In our tendency to lionize past heroes, let us acknowledge who our leaders truly were — complex human beings.
Martin Luther may have been full of faith. But he was also full of hate, particularly toward Jews. His treatise “On the Jews and their Lies” was a vicious diatribe forbidding rabbis to teach at risk of loss of life and limb, and further outlining seven measures to castigate all Jews.
In it, he called the synagogue a “defiled bride, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut.” In fact, Luther sounds like he had some serious control and gender issues. It would be laughable if he hadn’t taken it further. But he went on to suggest that Jews should be shown no “mercy and kindness” since they are “worms, and should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.” In his words, “We are at fault in not slaying them.”
This is the same Luther whom Germans, and, yes, Minnesotans are currently revitalizing and wrapping their hopes and dreams around (“Minnesotans renew bond with Luther to revive faith,” Dec. 11). The march-along-with-us tone is all too reminiscent of World War II Germany. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a beautiful hymn seminal to Lutherans, makes me wonder, “Whose God is ‘our God?’ ” Does God only live among Lutherans? Can we of other faiths share?
We aren’t just Lutherans in this state. We represent the rich pageant of beliefs from every continent around the world. But, this year we’re surrounded by Luther cheerleaders: Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Star Tribune, Thrivent Financial — and next year, the Minnesota Orchestra. If we, in the 21st century, are going to recommit to our religious leaders, let’s be thoughtful leaders ourselves.
“The whole idea of individual freedom … really took off from him,” one pastor actually stated. Just peeking out from under the surface of Luther’s preachments was a vicious and outrageous intent to eliminate everyone who didn’t convert, especially Jews, who refused to buy into his beliefs. We must look deeper.
We are the same Minnesotans who are politically correct to the point that we post new signage around Lake Calhoun, adding Mde Maka Ska to be fair to our native residents because John C. Calhoun advocated slavery. We are the same Minnesotans whose governor attempted to remove Civil War paintings in the Capitol lest viewers think we are too focused on that time period, which doesn’t adequately represent all of who we are.
If we are who I think we are, it’s time we take a closer look at Martin Luther and call him out for his damaging ideas toward those who weren’t of his faith. In our desire to proclaim Luther our new superhero, let’s include his anti-Semitism, his foibles, his deeply-flawed humanity.
Carolyn Light Bell is a writer, photographer and educator in Minneapolis.