Monday, January 10, 2022

Martin Luther and the Rhyming of History

I’ve always thought that Martin Luther and I would not have been Facebook friends, but looking a bit into his life, I’m wondering if we might have hit it off. I’m not a big fan of blind believers who never question either themselves or others and apparently, neither was Martin Luther. According to the Wiki source, at 17 years old, Luther “was deeply influenced by two tutors who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers and to test everything himself by experience.” 


After a few years in a monastery working through his own self-doubt, he continued his academic career and rose to become a professor of theology at The University of Wittenberg in Germany. In 1516, a friar named Johann Tetzel was sent by the Pope to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. His fundraising strategy was selling something called indulgences, a promise that giving money would cancel one’s sins. The motto was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul into heaven springs.” Luther objected, writing “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Go, Martin! My kind of guy!


He posted this critique, along with 94 other “Theses,” by nailing it on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. (Or so says the urban legend. No one knows if it’s precisely true, but it makes for a compelling image.) At any rate, the word spread and the Church was not happy. In a shouting match with a Cardinal who challenged his critiques, Luther proclaimed,“His Holiness abuses Scripture. I deny that he is above Scripture.” 


The Church banned the distribution of the 95 Theses and called Luther to appear before the Diet of Worms. (No, this was not a cult health fad— “Diet” meant an assembly and Worms was a city).  Luther was excommunicated from the church and declared an outlaw of the State by the Holy Roman Emperor, who also made it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. It permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence.


Let’s pause here for a moment. Is anyone else feeling the loop of history repeating itself? People who give money given a pass on their behavior, then a seat in heaven, now an exemption from paying taxes? One abusing Scripture and proclaiming himself above Scripture, another doing the same with Democracy? A law that says you can’t give Luther food or shelter, another in Georgia that says you can’t give food to black voters waiting for hours on line to vote? One permitting people to kill Luther without consequence, another (in Oklahoma) saying you can run over protestors in your car without consequence? 


Hold on to your hats. The parallels continue. Some took the opportunity to question as an excuse to pillage, burn and commit violence. Alarmed by this, Luther came out of hiding and returned to Wittenberg writing: “During my absence, the Devil has entered my sheepfold and commit ravages which I cannot repair by writing, but only by my presence and living word.” Here is a departure in the cycle of “history rhyming” — our present-day guy just sat silently for three hours while the mob he incited wreaked their havoc. Luther charged the rebels with blasphemy for calling themselves "Christian brethren" and committing their sinful acts under the banner of the Gospel. (One can’t help but wonder what he would have to say to Ron Johnson, who identifies himself as a Lutheran!)


And finally, the coup de grace. Around 1527, there was yet another outbreak of the plague and the anti-vaxxers of that day acted carelessly. Luther reprimands them: 


"They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They distain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health."

Luther went on to warn that those who "make no use of intelligence or medicine...become a suicide in God’s eyes." Then he leveled the most serious charge against the "rash and reckless" trying to "prove how independent they are," saying that...

"It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.


Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. … See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”


Yes, history rhymes and sometimes the poem is not a happy one. Food for thought.



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