Richard Cohen

Martin Luther Hated Jews. Does He Deserve a Splash of Red Paint?

It’s always the anniversary of something or other. In November, we have the Russian Revolution and the Balfour Declaration, and this week marks the 500th year since Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church with his 95 theses. Given the loopy zeitgeist of our times, I should rush into the street and mark the occasion by defacing Protestant churches with the customary red paint of protest. Luther, after all, was more than the creator of Protestantism. He was also a rotten anti-Semite.

The red paint has in recent days been splashed on the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that stands before New York’s American Museum of Natural History. The old Rough Rider is accused of championing colonialism (guilty) and embracing much of the racism of his times (guilty). For example, he was fond of saying “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”

A bit farther downtown, the statue of Christopher Columbus has been similarly assailed, he for his brutal, genocidal treatment of the Arawak Indians, of whom there are few left. Chris long ago got his holiday, but he is finally also getting his due. The same applies to the many statues of Civil War figures, extolled in bronze or whatever for their gallant defense of slavery and racism. Some of these got the red-paint treatment and have come down. It’s about time. Treason can sometimes be noble; racism never is.

But does Luther also deserve a splash of red? The evidence is pretty shocking, not to mention definitive. In 1543, he published “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in which he called my ancestors “base and whoring people” full of the “devil’s feces . . . they wallow in like swine.” He had all sorts of ideas for what to do with the Jews, including the wholesale liquidation of their synagogues, even homes, and a ban on the teaching of their rabbis “on pain of loss of life and limb.”

To be sure, Luther’s Jew-hatred was typical for the time, but Luther himself was hardly typical. He was a powerful, colloquial writer, and his words surely had some effect. He was the founder of a church, or a movement, that now numbers nearly 1 billion. But more pertinently, he provided a religious imprimatur to German anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Luther was often cited by the Nazis, but it would be wrong to blame him alone for the murder of 6 million souls.

As far as I’m concerned, Luther is a flawed figure. I can appreciate — even applaud — his reforms, but they mean little to me. Nevertheless, I spare him the red paint because I know his Jew-hatred is hugely negligible compared with the Reformation he initiated and, not insignificantly, the role he played in encouraging literacy. He wrote in German, not Latin, and like the Hebrews he so despised, he interposed no one between man and God. One had to read the Bible.

I apply the same rule to ol’ TR and Columbus, as well as Woodrow Wilson (no doubt a racist) and the countless personages who lent their names and often ill-gotten fortunes to various institutions. Roosevelt too was a man of his times, but he was also the first president to have a black person as a guest in the White House. In 1901, Booker T. Washington came to dinner. As Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, points out, it was an astonishing act of racial tolerance for the era.

So, I listen to J.S. Bach, even though some of his sacred works soar on words of jarring anti-Semitism (it helps not to understand German), and I read Hemingway even though his depiction of Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises” as a “kike” is just plain ugly. I make no allowance for Charles Lindbergh because his anti-Semitism endangered lives and because flying solo across the ocean was a stunt. (In a sense, so was Columbus’s voyage; someone was going to do it.)

I pick and choose, my symbolic can of red paint always at the ready. But when it comes to those Confederate generals, they unambiguously stand for slavery, racism and the vile nostalgia for the so-called Lost Cause that prompted the erection of so many memorials. I cherish my Bach, feel bully about TR and acknowledge the immense importance of Martin Luther. He did more good than bad.

Happy anniversary, Martin!

(The Washington Post)