The Church’s Unholy History of Anti-Semitism
“Humanity is like a drunkard who, after falling off his horse on one side, gets back on, only to fall off the other side.” Martin Luther
Never Forget. That is the Jewish people’s response to the Holocaust. They must never forget those who were systematically slaughtered. They must also never let humanity forget the evils of which they are capable, lest the truth of those horrors fade over time, dooming mankind to repeat them.
If only the Church adopted the same wisdom concerning its own history…
I will never forget. I was a senior in Bible school, majoring in Theology. I had taken two semesters of Church History and also of Historical Theology and yet, I had zero knowledge of the Church’s stained past as it related to the Jewish people. It wasn’t until I attended a home group study led by the brilliant director of Jewish Studies at our school that this dark secret of the Church would be revealed to me. He made a passing reference to the writings of Martin Luther having been used by the Nazis to justify themselves during the Nuremberg trials, as if we all knew what he was talking about. I had no idea what he was referring to. The great Martin Luther had a raging hatred for the people of God? My whole glimmering image of Church history shattered in a moment. I had not been taught. I was oblivious to this appalling side of Church history, which had been systematically omitted from my theological education.
BITTER ROOT, BITTER FRUIT
Anti-Semitism is nothing new under the sun. As far back as the Book of Esther (approximately 486-465 BC), Haman plotted to destroy all Jewish life. Yet since the inauguration of the Jewish people in Genesis 12, God has miraculously delivered them from extermination time and again.
What many Christians are unaware of is the link between Anti-Semitism and the Church. As early as 130 AD Justin Martyr and Origen were teaching hatred against the Jewish people. A famous example of this seed of Anti-Semitism can be found among the writings of the “golden mouthed” Church Father, John Chrysostom (AD 354-530). That golden mouth turned into an open grave in his work, First Homily Against the Jews. He wrote, “The synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ… I hate the Jews… It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.”
Did you ever wonder why the Gentile Church does not celebrate the holidays the Lord set forth in the Bible, but rather holidays that were instituted by Church Fathers? Writings such as Chrysostom’s created a vast distance between the holidays Gentiles celebrated unto the Lord, versus the holidays God commanded the Jewish people to observe. “The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now… I am afraid that some Christians may partake in the Jews’ transgressions…”
These early travesties were echoed and continued throughout Church history. The chasm between the original Jewishness of the Gospel and the newly fabricated Gentile identity of the Church festered over centuries.
FROM LUTHER’S LEGACY TO NAZI IDEOLOGY
This burgeoning Anti-Semitism was tragically handed down to theologians like Martin Luther. He courageously penned the 95 Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. However, he had a painful blind spot that ultimately set the stage for millions of people to lose their lives: His hatred toward the Jewish people.
In his work, On the Jews and Their Lies Luther wrote, “Their private houses must be destroyed and devastated, they could be lodged in stables. Let the magistrates burn their synagogues… Let them be forced to work… We will be compelled to expel them like dogs in order not to expose ourselves to incurring divine wrath and eternal damnation from the Jews and their lies… We are at fault in not slaying them.”
This rabid sentiment gave credence to Nazi ideology and its propagandistic war on the Jews. Luther’s writings were the very same words the Nazis used to promulgate their genocidal incitements. The predominate silence of the German Church during the Holocaust, a church heavily influenced by Luther, proved to be deadly.
FORGING A NEW LEGACY OF LOVE
Never again. Ignorance is no excuse. Jewish people are very aware of the Church’s sordid past and it has caused them to shudder in terror at the sight of the cross. We as believers must be informed of and sensitive to this tragic history, lest we be caught unprepared and in any way facilitate its repetition. Although a measure of rending our hearts is in order as we acknowledge the evils of the past, we must move towards hope by embracing God’s heart for His people. He declared,
“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” Jeremiah 31:3
My experience in discovering the sullied history of Anti-Semitism in the Church while in college sparked a personal journey of deeply embracing God’s heart for His people. As believers today, each of us has the opportunity to forge a new legacy of love and understanding that reflects the Apostle Paul’s heart for his brethren,
“Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.” Romans 10:1
For more information about the history of Anti-Semitism in the Church and how the Church can embrace God’s heart for Israel today, please see the following resources produced by FIRM Members and advocates: