Luther was anti-semitic. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Three reasons we should still honor them.

Jack with Jefferson at Monticello

Last week, the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, I honored Martin Luther in this post and two messages. One person responded, “How can we celebrate a man who was an anti-Semite?” Not just a little anti-Semitic. Which of the following sentences do you think are Luther’s and which do you think are Hitler’s?

“…eject them forever from this country…mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, away with them!”

“…set fire to their synagogues or schools,” and let “all their prayer books and Talmudic writings be taken from them…Let their rabbis be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Let “their houses also be razed and destroyed…[and let] safe-­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…let them stay at home.”

Let “usury be prohibited to them, and all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us all they possess.”

“…we let them get rich on our sweat and blood, while we remain poor and they suck the marrow from our bones.”

Actually you can find all these quotes in a booklet Luther wrote, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” It was later in his life, after he had seen many Jews harden their hearts against the freedom of the gospel proclaimed in the Reformation and even convert Christians to unbelief in Christ. Yet still, how could such racial prejudice pour out of the heart of a man who desperately wanted to follow Christ?

Luther did not believe the Jews to be racially inferior. Rather, the way he read the Bible, he believed that God had “deserted them because of their stubbornness.” If the Church had become spiritual Israel, then the Jews were no longer beneficiaries of the covenants and blessings of God. And one was justified in treating them as he had prescribed.

Ironically Luther had always taught his students that what God has not revealed cannot be known. Yet he presumed to know that God had forever deserted the Jews. That, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” no longer applied. The prophets who had foretold God’s discipline for their unbelief also promised a future time of reconciliation and renewed hope. Believers through the ages have disagreed on what that looks like.

Many Christians believe that the Abrahamic covenant still holds—that God has irrevocably promised Abraham’s descendants the land of Israel, that in his seed all will be blessed and that they would multiply beyond the grains of sand on the seashore. Even others who believe that the church has inherited those promises do not make the presumption that Jews could be rightfully abused because God had rejected his covenant with them.

So Luther’s bad theological reasoning resulted in terrible sins against the Jews, sins that Hitler used to serve his purposes and that resulted in a measure of persecution that Luther could not even imagine.

How should we respond to those who miss the mark in such a consequential way? Do they deserve our respect and honor for the greatness of their other contributions in spite of their blindness or moral failing in this significant area?  Similarly, do we simply dismiss as “slaveholders” those who have given so much to our country?

Here are three reasons I believe we should still honor Luther and our slaveholding founders:

God’s grace covers big sins. When we repent, God removes the guilt of our sin. And often, looking at our hearts and our commitment to live by faith, restores our honor. We can likewise forgive and honor those who have sinned egregiously.

The leader of one grass-roots group, Take-em-Down NOLA, has said, “We recognize the original sin was the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of the Africans. People bring up the fact that they were Founding Fathers. That’s people’s opinions, but for us what disqualifies you is the slave-owning.”

Many people have embraced this perspective: slavery and mistreatment based on race is the ”original” and apparently unforgivable sin.

In a previous post I made the case for empathy for racial minorities with regard to Confederate symbols. However, when it comes to the founders and Luther, while we still urge empathy and kindness, where is it written that slaveholding and racial prejudice is the “original” or unforgivable sin? Not in the Bible.

The original sin was choosing self over God. All other sins pale by comparison. But even there, God’s grace covers our sin. Forgiveness is ours if we repent and turn to the One who died for our sin.

God restores big sinners who repent. Think of Abraham who lied and put Sarah in peril in the harem of a neighboring king. Twice! Think of Moses who killed the Egyptian. David who committed adultery and murder and still retained his crown. Big consequences resulted in exile, broken families, and painful loss. But the honor of Abraham, Moses and David remain. God called Abraham a “friend of God” and David “a man after my own heart.” He talked to Moses “face to face.” The clear pattern of their lives was to choose God by faith over self.

Luther had a terrible blind spot. He never repented of his anti-Semitism that we know of. But the pattern of his life was to live by faith, “captive to the Word of God.” George Washington owned slaves, but I see a similar pattern of walking with God in his life, coupled with the repentance of emancipating his slaves upon his death.

• When someone gives you an extraordinary gift, and leaves an inestimable legacy, it is good to respond with gratitude and honor, especially in view of the last reason below.

Washington and Jefferson sacrificed deeply to give us our country. They risked being drawn and quartered, the loss of all they owned. They risked their “sacred honor,” their reputations and the right to be honored. They spent months, even years away from their families, either hammering out our Declaration and Constitution in Philadelphia, or fighting the Revolutionary War or seeking political and financial support in Europe.

No other founders save Adams, who didn’t own slaves, and Franklin, who owned yet freed his slaves and became an abolitionist, gave us such great gifts of vision, principles and example that have nourished and sustained our country. Without them, it’s probable that America as we know it would not exist.

Jefferson’s lovely home at Monticello

When it came to owning slaves, Jefferson, who cast the vision that “all men are created equal” and wrote it into our republic’s Declaration of Independence knew that he was not living consistently with his vision of freedom and equality. He simply did not have the character to translate that belief into actions. He lived a lavish lifestyle and could never bear to give it up. He was continually in debt but would not sell his property, including (as he saw it) his slaves, to settle his accounts. He left it for his children to do after his death.

But as we read what he wrote–The Declaration, The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, his Notes on the State of Virginia, his Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory—we can see a soaring intellect, an unmatched ability to put great thoughts into elegant words, and a vision for a country of united states that would stretch from sea to shining sea. While he was not a great man or a hero, we can give honor and grateful tribute to Jefferson in proportion to the gifts he has given us.

Finally, we should honor Luther and the slave-holding founders so we do not fall into chronological snobbery.

C.S. Lewis cautioned against “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual [or moral] climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”

He warns us that each subsequent generation seems to think that they have cornered the market on enlightenment and virtue. We mistakenly correlate technological progress with moral progress, even though we have plenty of examples of how advancing technology allied with very un-virtuous values has done great harm. The eugenics movement of the 20th century championed the Darwinian “Ascent of Man” by scientific elimination of “inferior” humans, forcing sterilization and other approaches until the holocaust exposed the folly of that “chronological snobbery.”

Lewis asserted that human cultures have their “pet virtues” and also their “curious insensibilities” to other virtues. He identified the “pet virtue” of British culture in the 50’s and 60’s as “humaneness.” Similarly today we might say it is “compassion.” But how can we make this claim? Why are our “pet virtues” superior to those of a previous time?

Older cultures championed “courage” and “chastity.” Our culture might criticize their pursuit of “courage” as too much “cruelty,” too little “compassion.” They might criticize our “compassion” as “softness” and “timidity,” even “cowardliness.” An unwillingness to stand for what is right.

Our culture might criticize their value of “chastity” as repressive, a denial of natural human freedom. They might criticize our fallout of sexual immorality–the skyrocketing poverty of unwed mothers or babies sucked apart in their mother’s wombs–with Prof. Alan Bloom’s famous words: “a society’s greatest madness seems normal to itself.”

The point is not to devalue a particular virtue because it has become dated, but because it has been refuted and shown to promote more human misery and less human flourishing in the long run. Or, more to the point, it has been shown to run counter to the character of God, which is always the same thing. Only he knows what is truly the most compassionate way to live over the course of time far beyond our own limited lives.

When we value compassion for oppressed people over almost every other virtue, how can we know we are standing on firm moral ground? Clearly it’s wrong. Sinful. A lack of love. And has caused untold human suffering.

But how can we assert that it is the highest virtue? That slave holding is the “original sin”? That it disqualifies one from gratitude or honor even if the legacies of one’s life have born amazing fruit? That assertion is based on hidden, unquestioned assumptions.

In every period there are blind spots that later generations clearly see. The reasons for slavery based on race were based on hidden faulty assumptions about what it meant to be human, to be made with equal value in God’s image, that previous generations didn’t question. Thankfully those assumptions have been exposed and refuted.

Additionally, who are we to make that kind of judgment about owning slaves? Our own time is merely a period in intellectual history. Without some moral reference point that is outside time we are trapped by the moral opinions of our time. God provides such a reference point in his word. It says, “Pay to all what is due them — respect to whom respect is due (Rom 13:7).”

We have received such extraordinary gifts through the legacy of the Reformation and the founding of our beautiful nation. In a spirit of humility, knowing that we are all sinners, knowing that we are naturally tempted to be “chronological snobs,” knowing that we all have blind spots induced by our own cultural period, let us honor these men who have given us such remarkable gifts.

And leave their ultimate judgment to the One who knows exactly how damaging each sin is, and how lavish is his mercy on each one who turns to him.


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2 thoughts on “Luther was anti-semitic. Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. Three reasons we should still honor them.

  1. Well thought out.
    It is a sad realization to me about some of Luther’s views, but you make a thorough case and it makes sense.

    • It is sad. Such a reminder that we have all “fallen short,” even the best and brightest. Thank God we are called to walk with him by faith. I used to think that he was and acted towards us in a perfect balance of justice and mercy. But I realized that at the cross he tipped the needle way over to the mercy side.