Thursday, February 09, 2012

From the Scrolls: Why Luther Still Matters

When we look back over the past five hundred years in the West, it’s easy to wonder at the battles between Catholics and Protestants that dominated the landscape. From our perch of plurality, the idea of Christians killing other Christians seems absurd. (For many of us the idea of killing over ANY religion – my story of God is better than your story of God – is more than absurd, it’s insane.) For centuries, however, especially in places like England (The battles continue in Ireland to this day), Catholics and Protestants fought a vicious, bloody battle that see-sawed through a long line of Monarchial reigns and caused the deaths of tens of thousands of innocents.

The question then, is why it still matters. What importance does Martin Luther, the figure at the heart of the Catholic/Protestant split, hold in a time where a Lutheran church and a Catholic church can be found within two blocks of one another? And what does it matter for those of us who aren’t particularly religious, except to make the point that “fighting over religion is stupid.”

Protestants, of course, lionize Martin Luther, even when he is criticized. (His anti-Semitism, for example, is often brushed aside.) But they regard him for his religious ideas, for his theology that forms the bedrock of their faith. What we miss when we discuss Luther’s revolution, however, is not only did he crack the Catholic Empire with his theology of “every man a priest,” he did so much more. The issue regarding diversity of opinion was seriously challenged for the first time. New feelings of nationhood came into effect. Our attitudes regarding work, art, and human failings all changed. We saw the first effect of mass media. And two centuries later the Protestant revolution would twin with its secular cousin in the Enlightenment and form the basis for the concept of Western Democracy.


So who was Martin Luther? Well, he was a miner’s son from Saxony, a devout monk and professor of theology at Wittenburg. For seven years he had wrestled with his faith, agonizing about the state of his soul in his quest for purity. When the sale of indulgences, a kind of certified check drawn by the pope on the “treasury of merit accumulated by the saints”, became a regular fundraising practice of the church, Luther was abashed and angry. (A person could buy an indulgence to lessen the term of a person, either themselves or a friend, in Purgatory.) For Luther, the whole concept of forgiveness rested on grace. This was not a trivial issue for him, but the core of the Gospel. How could true penance be bought in the open market? He was thirty-four years old when he posted his 95 theses on the door of All Saints’ church at Wittenberg, though at the time it was hardly a rebellious act. (The equivalent today would be posting a provocative article in a scholarly journal.)

What happened, however, changed the course of history. Word of his ideas spread like wildfire through Germany and beyond through pamphlets. The printing process had advanced enough to allow thousands upon thousands of Luther’s arguments to be disseminated and absorbed by the masses. Politically, Germany had been looking to break free from the papacy, and so the German princes backed Luther. What happened next, of course, is a matter of history. Later, Luther himself would persecute the early Anabaptists, who had some radical ideas of their own.

The Protestant Reformation was as much about politics as it was about theology, but in the end, it was the power of an idea that made the difference. Luther changed the common narrative. For tens of thousands living under a hierarchical and oppressive rule, particularly for the peasants, Luther’s greatest accomplishment was giving them a different story. A story that said they mattered as individuals. That God loved them despite their low station. And that they did not need to follow the dictates of corrupt, power hungry officials to be accepted by God.

When we track history, we often track individuals. Great figures that somehow stand out in their time. But usually, it isn’t the person so much as it is the idea that brings change. Martin Luther still matters because he reminds us that our struggles are often shared. That the pain we experience (in this case, it was his desire to worship devoutly and sincerely) is usually felt by those around us. And that our choice of narrative is perhaps the greatest decision we will ever make.

Who are you? What story have you chosen to live by? Are you a pawn in the masses, a person with no voice and no importance? Is your value minimal, or can you accept a new narrative that sings with your importance? Martin Luther believed that you and I were important. That we were born free, free to pursue our passions and purposes. Free to worship and live without waiting for our “betters” to tell us what to think or intercede for us. (“Every Christian is a free lord, subject to none.”) Luther believed that and changed the world. Five hundred years later he remains an important figure, not only for his accomplishments, but for the questions he asked. Questions we’d do well to answer.