What do events in 16th Century
Europe offer us in 21st Century America?
Christians around the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This is happening
in the United States at a time when people are debating their destiny and purpose
as one nation "under God." What is the appropriate realtionship
between church and state, or between the power of God and the authority of the
Let's take a closer look at events that transpired in 16th Century
Europe and discern whether they shed any light upon the challenges and decisions
we face in the opening years of the twenty-first century.
was the number one newsmaker of the Reformation. He was a man to be reckoned with
because in a season of cynicism, he decided to act upon the good news of the gospel.
Luther took the apostle's words as the banner headline to be written across the
imagination of every Christian in the land. "Christ has set us free! Stand
fast therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery."
Protestants remember Luther as a man who stood fast for human freedom. He fought
against the corrupt and abusive authority of the Pope. He tried almost single
handedly to reform the church of Rome. And in that time, the papacy in particular
was badly in need of reformation. Writes historian Roland Bainton:
pontiff at the moment was Leo X, of the house of Medici, as elegant and as indolent
as a Persian cat. His chief pre-eminence lay in his ability to squander the resources
of the Holy See on carnivals, war, gambling and the chase. The duties of his holy
office were seldom suffered to interfere with sport. He wore long hunting boots
which impeded the kissing of his toe. The resources of three papacies were dissipated
by his profligacy: the goods of his predecessors, himself, and his successor.
The Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor declared that the ascent of this man
in an hour of crisis to the chair of St. Peter, was one of the most severe trials
to which God ever subjected (the) Church.
In other words, pope
Leo makes the shenanigans of modern politicians look like child's play. Some politicians
sell their conscience to the highest campaign contributors; Pope Leo on the other
hand had the gall to sell guaranteed seating in the kingdom of heaven, and then
to divert the profits to support a lifestyle that makes today's rich and famous
seem like paragons of frugality.
When Luther dared speak out against the
abuses of the papacy, Pope Leo threatened him with excommunication. Others plotted
to burn him at the stake for heresy. In the face of these threats, Luther stood
fast and said: "It is neither safe nor honest to act against conscience.
Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. May God help me."
In our eyes
Luther was a hero because he stood for the freedom of each and every believer
to relate directly to God in his or her own way, subject only to the authority
of the Scriptures. We do not need, and the Bible does not require, the vast superstructures
of power that had been vested in the papacy. In Luther's view, Christ has set
us free to work out our own salvation unfettered by outside authority. In opposition
to the authority of the church and its priests, Luther put forward a radical new
idea, the priesthood of all believers.
I'm not sure we appreciate how radical
Luther was unless we attempt to step back apace. Imagine you're a Christian living
in sixteenth century Europe. All your life you've been trained to believe that
the church holds the keys to the kingdom of heaven. If you don't accept the power
and the authority of the church, as vested in its priests, its cardinals, its
bishops, its popes, if you question their role as mediators between heaven and
earth, then your soul is in mortal danger.
You can imagine what an impression
it must have made upon the faithful when Luther stood up before the congregation
and walked over to the baptismal font to declare: "Whoever comes here to
be baptized can boast of being consecrated priest, bishop and pope." In other
words, each and everyone of us has the same standing before God as the Pope himself.
It's our faith that has set us free, and we do not need the hierarchy of the church
to guarantee a safe passage into heaven.
Luther had learned from hard experience
how worldly power can corrupt. He had seen how dangerous it could be when the
popes began meddling in politics. He was even aware that power might corrupt those
who had come to his own rescue, the powerful and princely families of Germany.
Luther warned his friends that great harm could flow if they used an excess of
force in their conflict with the allies of Rome. Consider the advice which Luther
gave to the rulers of his native country. Here he is speaking to the very princes
who had saved his own life:
We must be sure that in this matter
we are dealing not with men, but with the princes of hell, who can fill the world
with war and bloodshed, but whom war and bloodshed do not overcome. We must go
at this work despairing of physical force and humbly trusting God; we must seek
God's help with earnest prayer, and fix our mind on nothing else than the distress
of suffering (humanity) ... otherwise we may start the game with great prospects
of success, but when we get well into it, the evil spirits will stir up such confusion
that the world will swim in blood, and yet nothing will come of it. Let us act
wisely therefore and in fear of God. The more force we use, the greater our disaster.
words could well be addressed to world rulers of today, even perhaps our own rulers
deploy military power around the world. "The more force we use, the greater
our own disaster." Yet even as we remember Luther's wisdom, we must
also confess that he did not always heed his own counsel. When his Reformation
was carried to the point of rebellion, when more radical reformers appeared on
the scene, Luther sided with local authorities and against the cause of greater
Luther believed that ordinary citizens did not have a right to
overturn their own government, however just the cause. So Luther sided with the
German princes in using force against an uprising of the peasants in 1525. Luther
even wrote a tract against what he called, "The Murderous and Thieving Hordes
of Peasants." He urged using unrestrained violence in putting the peasants
If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside
the law of God, for rebellion is not simply murder, but it is like a great fire
which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus, rebellion brings with it a land
full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside
down. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly,
remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.
It is just as when one must kill a mad dog. If you don't strike him, he will strike
you. These times are so extraordinary that a prince can win heaven more easily
by bloodshed than by prayer.
Following Luther's words, the princes
struck back unmercifully against the peasants, wiping out tens of thousands of
them in a frenzy of killing.
Even worse than his advice with respect
to the peasants, were Luther's views about the Jews. Luther believed that the
German princes should use their power against the Jewish minority living in Germany.
He urged his German allies to drive Jewish people from their homes, burn their
synagogues and books, and institute total segregation in the land.
his defense of freedom Luther proved to be freedom's failing champion.
saw all too clearly how freedom could be abused by Italian cardinals, bishops
and popes, but he could not see that freedom could be equally abused by his friends
and allies among the ruling families of Germany. Having spoken the truth of God
before the highest ecclesiastical tribunal, Luther did not speak the same truth
to the ruling powers in his own land. Tragically, it took the example of Adolph
Hitler to drive this lesson home in Germany and throughout the world.
these opening years of the 21st Century we are debating how and when our own government
should deploy its own power around the world in defense not only of its own strategic
interests, but also of freedom and human rights. While everyone agrees that this
nation should be a friend of freedom around the world, the difficulty arises whenever
there is an opportunity for the use of force. Can our military might make a difference
for the good, or as Luther warned, are we doing battle with the princes of hell,
who can fill the world with war and bloodshed, but whom war and bloodshed will
In the end Luther did not answer this question very well
in his own life, we can only pray that our leaders find a better way. So let us
pick up where Luther let us down, and lend our prayers, our voices and our votes
to see that our nation truly is a champion of freedom around the world. And we
must pray that we are freedom's champions in our personal lives as well. Like
Luther, none of us is entirely free of the temptation to misuse our precious liberty.
As individuals we too may misuse our power and our influence. Whether it be the
power and influence we have in our professional relationships, or simply the power
of personality, we too may be freedoms failing champions.
communist and atheist that he was, made an important contribution to our understanding
of what the Reformation means when he pointed out that Luther had successfully
opposed the authority of priests by establishing the priesthood of all believers.
But now that we have won our freedom from the corrupt priest outside of us, said
Marx, the next challenge is to struggle with the priest within. And who is this
corrupt priest who has taken possession of our hearts? What is this part of our
own personality that would play the part of Pope?
It is the internal
voice of authority that masquerades as the voice of conscience; it is the tendency
to assert ones opinion, before one has heard all the facts; it is our proclivity
to judge our neighbors before we have learned what it is like to stand in our
In our modern world, none of us would think of buying
indulgences from a street corner cleric, but we have funny ways of writing indulgences
for ourselves everyday. There are the little trade offs we try with our own sense
of guilt, trying to do a little good here, in order to make up for the great deal
of harm we have caused over there, trying so very hard to be right over here,
because we are obviously so wrong over there.
There is this inner priest
that resides in the heart of every good child of the Reformation. This voice of
conscience that is always weighing good deeds against the bad, counting ones virtues
and vices, weighing and measuring ones successes and failures, ones strengths
and weaknesses, and all the while hoping that we can make ourselves right in the
eyes of God. But God cannot be fooled. The grace of God cannot be won by clever
bargaining, real freedom cannot be earned. It cannot be sold, it cannot be seized
by force of wit or arms.
True freedom is a gift of grace.
Catholic Church of the Middle Ages had erected a great system of sacraments administered
by a world wide network of priests and monks to dispense the gifts of grace. The
Vatican even deployed armies into the field of battle to enforce the faith. At
its worse the government of the church was as corrupt as any government on earth.
And with its system of indulgences it appeared to the likes of Martin Luther that
the church was offering freedom from sin as a discount in the open market.
grace as Dietric Bonhoeffer once called it. But Luther saw that freedom was not
within the power of the church to give. In the final analysis our cherished freedom
is a free gift of grace. This is the good news which Luther wanted the whole world
to hear. It is still the only news sufficiently good to make up for all the bad
news of the world. True freedom is ours for the asking; all we really need is
the courage to open our hearts so that God's light may shine within us.
as the pumpkins of Halloween remind us, it's not the outward trappings of power
and authority that set us free; it's all in the inner light.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.