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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Klager

Luther, the Balfour Declaration, Mennonites, and Empathetic Solidarity

The 500th anniversary of the unofficial launch of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther was two days ago. Today is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that proclaimed the British government’s support of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Both anniversaries are opportunities for reflection given how they’re connected and what they reveal about human psychology.

While the followers of Luther were originally oppressed by the Catholic Church in the early 16th century due to their religious dissent, Lutherans and other magisterial reformers then went on to oppress and persecute the Anabaptists and Radical Reformers due to their religious dissent against the original dissenters. But soon Luther’s “out-group” included not only Catholics, Zwinglians, and Radical Reformers, but it extended also to the Jews, culminating in his ‘On the Jews and their Lies’ (1543) and expressions of anti-Jewish agitation in Lutheran territories. The reason? Among others, Luther was frustrated that the Jewish people would not accept the gospel even after he had ostensibly peeled back the layers of Catholic scholastic obfuscation to reveal the so-called pure and unencumbered Gospel and made the New Testament more easily available.

Although widely debated, Luther’s anti-Jewish sentiments appear to have had an effect on the Nazi regime in the 1930s and beyond. Bernhard Rust, Hitler’s Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, once said, “It has been decided that we shall be the first to witness [Luther’s] reappearance . . . I think the time is past when one may not say the names of Hitler and Luther in the same breath. They belong together.” And an influential Protestant bishop, Martin Sasse — in his anthology of Luther’s writings he produced after the Kristallnacht that Oxford Church historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch, has called a blueprint for the preceding events — celebrated the fact that “On November 10, 1938, on Luther's birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.”

But at the same time that the Nazis whom Luther’s writings had influenced were exterminating one group that Luther had oppressed and despised in his own lifetime, they were assisting the descendants of the other group — Anabaptist Mennonites — that Lutherans persecuted in the early 16th century. As Nazi Germany pushed into the Soviet Union beginning in 1941, the ethnically German Mennonites eagerly accepted the assistance of the Nazis and retreated with them back into Germany en route to North and South America.

And in North America, Mennonites became oppressors, the oppressed, and then the oppressors again. First, Mennonites became complicit in the colonization of indigenous territory when they arrived beginning in the late 17th century through to WWII. But in the 1940s, they also found swastikas painted on their church doors, suffered various forms and levels of public harassment, and on rare occasions even found their churches burned to the ground. Their German origin and their pacifist convictions that underpinned their conscientious objection and unwillingness to fight with the Allied forces invited these unwanted forms of oppression. Gordon Towers, the president of the Associated Boards of Trade of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia was quoted as saying in 1943, “If it took Pearl Harbour to get the Japanese out of the coastal area, it will take a similar disaster to influence Ottawa to remove the Mennonites. . . . It was the stupidity of Ottawa that brought them into the country in the first instance.” Yet ironically and tragically, today it’s not uncommon to find conservative, often affluent or otherwise privileged, Mennonites in North America with racist and xenophobic attitudes toward Muslims and refugees even though they themselves experienced the effects of this same ignorance and misrepresentation when they themselves were refugees in the 1940s.

And this brings us to today’s 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The same Nazi regime that was influenced by Luther’s writings and assisted Mennonites fleeing the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1943 was also responsible for the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 and the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII that acted as catalysts for the further migration of hundreds of thousands of Jews to Mandatory Palestine during the Fifth Aliyah and subsequent Aliyah Bet, leading to the eventual displacement of 750,000 Palestinians or 80% of the Arab population in Palestine in the resulting Nakba of 1948. The Israeli government has since been responsible for the unchecked expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, thousands of Palestinian home demolitions, countless imprisonments of adults and children in direct violation of habeas corpus, the injustice and humiliation of the separation wall and various checkpoints, and a debilitating blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The colonized become colonizers, the oppressed become the oppressors. Such tangled webs of intersecting historical strands are important for us consider as we seek ways to break this cycle and learn empathetic solidarity with those who suffer today in similar ways as we or our ancestors have suffered in the past. This is how the act of remembering can be transformed from a source of fear-based hostility towards those who are what we once were — or towards those whom we think might again make us what we once were by force — into a source of empathy with and compassion towards those who suffer injustice, oppression, marginalization, and vulnerability.

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