Sweet candy and make-believe … or soul food?
I’m willing to bet that if I asked our middle school students who Martin Luther was, most would say he was a famous civil rights leader.
While many of the kids in town will be dressing up as Harry Potter, Mirabel, the Mandalorian, or ghosts and their parents will be showing them around in search of candy, I’ll be reading the chapter in Roland Bainton’s biography of Luther, here I standin which he tells the story of the Augustinian monk who 505 years ago, on October 31, 1517, nailed 95 theses – or topics for discussion – to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Well, actually, Luther’s story is kind of exciting. It’s about a loner who took on the two most powerful institutions of his time – the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church – and dared to speak the truth to those in power. The 95 Theses dealt with the corrupt practice of indulgences, granting the forgiveness of sins if the penitent paid a sum of money to the church.
In the 16th century, church doors were the social media app of the time, and Luther only wanted to discuss the issue “online.” Well, the 95 theses went “viral” and both the Emperor and Archbishop decided to nip this pesky social media thing in the bud. They ordered Luther to explain himself at a meeting in the city of Worms, Germany.
“Take back everything you wrote and said,” they urged the monk standing in front of them, “and we’ll let you off easy.”
To which Luther famously replied: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and simple reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted themselves – my conscience is captivated by the Word of God. I can’t and don’t want to revoke anything, because acting against one’s conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Sounds very modern, doesn’t it? sounds like dr King and Nelson Mandela and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero. Sounds like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and all those Republicans who testified at the January 6th hearings.
In reality, Luther was a complicated mind. In him we see on the one hand the advent of individualism, a very modern phenomenon, on the other hand he was quite conservative and medieval in his piety.
He never wanted to split the church, let alone destroy it. However, the unintended consequence was that the Church was divided and bloody wars were fought between Protestants and Catholics.
In other words, Luther was a progressive conservative. He wanted to reform the church, not by starting something new, but by going back to its roots, which in his case was the Bible. The English word “radical” comes from the Latin word root or “roots”.
We often think of radicals as people who want to innovate, but at least etymologically this means going back to the source, to the foundation, to the origin.
Nobody – neither Catholic nor Protestant – advocated canonizing Luther as a saint. He was, shall we say, a salty personality, and hypersensitive translators, for example, translate the German word scheisse, which the reformer often used, into the English word dung. That’s not the exact meaning of the word!
As we approach Halloween this year, I think the world needs a little less sugar in the form of candy and escapes into fantasy worlds and more stories about people like Martin Luther and, come to think of it, his namesake Martin Luther King.
like dr King, the church reformer knew how to throw out the bathwater without throwing out the baby, ie he valued tradition and did not innovate for the sake of innovation. He understood that the most radical and fundamental change comes through a return to basics.
He was not a drainage, anti-government, libertarian, but at the same time he did not blindly obey authority, not even the authority of the Bible.
But in addition to his theological insights, I find Luther so sympathetic because he was a truly human person with whom I can identify. Like me, he had strengths and weaknesses. Here are some quotes that illustrate some of its many sides.
I have so much to do that I will spend the first three hours in prayer.
Music often comforted and refreshed my overflowing heart when I was sick and tired.
Beer is made by man, wine by God.
Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.
God does not write the gospel in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.
Let the wife make her husband happy to come home and sorry to see him go.
Where the battle rages, the soldier’s loyalty is proven.