The St. Olaf College Mission reads as follows: “St. Olaf College challenges students to excel in the liberal arts, examine faith and values, and explore meaningful vocation in an inclusive, globally engaged community nourished by Lutheran tradition.” As Oct. 31 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and St. Olaf seems to have entered a much needed moral renaissance as of late, it is probably a good idea for every member of the St. Olaf community to reevaluate what exactly we think of Martin Luther and the implications of being “nourished in Lutheran tradition.”
To begin, it’s fine for St. Olaf, as a private institution, to hold on to quite a bit of what Martin Luther said and believed. It’s fine for St. Olaf to believe that a clergyman should be able to marry. It’s fine for St. Olaf to be against paying money for the reduction of God’s punishment. It’s fine for St. Olaf to believe that one’s salvation is attained by believing Jesus Christ redeems all sin. So long as St. Olaf does not try to force these viewpoints on its student, faculty or staff, they are not directly harming anybody. However, there is a problem with putting Martin Luther himself on a pedestal and holding him up as the apex of morality.
Why? Because Martin Luther really hated Jewish people. He wrote a treatise called On the Jews and Their Lies (a very subtle title) in which he accused the Jewish people of being children of the devil. In it, he also states that it would be a good idea to burn down Jewish synagogues, schools and houses, that Jewish religious texts should be confiscated and that rabbis should be forbidden to teach on pain of death. He goes on to add that Jewish people should not be protected on highways, they should be forbidden from practicing usury, strong Jewish people should be made to do hard physical labor and that if the Germans ever feel seriously threatened by the Jewish people, they should consider permanently exiling them and plenty of other horrific suggestions. Luther’s writing influenced future German and greater European anti-semitism, culminating in nazism. It seems quite clear that Luther contradicts the idea of a progressive, tolerant society and certainly is not compatible with multiculturalism.
Now to be fair to St. Olaf, Martin Luther’s anti-semitism has been addressed. I heard one of the St. Olaf pastors condemn Luther’s wrath against the Jewish people at Reformation Sunday, and I heard that there have been talks about it given by some of the religion department’s Luther experts. This is a good thing. Luther’s anti-semitism should be acknowledged and it is great that St. Olaf has professors who dedicate their careers to studying the life and thinking of Luther. The problem is, even though they acknowledge Martin Luther’s anti-semitism, St. Olaf still thinks that it is okay to glorify Luther.
For a while, there was a giant Playmobil Martin Luther hanging around campus. Is it really the best idea for St. Olaf to promote the forerunner to nazism in toy form? Now, for a moment, picture the repercussions on campus had there been a giant Playmobil Adolf Hitler. One might think that this is a false equivalency. After all, Luther did some good if you’re into Protestantism and he didn’t actually kill Jewish people like Hitler did. But by the same token there was plenty of rapid scientific development because of Nazi Germany. That does not excuse the nazis for the terrible atrocities they committed. While Luther did not kill any Jewish people himself, he did not hesitate to refer to the Spanish inquisition as “common sense.” Luther was a brutal, heartless monster.
We should be ashamed of posing for pictures with a giant Playmobil Luther. We should be ashamed of passing out Playmobil Luther sets as prizes for raffles during a religion department party. We should be ashamed of sharing Martin Luther memes presenting him in a positive light. We should be ashamed of posters celebrating the life of Luther. We should be ashamed and seriously consider where our heads are at when a poster is put up comparing the mortality and life of Martin Luther with Martin Luther King Jr.
Unfortunately, St. Olaf cannot let go of Luther the man because of tribalism. Too many of us still derive our identities from the image of his face.
However, the truth is, Luther was a harbinger of nazism, and he partially bears the blood of millions. The longer we refrain from ending our idealization of his life, the longer this blood will slowly seep onto our fingers.