One of the biggest criticisms of the church reformer Martin Luther is his attitude towards Jews. Some of his later writings were clearly anti-Semitic and quite vicious. However, he did not always have that attitude. Initially, he felt that Jews may even be his allies in their knowledge of the Scriptures. In any case, he thought once they had the Gospels really explained to them without all the inessential externalities that the Catholics were so keen on, then the Jews would follow the evidence and embrace the Gospel. He sought conversations and discussions with Jews and told others to treat them well. But he became disillusioned. They hardly cooperated. Instead of being convinced by Luther’s arguments and evidence, the Jews appeared to become even more obstinate. For Martin Luther that was not only a disappointment, but he saw the Jews as a threat to all good Christians and in particular to protestant rulers. He thought that due to Jewish willful ignorance, Christian rulers would have in their midst people who endangered the godly administration of the realm. As a result, he advocated that Jews should be dealt with harshly, excluded from many aspects of common life and their property destroyed. While Martin Luther got it right in many things, his tirades against Jews and Anabaptist’s weren’t.
To us Luther’s attitude may seem incomprehensible. And yet, something similar, though generally less extreme, is occurring now: many also want to deal harshly with those obstinate and ignorant people who are not getting vaccinated and to exclude them from much of common life. After all they endanger everybody else, not only by spreading the virus but by preventing us from returning to normality. We may be right, but should we turn on others if we think that they endanger us? The temptation is always there to exclude others if our existence seems threatened: people have excluded obstinate religious communities, such as the Catholics in England; they have excluded those who would weaken the war effort, such as conscientious objectors; they have excluded the dangerously sick, such as the HIV-positive. While I think that conscientious objectors have had a better cause than vaccine-hesitant people, I am uneasy that so many of our historical, legal and philosophical concerns get brushed aside. We certainly need to fight the virus, but does that mean fighting each other?
But then, I’m only a historian and theologian; there may well be other perspectives.
In any case, our own crisis should allow us to understand more clearly some of the motivations of people in times gone by.