Why Martin Luther is Important for Americans


Martin Luther post:

 

THE MAN WHO WILL HELP US DIVIDE AMERICA

 


America's warring sides have been at each others' throats for so long, they have become wedded to the conflict, like supporting an athletic rivalry. Instead, they should concern themselves with the political rivalry, the growing division, and its threat to our national preparedness. When the warring sides tire of the rivalry, they may want to acknowledge the threat that it poses and settle the conflict with a division of the country. 

To inform themselves on the dynamics and technique of a division, they should learn about Martin Luther's splitting the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. In the beginning, he did not intend to split the church; he only wanted to reform it, and he has gone down in history as a reformer and as the instigator for the German Reformation; but he did not really reform anything. The leadership of the Church, controlled by its amoral, secularized viewpoint, refused to budge.

When he persisted in talking about a major overhaul of church functions and practices, Pope Leo X promised intervention from his military allies to stop the reformers and anyone who assisted them. He made his point when he sent out a warrant to arrest Martin Luther. Leo promised to execute him if the authorities could apprehend him. Such was the power and ruthlessness of the Papacy at that time. 

So Luther had to set up a parallel organization—not a rebel Church at war with the Mother Church, but a separate church. His success owes a lot to popular disenchantment in Germany with Roman Church leaders. When Luther created robust, integrated, morally solid new institutions, armed with his own translation of the Bible, the public came to him en masse. Northern Europeans accepted the Reformation in one generation. Luther's success owes a lot to his bold ideas disseminated widely in his publications and with skilled oratory, rather than a civil war or an armed conflict.

Like other old, hulking candidates for division, the Roman Catholic Church was a victim of it own success. Cities grew up around its monastic institutions because the nuns and monks created centers of economic growth and learning. They planted fields, grew produce, built schools, and educated the young to become citizens. They tamed the natural wildness in people as they converted them to Christianity and widened Chritianity's civilizing influence.

The public's reliance on the Church to organize society and develop its base of skilled workers was a huge accomplishment. Anyone who has seen the enormous cathedrals of Germany, England, and France cannot miss the skill and artistry of Church architects. Their work dominated the skylines of cities and the hearts of the citizenry. It made church-life and -orientation the common element in every European city at that time.

And yet, even as the Church grew in power and influence, the heart of the Church became infected with the same moral frailty that has dogged every human institution since Adam and Eve. Treachery and nepotism enabled church leaders to engage in violence, sexual predation, and and all manner of conspiracy, and get away with it. The degree of church power made the controls too easy to manipulate, a temptation few can resist. Such easy access to the controls creates the same problems that secular institutions have. It is curious how a moralizing force like the Chruch can develop an immoral character that rivals the Church's traditional mission. Church leaders worked hard to guard their secrets, but they could not prevent the sordid truth from leaking out. It should not surprise anyone that Luther's teachings made such inroads.

And here is the most basic point in his 95 Theses, that started the ball rolling: the Church needed to rely on scriptural law to define it, rather than Church leaders. Haven't we heard of this before? Our own nation has struggled with leadership by a legal abstract like the Constitution or leadership by hucksters with the common touch. America's Founding Father John Adams wanted to establish "a nation of laws and not of men." He said, "I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature," serving "passions, interest, and power" more than the public interest. Likewise Alexander Hamilton said "Take mankind in general, they are vicious."

The Founders designed the Constitution to guard the nation's legal structure in the abstract against the frailties of men and give the nation its functional parameters. The Church needs a legal abstract, the Bible. Biblical history chronicles the breadth of human experience: power and privilege leading treachery by the kings of Israel—enabling exploitation and nepotism. If Roman Church leaders had had someone to read scripture to them every day, they might have done things differently.

Derek Wilson in his 2007 biography says that Luther likewise feared human behavior: "Scenes of frenzied mob-rule left an indelible mark on Luther's mind." A society needs foundational documents that present clear, behavioral guidelines to make it function smoothly. If citizens do the crime, they do the time, no matter who they are.


Luther, the Play:

"Let's have a look at this foul-mouthed monk of yours."
 from Luther, by John Osborne

I grew up in the Episcopal Church and knew little about Martin Luther, or really any denomination. I thought pastors of every denom used the title "priest"—Presbyterian priests, Baptist priests, and so on. I just didn't know any better. Other than Luther's starting the Reformation and a Church Schism that resulted in the Thirty Years War, he hardly entered my consciousness.

Osborne published Luther in 1961. The British actor Albert Finney played the role of Luther, and it made quite a splash on London's theatre circuit. For some reason, no one produced a film of it until 1972. It never got much exposure in the States and would have disappeared altogether if the Public Broadcasting network, PBS, had not broadcast it.

PBS did me a huge favor during my last years in college and for several years afterward, presenting a number of high-end, low-budget movies, like Kean, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre, starring Anthony Hopkins, War and Peace, a twenty-episode production that also starred Hopkins, Catholics, starring Martin Sheen, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, and many others. For a guy just getting out of college and finding his way in a new life, facing a formidable learning-curve to master it all, the presentations could not have come along at a better time.

I think I watched Luther for the first time in 1976. I had finished college by then and moved home. In those days, PBS had an innovative approach to the uses of television. It created and produced a number of interesting programs. Luther ran on the short-lived PBS Saturday Night at the Movies, which introduced me to the world of high-end cinema. PBS cleverly introduced Saturday Night at the Movies with music from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.

I had become a Christian in college and thought seriously about entering seminary as a preparation for becoming an Episcopal clergyman. The number of parallels between my own life and Martin's life in the monastery amazed me. In one scene, he has to explain his relationship with the Lord and his radically different career-direction to his father, whom he has not seen in three years.

The father hides his disappointment with Martin behind a stoical resignation. He wants Martin to understand that he will never have an opportunity to advance in society—and what for? So he can live out his days in a monk's hovel, anonymous and unfulfilled? Martin's father says to him, "You think you're facing up to it in here, but you're not. You're running away, and you can't help it."

Martin apologizes to his father, who responds, "Yes, we're all sorry, and a lot of good it does any of us." The father also expresses his disappointment that Martin will never marry, nor have children.

For a father who has lost children of his own to the plagues, the decision leaves him wistful about the future. The implied reproach of all this goads Martin to retaliate that all his father wants is for Martin to justify him. Martin's attending law school and rising in the social hierarchy also lifts his father by association—from his standing as a lowly mine-worker.

Martin says he cannot do that. He can't even justify himself. The two men parting ways with hardly a goodbye makes me wince with guilt and disappointment. The same emotions that dominated the relations between Martin and his father characterized the relations I had with my own father during this time. I still regret the disappointment that I cause him, after all he did for me.

At the same time, I was absolutely elated that this one dramatic work paralleled my life on so many personal planes. It made me associate my life with a literary character—a real person—giving me a valuable perspective—sometimes positively, sometimes not, but it connects the course of my life to a sort of collective human drama. Literature has my alter ego on the grand stage of life, so to speak. I feel regret about things that I have done, but also wonderment about the dramatic stage connecting me to the wider human stage. It transcends the judgment I may feel.

I became a Christian, like a lot of people, from associating with other Christians and wondering "Is God real?" My thoughts and yearnings sent out a kind of metaphysical space-probe that evolved into spoken prayers. Christian faith is like any gamble. It involves faith rather than knowledge—a turn at the roulette wheel. Faith-holders assume the risk of dealing with an uncertain relationship, a venture into the realm of unseen powers. It can be a hairy ride, not just for an Augustinian monk—trying to discern the will of God and hoping that He will not disappoint him—but also his Catholic superiors, and really anyone else.

The Christians that I have known arrived in the faith from a variety of personal circumstances—not excluding mental illness. This fact surprises me in hinesight. They arrived, needing healing from an "unclean spirit" brought on by the Devil. Now, I believe they suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, a drug-induced psychosis, or borderline personality disorder. In any case, I call them my "wounded birds." They affected me like weird, beautiful candles that kept going out, like the retarded children in Morris West's Clowns of God. (featured years ago on Public Radio's Radio Reader program with Dick Estelle). God chose not to heal them, for what it's worth.

When I watched Luther the first time, I remember my surprise when I realized that Martin Luther needed healing, too. He must have surmised that he had two choices, either to suffer at home under a nagging mother and cajoling father, or seek healing in the structure and solitude of a monastery.  He arrived at the monastery and, over the next year or two, he crashed. Luther basically suffered a nervous breakdown. Osborne dramatizes the negative forces in his psyche:

Act One, Scene One: During confession, the other monks only admit to mundane misdoings—not dressing correctly for the Night Office; forgetting to have a candle ready for the Mass; not admitting to broken dishes in the kitchen. Brother Martin moans to himself, "I am alone and against myself."

He implores the Lord to "crush out the worminess in me. Stamp on me."

End of Scene One: During a service, Brother Martin shouts hysterically in a fit. Two monks have to leave their places to remove him. The service continues without a pause.

Act One, Scene Two: Brother Martin admits that "I lost the body of a child, and I was afraid. . . . But I mean continually!"

When he celebrates his first Mass, he is so frightened, he nearly freezes up and keeps forgetting the words of the liturgy. To his father, he admits that guilt, shame, and terror overwhelmed him, so that he nearly fainted at the altar.

Martin lived in a monk's cell and was there most of the time. He could serve as the patron-saint of prisoners. A cell is a cell, whether it houses a monk or a prisoner. The insular, hairy aloneness of it will test any man's mental resources. If he has personal problems, the solitude will likely make the problems worse before it makes them better. Over time, he did get better. With the discipline of the monastic community, he definitely did get better.

His sermons and writings gained in power and conviction. He injected a strange, humorous fire into his sermons and conversations with others. Often, he smeared his enemies with bathroom humor. In a sermon about holy relics, Luther poses the rhetorical question, "If Christ had twelve apostles, why are eighteen of them are buried in Germany?"

Martin also told a story about a priest who sold documents that forgave people of their sins, even a sin they had not yet committed. History has dubbed these documents "Indulgences." One purchaser said he wanted to dish out some payback on a man who had cheated him and wanted forgiveness for what he was about to do. He and the priest worked out a price, the priest took the his money, loaded up his wagon, and moved on to the next town. But in the forest, a band of thieves set upon him and robbed him. As they fled, the priest recognized the man who had bought the Indulgence and realized the man had wanted revenge against him!

Eventually Luther's attacks on holy relics, Indulgences, and the Papacy's other for-profit enterprises led to meetings with his superiors. Each meeting leads to another more confrontational meeting, set higher up in the command-structure of the Church, and adds to Martin's risk as a churchman—and indeed his own life.

With each confrontation, Luther had to reassess his priorities. In the end, he concluded, "Either we run this show by the book or we don't." (My vernacular translation of the quotes.) The book in this case is the Bible. Each time he met with a representative of the pope, Luther confronted them with the question of church authority. Each time, the delegates told Luther the pope made the rules, not the Bible. He disagreed and his dispute moved closer to the center of church power. Luther asserted a basic dilemma in the conduct of human affairs—either make society function as a nation of laws or a nation of men—with constitutional parameters or a monarchical structure.

The Defining Moment in Luther

Movie directors have a choice to make about the kind of drama they want to film, either to let it rip into a full-blown action film—dramatic music, impassioned people yelling at each other, duking it out with their fists, or a full-scale shootout—or the director can make it a conspicuously quiet scene with unnerving gravity. The protagonist and antagonist both wear the daunted expressions of people about change the world forever, each of them facing the consequences of their actions—neither of them in a mood to compromise an inch. Personal courage, value-judgments, and stubborness come to a head in this one moment.

Luther plays it quiet. The film-director Guy Green received some criticism for staging the movie to favor history over drama. Never mind. High-end viewers can revel in the seriousness of what they are watching: the church having to divide; the eventuality that all of Europe will fight in a bloody conflict lasting thirty years—called appropriately the Thirty Years War—that will fix the terms of religious freedom, church doctrine, and eventually European political structures for generations to come.

Act Two, Scene Four: Martin has to submit to instruction from the pope's personal representative in Germany, Cardinal de Vio, also known as Cajetan. The drama presents the cardinal as a complex man who can come across as lighthearted, chatty, and cynical. In a moment, he can rear back like a rattlesnake, ready to strike, revealing the monarchical power he can wield. He displays a surprising degree of insight about Luther himself, and catches the 34-year-old monk off-guard.

Cajetan says to Luther, "So you're the one they call the excessive doctor. You don't look excessive to me. Do you feel very excessive?"

The question irritates Martin, but he holds his own: "It's one of those words which can be used like a harness. . . . It has very little meaning beyond traducing (slandering) him."

Nothing antiquated about that! The best way to deride your opponent's position is to marginalize it. Brand your opponent as an extremist monster ready to launch guided-missiles. Make others see him as a puritanical master of shock. Cajetan asks Luther, "It's fine for someone like you to start tearing down Christendom, but tell me this: what will you build in its place?" Cajetan may see himself as a defender of the faith. I see him as a defender of the status quo, going on the attack to neutralize a revolutionary or even a polarizer.

In that spirit, Cajetan delivers several warnings to Luther, some more threatening than others: "You must behave with greater moderation and avoid anything which might cause offence."

How many times have we heard that line? Excuse any sort of b.s. for the sake of moderation, and to avoid offending anyone, just to keep the peace: "Why do you want to stir up trouble? Things aren't so bad. They could be a lot worse."

This year, my gardener retired, and my dry cleaner closed. I have to wear a mask everywhere I go. These events have taught me a lesson. Change scares people. It disrupts the regular functioning of things. So people oppose change out of a sort of principle and retaliate against anyone upsetting the status quo. If you have a modernizing thought, a diagram for improving a process, or if you speak the bald, horrible truth in order to dispel illusions that have accrued in people's consciousness, they might give you hell and tell you, "Don't rock the boat. Go with the flow. Play it by ear; but most of all don't mess with anybody, or we'll come get you!"

Likewise Cajetan also lets Luther know that if he does not heed the warning, he could find himself facing military intervention to force the issue. As these two men argue church doctrines, threaten each other with open conflict, a reader should remember that both are published academicians. The dialogue gives the play its high-end gloss, its relevance to contemporary political realities—which boil down to this one dilemma: Either accept the self-serving hypocrisy and deception perpetrated by the people at the top, as the price for keeping the peace, or do something pro-active to curb it and make plans for changes in the structure of things—even withdrawing from the organized church and creating cleaner, parallel institutions.

Luther says that the misuse of church positions; the proliferation of money-making schemes at the cost of religious integrity; the holding of multiple church offices by one man; and the accruing of political and military power by church officials through nepotism and bribery need the attention of church leaders on a priority basis. The corruption has become status quo. With each passing year, it gains acceptance as a traditional part of church-life.

So Cajetan cannot treat Luther lightly. But Luther cannot treat Cajetan lightly, either. Eventually he casts aside the chatty, conspiratorial cynicism and reveals himself as a churchman with integrity and deep loyalty to his church. He is also older, and he understands something Luther does not, that the average person does not have the same abilities as an educated man. He needs structure. He needs identity. He needs his church whole and unfettered. Cajetan pleads with Luther, "Don't you see what could happen out of all this? Men could be cast out and left to themselves, helpless and frightened. . . . How will men find God if they are left to themselves?"

Martin replies, "They'll have to try."

Cajetan may have argued his points victoriously in the past, but Luther will not go down so easily. He has a Ph.D. In fact, both men have had thorough educations. They have debated their academic positions every step of the way. Every Ph.D. Candidate knows that. You have to defend your thesis against adversarial academics. The steely dialogue of the two churchmen reflects years of training. But any professor can confirm this point. Challenge him on something he says in a lecture, and you will soon see that same grade of steel.
Both men make valid points. No one can deny that Luther's challenges will destabilize the society. People will start questioing the letigimacy of the civil authorities and plot rebellions against them. They will disrupt the flow of goods and services, make transportation dangerous, and cause people to suspect the loyalty of others to their cause.

On Luther's side, one can see how the leadership of the church has indeed defiled itself through a long list of disreputable behaviors. Luther actually visited Rome. It surprised him how many of the cardinals kept boys and young men in their dwellings. Officially, at least, they worked as servants to the cardinals and the pope, but even historians from the time-period believed they took advantage of the boys. They also allege that Pope Leo X himself was a paedophile. The rumors started right after he died. The modern historian Derek Wilson published a biography of Martin Luther in 2007 that rekindles the rumors. During Leo's lifetime, however, the papacy had enough power to squelch the rumors.

Act Two, Scene Five: After Luther refused to cave in to Cajetan's demands, Leo dictates a warrant for his arrest in the form of an excommunication document, Exsurge Domine. He also threatens to do the same to university professors, government officials, churchmen, or to nobility who did not "assist in apprehending him." Leo would "declare them infamous, deprived of Christian buial, and stripped of anything they may hold," if they tried to protect Luther. Tipped off about the Exsurge Domine, Luther and his entourage fled the area during the night.  

Act Two, Scene Six

John Osborne describes Luther's return to Wittenburg. He held the Exsurge Domine high and spoke scathingly and contemptuously about the pope. His bathroom humor had never contained so much fury. He described Leo as an over-indulged latrine-attendant to the devil himself, and added that the "papal decretals are the devil's excretals!" The pope himself is a "glimmering worm in excrement." In fact, Luther had probably used even filthier language that the translators toned down for public consumption. As Luther flung his insults toward the pope, his students, rebel clergymen, and others in the community fed a bonfire with church documents and books on church law.  

Period churchmen in the loop about the goings-on were probably surprised how quickly the revolt gained steam—as disgruntled Germans, the Dutch, the Swiss, Austrians, Czechs, and the English defected from the Mother Church. More than anything, this has to show an administrative insight, or organizational truth: Don't neglect housecleaning.

But for years no one in the Catholic hierarchy had had the courage to step forward and suggest this. The Medici family had basically owned the papacy for so long, it had blocked the usual procedures for rooting out corruption. When Luther finally stepped forwad to reveal the corruption and demand an accounting from church leaders, the resentment just exploded.

Nepotism and bribery had made it impossible to audit the goings-on of the churches for so long, the fury in people just overflowed. In the church, as in any human organization, corrective adjustments to its day-to-day practices have to go on regularly. Someone has to oversee personnel performance, check on hiring practices, and review the utility of policies and the functions of departments.

That is not simply good religion. It applies to any human organization. Organizational people get in such a rut, they do not notice how they veer off-course—gradually, then so flagrantly that everyone notices. In thoses instances, a committee cannot build enough consensus to take action; it does not have enough agreement, or insight to select remedial courses of action. In those instances, a church-rebel with nothing to lose may take the helm and steer the church into changes, and also through the stormy seas that follow change.

Thomas Jefferson said, a little revolution is a good thing—like a CEO who comes from outside the corporation, at the request of the board of directors, to audit everything. Someone has to take on the painful and divisive job of  phasing out practices that hurt the integrity, or the public perception, of the church, and to examine the direction of the existing institutions. If they resist housecleaning, the CEO may have to intervene, or like Luther, step away from the old immovable institution and into a new malleable institution. Luther himself had to serve as helmsman, in spite of his many faults and his coarse language.

The Roman Church made no plans to renew anything. Instead it retaliated against the Reformation by instituting the Counterreformation. The Protestants must have been taken aback by how quickly the Counterreformation resorted to military intervention to bring the Protestants back into the fold, by hook or crook. As I said, if you push for change, other people will rise out of the woodwork to push back. They have too much invested in the status quo. In other words, the church has to deal with worldly concerns, just like secular organizations, involving wealth and influence, positions of power, and the usual matrix of wheels within wheels. It has to resolve those problems the way the secular organizations do it.

The Unmalleable Disunited States

So finally I get around to my main concern in this short history of the Reformation—that separating from the Mother Church alone saved the Reformation. Too many entrenched special-interest groups needed the self-serving life of the Mother Church to continue for their purposes; so they blocked the needed reforms, as they had done for generations. The nepotism and cozy, corrupt alliances insisted on having their way, over the needs of common people. The renewal-oriented coalitions got out and started their own institutions.

Thomas Jefferson expressed the cause of independence, self-determination, and renewal perfectly in the Declaration of Independence:

   "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which         have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station       to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."

The words have a kind of timeless quality. A reformer like Luther could have used them—replacing Jefferson's deistic language with Christian terms. Modern reformers in this country must also heed the Reformation story, recognize the entrenched interests likely to oppose it, and gear up for a war of words. Let us list a few of the reasons why the division needs to happen now:

1) The general dissatisfaction focused on our Presidential candidates—seventy-somethings with plenty of personal baggage—and the matrix of interests who keep our nation operating on a vague, crisis level. They need to coalesce into a move for national renewal. We need to undertake this now, while the dissatisfaction is at its peak to reduce risk of counter-reformation push-back.

2) The de facto division of the Supreme Court of this country into conservative justices and liberal justices. We no longer think of justice as something impartial or disinterested. All of the justices are either nominated by a Republican President or a Democat President. The hoopla about the process of nominating a justice should dispel the notion that any of them is impatial. Each has an orientation toward delivering judicial opinions. No one believes they descended out of Heaven as emissaries of the Lord, or anything like that.

3) People on the Left believe Trump has divided the country. Everyone should know they are only browbeating people on the Right. Half the nation voted for Trump. His snarling tirades remind me of Martin Luther. The Right welcomes his tirades. If Trump suggested a division of the nation, the 50% of the electorate who voted for him would probably follow him.

It is time to blow away the rhetorical fogs and delineate the positions; start this renewal now.