Sins of the Author

The last time that I quoted Martin Luther online, I got a single response: “He was an anti-Semite.” Since I had somehow never heard that before, I decided to do a bit of research on the topic.

Apparently, in the early 1520’s Luther wrote that “we must receive [the Jews] cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.” That sounds like an enlightened and reasonable position.

By the early 1540’s, however, Luther wrote that Synagogues and Hebrew schools should be burned to the ground and that rabbis should be executed if they insist on preaching. He also proposed that the Jews should have their writings and wealth confiscated by the state. That does not sound enlightened and reasonable. That sounds awful, really.

I have a hard time understanding how somebody could make such a dramatic shift, but by the end of his life, Luther was apparently a full-blown anti-Semite. This is a truly disturbing revelation. But the next question is a much harder one: why does it matter?

The response “he was an anti-Semite” is a simple ad hominem attack. Even if it is true, the statement does not reach the merits what Luther said. So what value is it? A man I know once saw an elderly Jean-Paul Sartre get off a bus in Paris. He told me that when he saw how old and ugly Sartre was, he immediately thought, “nothing he says can be right.” Obviously, how Sartre looked had no direct bearing on the quality and validity of his writing. Similarly, one could argue that whether or not Luther was an anti-Semite has no bearing on the validity of his writing.

On the other hand, if we agree that antisemitism is not only reprehensible but it shows a fundamental flaw in morals or logic, then Luther’s writings are necessarily suspect. If Luther makes a claim that it is moral and good to steal from or even kill others because of their religious beliefs, how can any of his moral writings be trusted?

Although compelling, that argument is inadequate. Writings should be judged with a critical eye no matter what we think we know about the author. The knowledge that the author has certain biases or prejudices may be helpful in discovering flaws in the writing, but they do not make an otherwise solid piece of writing not worth the reading. The hypocrisies or vices of the author are not necessarily imputed to the work itself. If so, what book would not be guilty of something?

Further, it seems clear that Luther changed his mind about the Jews at some point in his life. So does his antisemitism only taint everything after that change? Or does a late-in-life sin ruin everything that came before it?

As a final thought: Luther was a beer drinker. Does that mean that beer must be bad because it was favored by an anti-Semite? Or does his beer drinking do something to cancel out the prejudice?


Beer of the week: Wernesgrüner Pils – This German Pilsner is reasonably good. I think that it is quite comparable to Pilsner Urquell (which happens to be the beer that I paired with the last Luther reading on this blog.) The aroma is typical pils with a hint of grass. I would like a bit more malt in the body and some more bitterness from the hops, but overall Wernesgrüner is not bad at all.

Reading of the week: Letter to Jerome Weller from Martin Luther – Written in 1530, this letter gives a little insight into the mind of Luther after he wrote the pro-Jewish passage quoted above but before he started advocating arson. This letter is an acknowledgement that nobody is perfect and that obsession over small transgressions is counter-productive to living a good life. Luther advises that when the devil has you worried that all of your little sins will damn you, “drink somewhat more liberally, jest and play some jolly prank, or do anything exhilarating.” Show the devil that you have faith that your sins can’t destroy you.

Question of the week: Could an author do anything so bad that you determined never to read any of his work, regardless of its quality?


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