A few years ago on one of my regular visits to Germany I happened to be in the beautiful city of Wittenberg, the spiritual home of Martin Luther whose writings and protests at the theology of the Catholic Church played such a part in the so called, and aptly called, Protestant Reformation. Any visit to that city will inevitably involve a walk down the main street ending at the church where Luther’s 95 theses were nailed to the front door in dramatic style. This act reverberated through ecclesiastical history as loudly as, if not more so, the slamming of Helen Huntingdon’s bedroom door against her husband…
While Luther’s protest was ostensibly about the theology surrounding indulgences, we cannot overlook the background to the church and its very sad inherited history, nor dare we forget Luther’s own commentary to the said events. It was there that in 1305 a carved image of the ‘Judensau’ (Jewish pig) was fixed high on the building, an image of Jewish people suckling on the teats of a pig while yet another examines the rear end of the animal. In Luther’s discussion of this some 200 years later he describes how this represents the Jewish people seeking the source of the unutterable Name in Judaism. Such appalling and shocking words are rightly today rejected by many if not most Christians, yet represented at the time a considered and widely accepted Christian theological position. In the Jewish Chronicle (see link below) Max Privorozki, a local German-Jewish leader, comments “There is no doubt that the Judensau sculpture is unseemly, obscene, insulting, offensive, libellous, a portrayal of hate speech and anti-Semitism and that it defames Jewish people and their faith. However, it should be seen within the context of the time period in which it was made.” Indeed. That the sculpture still exists has provoked a backlash today with plans suggested to remove it. Yet Privorozki continues that the sculpture should not be removed, as it “represents a testimony of medieval thinking and Christian architectural tradition”.
Such defamation and persecution was not, and sadly today is still not, that unusual in the world. Anti-Semitism lives on as strongly today as it ever has, and the ancient Catholic tradition of interpreting the Scriptures in this anti-Judaic (read anti-Semitic) way has either by accident or with malice aforethought contributed to the fuel used to fan such fires. That Christians today should be repenting of such attitudes is an excellent first step, yet as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis, said: “Removing statues can be, on the one hand, symbolic. On the other hand, it might not be enough. The question is, to what extent the Protestant churches have gone through their history, liturgy, statements and religious texts to distance themselves from teachings which have elements of anti-Semitism.” Indeed again. It is simply too easy to argue that the Church of that time was misguided or not well enough informed, or even worse that such events were driven by those who were not ‘real’ Christians. None of the above is true and represents an escape clause and ‘get out of jail card’ for today’s believers who wish to distance themselves from anything too distasteful by today’s standards. The truth is that such events were driven by an integral and core theology that began in the late first to early second century, and was well under way by the fourth: Christian anti-Semitism. At times latent and better hidden, at others more open and hostile, the ‘necessary’ theological distancing of the nascent gentile body of believers spawned this institutional anti-Semitism, a sad and inevitable backlash against the ‘defeated’ nation of the Jewish people. The rest as they say is history. Rabbi Goldschmidt is totally correct in his view: repentance is fine, but a root and branch eradication of all early theology that was anti-Judaic MUST now happen too.
That this is needed was amply demonstrated by the reaction from one man who upon seeing us in Wittenberg crossed the road to speak to us and confront us with the Judensau to our faces. It wasn’t pleasant, yet affirmed that the spirit of anti-Semitism is still feeding off the sculpture and its history. By all means remove the image, but remove everything else too.