Social reform’s costly price for Luther, MLK Jr.

Halloween isn’t the only occasion to be marked next Tuesday. Oct. 31 is a hugely important date for Christians of all denominations, and not just because it is — at least for Catholics — All-Hallows Eve.
And it is especially important this year, because it will mark the 500th anniversary of the day on which Martin Luther defied the Catholic church, leading to the breakaway movement that has resulted in an amazing number of differing Protestant denominations.
Look at that word! Just as Reform means to us, in Jewish terms, changes from past practices, “Protestant” encompasses the same idea of change. Luther was protesting many Catholic practices. And here’s the verbal similarity: His nailing of “95 Theses” to the main door of the principal church in Wittenberg, Germany, exactly 500 years ago this-coming Tuesday, was the beginning of what is called The Protestant Reformation. Protest first: Changes come after.
The 95 matters Luther complained about had to do with the reigning church leadership’s ways of permitting many things in his day. He was a priest himself, but he couldn’t accept for himself the actions of many others. He not only couldn’t condone them; after a while, he couldn’t even keep quiet.
Next Tuesday will be especially special for today’s Lutherans because, five centuries ago, their minhag — to use our Jewish term for way of worship — was the first of many non-Catholic Christian approaches to the worship of God through Jesus. And they have been preparing for this date for a long time. In fact, what has been termed “The Luther Decade” has been observed in many places, with 10 years’ worth of tours in Europe visiting locations important to their founder in addition to Wittenberg, plus ongoing study of his life. I’ve taken part myself, attending during those years as many as I could in the series of annual Luther Lectures offered locally — not just for believers, but for all who have been sufficiently interested.
Connect these dots, and you’ll find a similarity to Judaism: One of Luther’s main complaints against Catholic practice of his time was “indulgences” — priests enriching themselves by taking money from worshippers with the promise that these “purchases” would buy them spiritual rewards. And one of Jesus’ main complaints was about Hebrew priests doing non-sacred monetary exchanges on holy Temple ground. But I really wanted to hear more about my major concern: Luther’s attitude toward Jews, which was anti-Semitism raised so high, it might almost have reached the heights of heaven itself.
So the last lecture finally delivered what I had been hoping for since the series began. Earlier this year, Dr. Michael Haspel, a university professor from Thuringen, Germany, expounded on this provocative topic: “From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr.” And he didn’t skirt that most important issue. While drawing similarities, such as the fact that both Martins rebelled about laws — for the first, his church’s; for the second, his country’s — not being followed, Haspel found the biggest difference in the two men’s attitudes toward Judaism.
“Martin Luther was blatantly against Jews because he believed they had killed Jesus,” he said, while MLK drew his own beliefs from the prophets of Judaism. “Both used the word ‘righteousness,’ but Luther was concerned only with peace and justice in the church, to be granted by its princes; for MLK, justice and peace were interrelated, at home and abroad. His theological goal was social justice, with everyone living at peace in the ‘house’ that is One World.”
Both men paid dearly, differently, for their attempts to remake society in their own times, but it’s not hard to imagine this one possible point of convergence: Had MLK lived long enough for the opportunity to sum up his work, he might have echoed the words Martin Luther spoke as he was excommunicated after refusing to recant his beliefs: “Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

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