Christian wanted to be seen as too cosy with this group for fear of sharing in its moral taint and losing the support of their own family and friends. From the perspective of those in this targeted group Christianity was everywhere and Christianity was dangerous…
Which group was Dr Gushee describing? Was it the Jewish community or the LGBT community? The fact that these same words could easily be applied to both groups is telling.
(A link to Dr Gushee’s full address appears below.)
Change has come for the Jewish community. It took the shock and shame of the holocaust to bring it, but change has come. Lutheran Churches the world over have repudiated Luther’s anti-semitic writings. Christian churches have changed the way they speak about Jewish people and their understanding of what the Bible says.
Change is coming to our church in the way we speak about our LGBT brothers and sister, the way we treat them and the way we understand what the Bible has to say about them. It needn’t take a holocaust to motivate the change. All it takes is people of good will to take an honest look at the scripture. All it takes is people who seek after companion and justice and the heart of Christ.
Perhaps… people like you and me.
- (Excerpts from Luther’s work, “The Jews and Their Lies” as found in http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Luther_on_Jews.html)