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Picking Up Where Luther Let Us Down

What do events in 16th Century Europe offer us in 21st Century America?

During 2017, 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 state?

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.

Martin Luther 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."

We 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:

The 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.

Luther's 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 freedom.

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 down. 

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.

In his defense of freedom Luther proved to be freedom's failing champion.

He 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.

In 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 not overcome?

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.

Karl Marx, 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 neighbors shoes?

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.

The Roman 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.

Cheap 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.

Or 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.

Charles Henderson

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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, 2005).
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.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.