Missed chance for learning

More about an already recent topic is essential now because last weekend, I saw Martin Luther on Trial. For almost a decade before coming to Dallas, I was a reviewer for a Chicago-area newspaper and wrote about many plays. This one is, without a doubt, the most remarkable, fully realized piece of theater I have even been privileged to see.
The play was produced by Fellowship for Performing Arts, a group whose mission is “presenting theater from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.” This presentation was doubly timely: Oct. 31 marked exactly 500 years since the young German monk Martin Luther spoke out against what he saw as Catholic church abuses of his time, thus beginning what has since been called “the Protestant revolution.” And today marks the start, 79 years ago, of Kristallnacht, the two-day perversion of German humanity that killed 91 of our people, destroyed countless synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, and opened the floodgates for Hitler-inspired persecution.
And Adolf Hitler had been inspired by Martin Luther.
In this play’s two acts on a single, simple set, six actors embody 16 roles as Luther goes on trial in a courtroom where St. Peter sits in judgment. The array of witnesses covers the whole of these past five centuries, taking the stage in non-chronological order. The first to be called is Hitler himself.
Luther was rabidly anti-Semitic in his day. He could have been the author of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, spreading falsehoods about noxious Jewish behavior that have dogged us for centuries. The play gives us understanding of where his hatred, which began with the killing of Jesus, developed; in it, he invites a noted rabbi of his place and time to his home, where he poses some questions about why Jews would not accept his God as their Messiah. But he doesn’t get any answers that satisfy him, and what began as a pleasant theological conversation quickly turns to verbal violence by Luther, utter resignation by the rabbi.
All the events portrayed are taken from accounts in the many books written about Luther over five centuries; a stack combining real and prop volumes rises about 15 feet high at stage right, the only commanding feature of this sparse set except for the back-wall church door. It serves as a continuing visual illustration of the man’s importance in the world. Time spent with a disagreeing rabbi surely happened, resulting in angry accusations that persisted for centuries, coming into full flower in the 19th and 20th with persecution, pogroms and death camps.
The devil is a key witness at this fictionalized trial, as are the popes of both Luther’s time and our own, Sigmund Freud and his psychology, and the Holy Roman Emperor himself. The latter reinforces our knowledge of olden days when popes and kings were one and the same, and state religion was the rule of law.
Luther wanted only to change his church, which he saw duping its many poverty-stricken believers by selling them the promise of fewer years in purgatory — the Catholic way-station between death and heaven or hell — driving them even further into poverty when no man, not even pope or emperor, could make such promises good. He was demanding justice, but only for those people; Martin Luther King comes to extend the idea of justice far beyond any one religion, group or country. And the play makes this crystal-clear: Martin Luther did not leave his church; his church left him, taking the extreme action of excommunication to separate him from it forever.
A Lutheran pastor rose during the brief post-play talkback to note today’s cooperation between his church and the Catholic hierarchy in together denouncing anti-Semitism; I thanked him personally for that. But I didn’t see even one familiar face in the crowd of attendees. I may well have been the only Jew there, and for that, I’m sorry. You missed a real, powerful education.

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