Baker Academic

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Remembering Luther Righteously

One of the points that James Dunn underscores with considerable force is the idea that "righteousness" in the Pauline thoughtscape should be thought of as "right-relationship." This is the sort of righteousness that I will advocate as I encourage my readers to remember Martin Luther righteously.

Like any historical figure, Luther is only intelligible within the network of relationships, power dynamics, and social possibilities of his time. He is embedded within his culture, therefore, and not transcendent. This may seem obvious to the readers of this blog because I've gone on and on about neo-Romanticism in western historiography. But given the level of hero-worship I'm hearing from Protestants these days, I need to risk another boring but true statement: the "great man" approach to history is almost always the wrong way to think of "great men." The common notion that every new era is launched by a great mind that envisions a new world order—a man who rises up above the myopia and social rigidness of contemporaries—is almost always misleading. Luther is not a singular hero. Indeed, his "great mind" was rarely heroic. Unless we remember Luther within the network of relationships that made him possible, he is not worth remembering at all.

One of the problems with thinking of Luther as a singular epoch-making hero is that this approach leaves little room for his anti-Jewish agenda. Those who celebrate his legacy are happy to forgive his belligerent hostility to systemic corruption. They are willing to laugh at his derisive humor aimed at other ideologues. And they tend to humanize Luther with foci on his married life, his general moodiness, and his struggle with Augustinian angst. It is more difficult, however, to deal with his anti-Judaism with a light chuckle and a shrug. Any serious attention to this feature of his agenda would render the hero narrative ignoble (and therefore nonfunctional). Perhaps this is why (this week) I see daily 5-10 Facebook posts about Luther and the 500-year commemoration of the Reformation but I see very few posts about his relationship with Judaism. There are exceptions but I find that most Christians either do not know about Luther's anti-Judaism or don't want to talk about it. Yes, Luther's legacy is connected to the advent of the printing press and a democratizing of Christianity. But his legacy is also connected with the ideological landscape of the Holocaust. The larger cultural network of relationships that made Luther possible also made it possible to dehumanize and commit violence against European Jews.

In my book, Near Christianity, I lean on the work of David Nirenberg:
David Nirenberg writes, “Luther launched an armada of arguments whose force led to the acceptance of his way of reading [Scripture] by many and its violent rejection by many more. It was the active prosecution of this conflict of ideas that reshaped the ways in which European Christians experienced their world, and heightened the dangerous significance of Jews and Judaism in that world” (David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition [New York: Norton], 256). Also: “Luther’s reconceptualization of the ways in which language mediates between God and creation was achieved by thinking with, about, and against Jews and Judaism. Insofar as these reconfigurations diminished the utility and heightened the dangers Jews posed to the Christian world, they had the potential to transform figures of Judaism and their fates. How powerful this potential might be, and what work it might perform in the future, were not Luther’s to control” (267). Nirenberg rightly draws a connection between Luther’s (hermeneutic toward the) reading of Scripture and the foil he creates in Judaism. To his credit, Nirenberg also avoids a simplistic distinction between the so-called “early Luther” and the “later Luther.” Helpfully, he begins by examining Luther’s anti-Jewish work on the Psalms, a work representing the so-called “early Luther.” (Near Christianity, p. 220) [SEE ALSO]
My coauthor of Sacred Dissonance, Larry Behrendt, notes that "Martin Luther’s ally, Philipp Melanchthon, described Luther’s struggle against the Catholic Church as a triumph over law, works, and Pharisees" (Sacred Dissonance, p. 200). But Luther's ideological construct had real-world consequences too. Nirenberg explains that even before Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies, he "directly provoked the expulsion of the Jews from the electoral of Saxony in 1537 and from the towns of Thuringia in 1540, and sparked riots against the Jews in Brunswick in 1543" (Anti-Judaism, 262).

It seems like Jewish historians tend to be the ones to fortify Christian memory on this point. But why should this be? Why should it always fall to the historically persecuted to remember the network of power dynamics rightly?

To be fair, I imagine that professional, Christian historians are also interested in this topic but I don't see this work finding its way into Christian collective memory. Granted, historians of all kinds tend to have difficulty of all kinds disseminating their work to layfolk of all kinds. Such is the divide between seminary and pew. It just so happens that because of this 500-year celebration of the Reformation, pastors seem to be eager to preach about the beginnings of Protestantism. Wouldn't this also be an opportune time to network our collective memories toward righteousness?


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