Friday, December 10, 2010

Campfire Stories

Four hundred and ninety years ago today, on December 10th 1520, the German priest Martin Luther burned his copy of Pope Leo X’s Papal Bull entitled “Exsurge Domine” just outside the “Elster Gate” of Wittenberg. The Exsurge Domine is not lacking in flowery metaphors, here’s one:

“The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.”
But it was not literary excess that drove Martin Luther to so famously burn it before a crowd of his followers.

Some years before, on Halloween 1517, Matin Luthor had nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints Church. The Exsurge Domine detailed 41 of these “errors” with which the Holy See was not amused. My favorite of which was number 24 on the Exsurge Domine list:

“Christians must be taught to cherish excommunications rather than to fear them.”

Which sounds cool to me.

Martin Luther went on to be famously tried and excommunicated (which I’m sure he cherished) and generally treated badly. The trials had marvelous names like “The Diet of Worms” (25 May 1521). You just don’t get great trial names like that these days.

Martin Luther, as a good priest, was practiced at the art of sublimation. Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements (Freud). In Martin Luther’s case those achievements were spreading rabid anti-Semitic hatred. Up until the Exsurge Domine Martin was almost a defender of German Jews:

“that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?" -- Martin Luther 1519
Oh what a difference a mean-spirited letter from an Italian in a dress and a meal of worms can make! By 1536 Martin was violently anti-semitic. He was apparently storming around the German countryside proclaiming that: “whoever would help the Jews was doomed to perdition”.

His most famous treatise was published just three years before his death. In a book he titled “Von den Jüden und iren Lügen“ (English: On the Jews and Their Lies) he detailed his arguments for a solution to the Jew problem Germany was having.

"base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth. They are full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine. The synagogue was a defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut ..” -- Martin Luther 1543

He goes on to argue that the Jewish homes be raised, that synagogues and schools be burned, that property be seized, and other bad stuff. The Jews themselves were not only to be rounded up and put into forced labor, but Martin goes on to say “"[w]e are at fault in not slaying them”.

If Martin had just lived another 400 years he would have seen his “solution” put into action. Martin Luther's anti-semitic writings may have been one of the reasons why the church that bore his name as part of the Landeskirchen beat out the evangelical church in the 1930s in their bid to become the official church of the National Socialists.

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