No one goes to Wittenberg to see the relief carving on the side of the Village Church. It doesn’t dominate the skyline like the tower of the Scholsskirche (Castle Church) just blocks away. It wasn’t immaculately restored and filled with exhibits just in time for the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation like Lutherhaus. It didn’t make Rick Steve’s Luther and the Reformation TV special.
Some twenty or so feet up in the air on an exterior wall of the church where Martin Luther preached most of his many sermons is the Judensau, a relief carving of a “large sow with dangling teats, which are sucked by two Jews [a]nother grips a piglet by the ears and tries to ride it, while a fourth large Jew has his head close to the sow’s backside.” The Judensau (Jew Sow), which dates from the 13th century, is an anti-Jewish folk art aimed at dehumanizing and warding off Jews.
The image is obscene. It’s the worst kind of hate-speech inscribed in stone on a church! And when you stand looking up at the sculpture, you can’t help but be confronted with the reality that Christians have often fallen terribly short of loving our neighbors—that we (that is Christians) are culpable for many of the worst biases, prejudices, bigotries, xenophobias, and genocides in human history. It’s unspeakably ugly.
For Luther, who undoubtedly saw this sculpture frequently, and who would have personally known few—if any—Jewish people during his lifetime, the Judensau would have represented the commonly held views of the communities in which he lived and thrived. Jews had been forcibly removed from many communities in Germany, including Wittenberg, and rumors and myths about Jews kidnapping and killing Christian children abounded. When, late in life, Luther wrote about the Jewish people, he did so with a practiced and vehement hatred formed by his own frustrations and the culture of which he was a part.
Standing under the Judensau on our recent Spring Break trip to Germany I couldn’t help but see the most uneasy of tensions between a romanticized and triumphant celebration of Reformation history, and the dark reality of hatred and mistrust that too often is just beneath the surface. It is simple to see the Judensau for what it is in hindsight. Yet, after our day trip to Buchenwald Concentration Camp you couldn’t miss the reality of Christian complicity in systemic hatred and even genocide. It was unavoidable to conclude that how we talk about and depict others has a profound desensitizing effect that can have terrible consequences.
The experience makes me ask, what are the ways in which I fail to recognize my neighbor, due to fear or bigotry? Are there ways in which I speak or depict people that denigrate or dehumanize that I don’t even recognize? What are the images today that turn our sisters and brothers of other faiths into caricatures?
As we continue in our age, to find ways to live with those different from ourselves, such questions are as important as ever. And as people called to love our neighbors, it is our duty to constantly keep such questions in front of us.
How will we see and imagine those different from ourselves—the alien, the refugee, the homeless, the marginalized? Will we see them as sisters and brothers? Or will we traffic in the caricatures we draw—not so often on stone—but in the hardened recesses of our minds.
To fulfill the new commandment of Jesus obligates us to repent of the caricatures and stereotypes used to define others, and to let our flesh-and-blood encounters with others chip away at what we’ve assumed all along.
On Good Friday, several of us who had stood under the Judensau in Wittenberg sat at table with Hillel, the Jewish student group at UNL, in the student union sharing a Seder meal as Passover began. Hillel invited our community to the meal, and we were happy to accept the invitation. In sharing the meal, we began to do what Luther and many of his contemporaries failed to do: we shared life with those different from ourselves in a way that breaks apart our unfounded assumptions.
When the meal was over, one of our students suggested we take a group picture. Everyone responded, “Yes!” with more enthusiasm than was necessary. The entire group gathered by a blank wall in the Union Heritage Room. There was laughter and joy. Trust. That’s a picture you want to see.