On this 500th anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I was invited to give a sermon about one of my favorite historical figures, Martin Luther (a runner-up for the name of my fourth child, but William Wallace won out). This was a lot of fun to write.
In my college courses I assign students to give reports in class, generally on topics I personally find to be boring. Things that are important to be able to say were covered, but I’m not interested enough to teach it myself. And some student presentations are profound, some presentations are…a polite, constructive way to say it would be “profoundly idiotic.” And I think I heard the all-time champion this week, something so comical that, before repeating it I’m legally required to say I take no responsibility if your laughter makes the walls of this building fall down. A student assigned to explain worship habits in the Lutheran Church (boring) got up and said… “The Lutheran Church was started by a guy named Martin Luther.”
…I see we’re holding back the gales and wails of laughter here, which is very mature of you – my students managed not to giggle and as the teacher I also had to struggle to hold back the laughter I felt bursting from inside. Now I know what you’re thinking – “That’s just silly – of course Martin Luther had no intention of starting a ‘Lutheran Church’ – he just wanted to fix Roman Catholicism.” It’s true, but that’s not the real punch-line here. This nineteen-year-old actually said “A guy named Martin Luther.” Some guy, some random guy.
Martin Luther needs no introduction. But this college student felt he did, and the introduction he gave was “a guy.” Arguably the most important man in human history (and if not the most important, definitely in the top five) whose courage changed the course of human thought, identity, and understanding… But to a nineteen year old he was just a guy. …And still I see nobody’s howling with laughter, so now I’m wondering…maybe Martin Luther does need some introduction..? I do hate to explain a joke. But for Martin Luther I’ll make an exception.
THE “HOLY” ROMAN EMPIRE
Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire had grown to incredible power as a military force, extoring the wealth of Europe by running a basic mafia protection racket: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad might happen (and if a country refused to pay, something bad did happen – the Roman army showed up and totally obliterated them). But after centuries everybody got tired of it, even Rome got tired of it. Plunder, plunder, yawn and plunder… And so they decided on another way of maintaining their economic power in Europe: they ditched old Jupiter’s predatory eagle and adopted a new mascot. Ironically, the mascot they chose was a guy they had killed for telling people not to pay taxes, some guy named Jesus. The Roman Empire became known as the “Holy” Roman Empire, and instead of bullying nations with military power, they extorted individuals: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad will happen…after you die.
They invented something called “Purgatory,” a debtor’s prison, a place for dead-beats who hadn’t given enough money to the Roman Church, and there they would be burned and tortured for hundreds or even thousands of years to “purge,” purify them of the sin of not paying for enough sacraments. It was like God’s own Guantanamo Bay. This new supernatural protection racket was a tremendous success – maintaining the Roman military legions had been expensive, but conjuring nightmares with legions of imaginary demons was cheap. Because it was all talk. Perhaps the greatest bluff in all history. “Purgatory” is nowhere in the Bible, but most Europeans could neither read the Bible nor undertand it when it was read to them, because it was only available in Latin. Which is strange, because the Biblical books were originally written in Hebrew and Greek. But Rome decreed it was only holy in Latin, and then made sure that nobody outside the Church could learn to read it. Because it turns out, when you actually read the Gospels, you find that the Romans, tax-collectors and Pharisees are actually the bad guys.
In the 1500’s, priest and bishops were tax collectors, mafia thugs for the Empire, charging for sacraments such as worship services, confession, baptism, communion and funerals. There had been a time when they’d had to know something about the Bible, but by the 1500’s anybody could rent a bishop’s vestments and raise as much money as they wanted, as long as the Vatican Godfather got the cost of the costume rental. They could also raise money by charging people fees to visit “relics,” meaning bones and skulls (supposedly) of dead saints – someone would find a thigh-bone in France and say “truly this was a thigh of John the Baptizer!” and never-mind that there were thirty other churches claiming to have John’s thigh-bone on display, people would show up and pay to kiss the bone and pray for healing or money or a new mule or whatever a medieval peasant might want.
And on top of all this, the Church began its greatest fund-raiser ever: selling indulgences. “indulgences” were coupons you could buy to get such-and-such amount of time deducted from your stay in purgatory (or you could buy it as a gift certificate for your dear departed aunt or some other relative). And if you spent enough, you could skip purgatory altogether and literally “buy a stairway to Heaven.” Expert salesman Johann Tetzel famously said “When a coin in the box rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” and his sales-pitch was that buying enough of these coupons could purchase salvation even for someone who violated the virgin Mary herself. The magnificent Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City (supposedly built on top of the skull of St. Peter) was funded by selling God’s forgiveness to illiterate peasants.
And that’s when we meet Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, professor and priest in Wittenburg Germany. Hearing of this, he felt that something had gone rotten in Rome. So he wrote an open letter to his small congregation, with ninety-five reasons that they should not be buying these tickets to paradise. “It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but… Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons [and] if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.” Martin Luther doubted that the Pope could be involved, or even possibly know about this swindle. But later in the letter he wondered, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money?” (Ninety-Five Theses #28, 43, 50, 82)
Luther had vented his frustration, and maybe he slept soundly that night, having got out his anger and warned the members of his small-town parish. But there were three things he did not expect. One – someone immediately tore down his letter. But they didn’t burn it, they put it in a new invention: the printing press. Hundreds of thousands of copies circulated in Europe, and it turns out a lot of people shared Luther’s anger at this scam. The second thing he probably didn’t expect was to die of old age, but the church was taking a short break from rebel-burning, and he actually survived. The third thing he probably didn’t expect was that the anger of Christian Europe would explode into wars and persecutions (mostly about economics, but also a little bit about theology), that whole nations would rebel against Rome, shattering Western Christianity into thousands of pieces, and by the nineteen sixties, a battered and weary Catholic Church would actually make the changes he’d called for.
Luther, a good Catholic monk, had set out to fix the Church, to “reform” it, and in this he ultimately did succeed. But in the process he also re-formed Western identity: national identities which emerged from under the boot of the Roman Empire (also nationalism, the individual’s sense of self in relation to a country), and personal identities – the whole concept of the individual making choices about how best to reach salvation, this was unheard of before Martin Luther inadvertently broke the monopoly of the Roman Church. Ideas of personal identity, choice, liberty, the “right” to rebel against tyranny, all of these emerged from the Protestant Reformation.
The freedoms that emerged from the Protestant Reformation are nearly impossible to measure, because we think of personal liberty as “truth” that is “self evident.” But concepts like “rights” and “liberty” and “pursuit of happiness” were totally unknown in medieval Europe. Here’s an easy example: Hearing about Martin Luther’s rebellion against Rome, King Henry VIII of England decided to rebel against Rome as well, largely because of “taxation without representation” – a lot of English money was going to the Vatican, but the king of England could not get the Pope to bend a rule about divorce. England was essentially a colony of the Roman Empire and declared its independence. Without this precident, the English colonies that we know today as America would never have even imagined the possibility of breaking away from England (and if Europe had been all Catholic during America’s Revolutionary War, France would have sided with England and not against them, and the colonies would have been crushed into eternal submission). Without Martin Luther there would be no America – we would be a colony of England, and England would be a colony of Rome. And the Pope would still be holding all our dead relatives hostage in purgatory unless we bought enough coupons to get them into paradise.
I could literally stand here all day, explaining the many ways in which “a guy named Martin Luther” changed history and all our lives. Without “a guy named Martin Luther” there would have been no Charles Darwin, no Elvis, no Camille Paglia, and definitely no Martin Luther King (maybe such a man would have lived, but he would have been named after someone else. And he wouldn’t have crusaded for freedom because nobody would have known what “freedom” is if it wasn’t for “a guy named Martin Luther.”) As a matter of fact, without Martin Luther, I would be giving this sermon in Latin, and they still wouldn’t have translated the Bible into English, so most of you would have no idea what the Bible said or what I said about it, and then I’d end by saying “don’t worry if you don’t understand, just give me five bucks and I’ll release your dearly departed grandmother from purgatory” and you’d say, “Well, I guess that’s what the Scripture readings must have been about.”
I do occasinally learn things from college students – and the student who referred to “a guy named Martin Luther” actually did teach me something, when he said that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door on October 31st, 1517. I thought – who cares what day he did it? Then I realized that right now, October of 2017, is the 500th anniversay, and I felt a profound sense of urgent responsibility to raise awareness, let the world know about this thing that happened 500 years ago. Still, a monk nailing what was essentially an angry blog-post to a church door five hundred years ago might sound like old news now. So what does this act have to do with us? What message can we take from this, in our present time of anger, division, unrest?
First of all, we can forget that Martin Luther loved the Church – he was a monk after all, he’d given up a lot to show his devotion (and he would hate this sermon because of the way I’ve been talking about the Church, but here I stand, I cannot say otherwise, God help me). And he expressed his love of the Empire, we could call it patriotism, by reminding the Empire of how far it had fallen from its professed ideals. He did this in his own town, by communicating with his own neighbors. And he didn’t burn down the local church in a fiery rage, or paint obscenities on the door, or stand there foaming at the mouth and shouting – he wrote an intelligent essay, and posted it for people to read (and, in today’s terms, we could say his post “went viral”).
He challenged the Empire, not out of hate, but out of hope that it could improve, get back to basics, repair itself. Martin Luther was one man standing up against the (debatably) “Holy” Roman Empire itself, saying it’s not right to hold dead people hostage, and definitely not to demand ransom-money for their release. He blew the whistle and he was blacklisted, excommunicated – not only fired from his job, he was forbidden to ever take communion again! In expressing his thoughts to a small community, he opened a Pandora’s box of scandal, recriminations, even wholesale warfare. But ultimately, the Empire did address his grievances. And as a side-effect, the Western world advanced from medievalism to modernity.
Of course, five hundred years later, a lot of Americans want to move back from modernity to medievalism. Bring back the old monarchy, divine right of kings, put the women and minorities back where they were in the 1300’s. Bring back the Dark Ages, ironically with the help of the internet – who could have imagined that access to unlimited information would lead to such an intellectual Dark Age? We’re less culturally literate now than we were a hundred years ago! Exhibit A: the number of Americans who don’t know who Martin Luther is. “I dunno, some guy…”
In these times we live in, we’re involved in a cultural debate: should Americans have the right to protest against injustice? Do we have a right to stand up for ourselves and others, if we feel we’re being exploited? Come to think of it, that’s the wrong question – “rights” you can take or leave. Do we have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and others, even if it should invite a storm of anger and contention? All over the news this month, football players and Hollywood actresses are faced with these questions. In standing up for themselves they receive an incredible outpouring of support…and an incredible outpouring of hostility, even hatred.
Some people think that speaking up for change is a sign of disrespect. I would say that quietly grumbling, pushing anger down inside is a sign of disrespect, when you say “why bother speaking up? Nothing’s gonna change,” that’s a sign of disrespect – a belief that the institution can no longer be maturely reasoned with. And letting that anger build itself up until it bursts out in childish shouting and violence, that’s a sign of desrespect. But to calmly, intelligently stand up and state your case, that is a sign of respect, because it’s a sign that you believe that the institution can still think, can still reason and be reasoned with. I think that, 500 years later, there’s still a lot we can learn from Martin Luther’s example. And that our institutions should take a warning: the Roman Empire chose not to engage in a reasonable conversation about his grievances, and as a result it lost a lot of its power.
On this five hundredth anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I think we must all remember the power of peaceful, respectful protest. An enduring legacy of “a guy named Martin Luther.”