Some thoughts today on the significance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther coming up tomorrow.
For most people October 31 is just Halloween. It’s a day when kids go from house to house extorting people, through fear of violence or through cuteness, into giving them candy. That’s my view, but I’m the village grouch. Others see it as the gay day to go crazy, naked, paint your body and dance in the street. Or as the day when people decorate their houses with witches, ghosts, skeletons and Frankenstein monsters and compete with their neighbors as they do with Christmas decorations to see who has the most eye-catching display.
But I have Lutheran roots, and that means for me the “Hallowed evening,” is the evening (actually the whole day) before the day set aside as All Saints Day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 kvetches onto the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. What was bugging him was the fact that his church was selling forgiveness (no repentance necessary, just cash) for future sins to make money for its construction projects. Because he wasn't alone in recognizing the corruption of the Christian message this business move represented, his righteousness attracted lots of followers and ended up splitting the Christian world in two – Western Christianity, anyway. Put aside the modern day ironic observation that if he had had even greater clout we might not have this marvelous splendor that is St. Peter's with its Michaelangelo-tarted-up Sistine Chapel. OK, so it was rough on the poor folk.
There are earnest attempts (it's called ecumenism) to put them back together now that religion has pretty much lost its clout in Europe, where it all began, and it hardly matters anymore. But Lutherans, at least, will tell you this is a day to remember the great man whom MLK Jr. was named after. Who did more for universal literacy than anybody else in history. Who brought the people of Germany together under a common language. Normally, I’m no longer a church goer – haven’t been for half a century – and the day would probably pass without notice. But this is the 500th anniversary, and I’m coming across all sorts of references to Luther and am struck with how much variation there is among interpretations of the day's significance.
Most of the Protestant cultures of the world, i.e., the North of Europe and the English speaking countries in large part, go along with the Lutherans. Martin is their hero too. He was the guy who made personal responsibility the heart of morality, not adherence to the papal hierarchy. Who made it possible for the values of democracy and the enlightenment to grow, unfettered, at long last.
When I was growing up virtually everybody in my town went to church. My family ended up in the First Church, a merger of First Baptist and First Congregational. Because the Congregationalists way outnumbered the Baptists, we got a lot less Roger Williams nobody-tells-us-what-to-do history and a lot more pride in being the direct descendants of the Pilgrims. But those were minor distinctions. Mostly this was Connecticut, back before black people and Hispanics came in large numbers, so we were pretty much WASPS from head to toe.
Most of my friends were Catholic, though, and because I would join them for early mass and breakfast every morning before school during Lent, I got a good dose of Catholicism, as well. I even had the Latin mass memorized before long and would probably have converted if I had not also been exposed to my grandmother’s Lutheran church, as well.
Looking back in later years, I think it was this heavy dose of conflicting religious practices that ultimately made it easy for me to stop taking religion seriously. But when I went off to college I was still yearning for certainty, and ended up become Lutheran. The Congregationalists, it seemed to me, had nothing much to offer in the way of doctrine other than that one ought to keep one’s lawn mowed and not say unkind things about poor people. I was looking for serious belief assertion material I could sink my teeth into. It wasn’t long before I became a big fan of Martin Luther. He had it all. I spoke German with my grandmother and used his Small Catechism to build my vocabulary. I had developed an appreciation for Bach and the music of his church was chalk and cheese to “Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam.” And, as with the Catholic Church, when you walked in the door, you lowered your voice and allowed your attention to be drawn to the Gothic arches and the white alabaster altar. The little queen in me yet to raise her liberated head just loved it. Especially the candles. Loved the altar candles.
Sunday School at First Congregational in my early years was all about Bible stories such as Joseph and his coat of many colors, Jonah and the whale, and Jesus casting out the money lenders. Among the Lutherans now in my late teens, I was digesting the "correction" to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation. Eager to join my new tribe and worship its gods, I eagerly professed the conviction that there was no way an anointed cleric had the power to turn the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus. No, no no. Christ came “in, with and under” the molecules, to use Dr. Luther's choice of words. While others were out playing football, I was sucking up such things as “the priesthood of all believers” and “justification by faith alone.” It wasn’t long before I could explain to the world what “we” believed. I had not only a church to call home. I had the comfort of knowing its doctrine was the right doctrine.
|On the Jews and Their Lies|
Dr. M. Luth.
printed in Wittenberg by Hans Lufft
My sources on the character of Martin Luther were so anodyne, in fact, that even his faults were turned into virtues. His heavy drinking and his vulgar language were described as “earthy.” He was a “man of the people.” I came to believe that he generated the modern German language practically single-handed.
All that good stuff still stands, as I see it. The unifying of the German language may not mean all that much to you if you’re not German/Swiss/Austrian, but the encouragement of literacy ought to be enough to have him count as one of the great figures in the history of the Western world. With that focus on the “priesthood of all believers,” i.e., the claim that all of us are equal before God and have personal responsibility for how we conduct our lives, Luther opened the door to not only the privatization of belief, but ultimately the privatization of the economy. That’s what Max Weber had in mind when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. To be sure, he had Calvinism, more than Lutheranism, in mind, but he recognized that it was the focus on earthly activity that all the protestant groups shared that ultimately fostered capitalism. Didn't create it, but definitely contributed to its becoming the leading political and economic philosophy in the world, alongside its chief rival, Marxism-Leninism, and ultimately winning out over it. No mean feat. If this is how you see Luther, as having made a virtually matchless contribution to Western Civilization and to modernity, you might well want to turn him into some sort of saint.
I had mentors that made sure I didn’t make that mistake. I remember being told by a Catholic friend when I was about ten or twelve, “We worship Jesus Christ; you worship Martin Luther.” So much for a Catholic school education, I thought. I was schooled to have an immediate response to that charge: We don’t freakin’ worship Martin Luther. He was a leader, not a saint. And certainly not a god. You’ve got that wrong. But for all his failings, he was nonetheless a man of heroic proportions.
Over the years since I was a kid, that attitude was pretty much held in place by all the popular treatment of Luther I was exposed to. There are no fewer than eight full-length films on the life of Luther, the first one coming out in 1928, one, in 1953, winning an Academy Award nomination, and one, in 1973, a film adaptation of the John Osborne play, Luther. There are also two TV adaptations of the Osborne play, plus at least two documentaries and a TV travelogue put out by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are apparently lots of folks who have a dog in the race and want to keep his memory alive. I still have in the back of my mind the hope one day of joining the 300,000 tourists who make pilgrimages every year to the towns in Saxony associated with Luther, including the two towns that put the word “Lutherstadt” (Luther City) before their official names, Wittenberg and Eisleben. Eisleben, the place where Luther was born and died, is a World Heritage site and Wittenberg, the place with that wooden door (today it’s bronze) he supposedly nailed his 95 theses to (today there is some doubt) and launched the Protestant Reformation.
It would be years before I would come to find out that there was much more to the hero who got us out from under the heel of the pope and the collectivity of the Roman church tradition to a place of individual responsibility for our actions. He could be – he was – in fact, a mean piece of work, merciless to those who refused to accept his interpretation of scripture and theology, and failed to get in line behind his notion of order. In particular, while Luther rejected the authority of the bishop of Rome, he threw his support behind the various princely authorities of Germany. That meant seeing the peasants who chafed under their authority as enemies of order and thereby enemies of God. By 1525 he was even making the argument that one could get to heaven faster by fighting and killing peasants than through prayer.
Denn die Hand, die das Schwert führt und tötet ist nicht mehr eines Menschen Hand sondern Gottes Hand, und nicht der Mensch sondern Gott henkt, rädert, enthauptet, tötet und führt den Krieg.
For the hand which swings the sword is no longer a man's hand, but the hand of God, and it is not man but God who hangs, stretches on the wheel, decapitates, kills and makes war.
Let me take a step back just to observe that I’m banging on about something here that is of absolutely no interest whatsoever to most of the people I interact with on a regular basis. Religion, to most people I know, has been dumped on the ash heap of history. It’s an area which was, to begin with, always hard to distinguish from superstition and is arbitrary as arbitrary gets, given the high correlation between your "choice" of faith and the accidental location of your birth. Religion is something you grant your friends the space to diddle with if it gives them some comfort. Or a neutral sphere which works more like a Rorschach test than a truth claim, allowing decent people to store all their natural inclinations to be kind, generous and compassionate, and which gives the insecure folk of the world, in like manner, a place to store their lust for power and certainty and create the illusion they are in the right when most of the world is in the wrong. “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” the great Lutheran hymn starts out. He’s also, to many in the world, a great slayer of dragons. Or infidels. Or people who touch themselves down there, say.
In the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, Columbus Day has pretty much become Indigenous People’s Day. We now focus not on the Italian guy with an imperfect knowledge of geography and a burning desire for wealth and adventure, and more on the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, many of whom have suffered unspeakably through death, disease and incoherence in the face of the European invasion.
Isn’t it remarkable how history can provide you with new ways to frame events? The Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag, the Dixie flag, is not part of a proud American heritage. It's a symbol, like the swastika, of a regime of death and destruction, of human humiliation and degradation, and it's time we let the scales fall from our eyes. The Crusades were once a way to earn your way out of hell. Today they are viewed, even by the descendants of the crusader folk themselves, as an early example of the lust for power that is imperialism. The tribal struggle of People 2 of “the book” (the Christians) for hegemony over People 3 of “the book” (the Muslims), which ended with a whole bunch of People 1 of “the book” (the Jews) as collateral damage.
Lutherans (and other Protestants) in my view don’t need to hang their head in shame over being identified with an angry foul-mouthed anti-Semitic drunk for a leader. Lutheran scholars, the ones I know of, never did feel such shame – they were the first to emphasize their church is Christ-centered, not centered on the sinner who founded it or the sinners who run it.
I’m not sure I’m up for the idea of finding a Lutheran Church to go to, but something in me would love to belt out “A Mighty Fortress” once more as I used to do every year at this time when Reformation Day came around. There are still parts of me which remember fondly the Lutherans of my youth – my grandmother and many others – who taught me how to be a good guy. Even when I wasn’t, I knew what a good guy was supposed to be. That’s got to be worth something.
I’m conscious of how much folly we let ourselves in for when we give in to pendulum swings. When we do something stupid or wrong and then swing the pendulum to the other extreme and end up not fixing it, but doing some folly at the other extreme. One need go no further than look at the people who wanted to get away from America’s messed up political system, who went from the frying pan into the fire, so to speak, threw the baby out with the bathwater – there are so many metaphors to mark the practice.
I'd like to bring Martin Luther back out of that place in history many are now wont to place him, as an awful human being. Not put him back where he was when I was proud to call myself a Lutheran, exactly. But give the historical figure credit for his amazing accomplishments, the merest sliver of which I will never match in my lifetime. If I were king of the world, I'd eliminate Halloween candy. I'd also eliminate the misconception that sitting next to or making nice with a drunk makes you a drunk. Or the idea that acknowledging that Hitler built the Autobahn makes you a Nazi. Or that there’s any reason to reduce your fellow human beings to nothing more than their worst features.
Five hundred years. My, that’s a long time.