In 2011, my sister was speaking to her fiancé’s father of the Catholic variety. In order to marry her man in his church, she had to convert to Catholicism. Now, my sister, though not being overtly religious herself in youth, had been raised, like the rest of the Anderson clan, in the tradition of Christian Lutheranism. During her conversation with the priest, she mentioned her affiliation with the Lutheran church. Naturally, he asked her what she thought of the reformations Martin Luther made and the lasting impact of his work.
In response my sister said, “Yeah, he did a lot during the Civil Rights Movement, having a dream and all…”
Our family finds great humor in this. I am no exception. However, the humor extends beyond the silliness of my sister, becoming laughable in a disappointing, lethargic sense. A person raised, indoctrinated, and confirmed by the Lutheran church, and more than that, a person who has a master’s degree, does not know of Martin Luther and the ways that he changed religion indefinitely.
For those of you like my sister, do not fret. Allow me to delve into the history of Martin Luther, his ideas, and our relationship with him today.
In Germany, 1517, Martin Luther famously (probably) tacked a piece of paper (we assume) to the door (maybe) of a church (that’s for certain). This (probable) piece of paper was entitled the 95 Theses. It outlined Luther’s qualms with the direction the Catholic church was, in his opinion, thwarting the tenets of Christianity.
I’ve included a link to the entirety of the 95 Theses if you are interested to read it, but Luther’s chief complaint was that the Catholic church was shifting the focus from faith in and of itself to the experience of faith. Meaning, the Catholic church took the “Christ” out of Christianity.
Luther is much more relevant in the United States than in his native Germany thanks to the Luther Renaissance in the early 20th century, in which scholars like Carl Hall re-engage the German protestant community with the ideas of Luther, and the subsequent “American Renaissance of the Luther Renaissance” in the 21st century.
Why do Americans appreciate Luther more than Europeans? Well, short answer, because we believe Luther “stuck it to the man” in staunch American fashion. However, there are many facets of his history that we skim over, reducing Luther to not much more than a symbol of rebellion when, in truth, he is a symbol of intellectualism and humanity.
Luther was a professor of the old testament. The 95 Theses was merely meant to be a discussion on abuses rather than a declaration of cessation. He did not outright betray the Catholic church to begin the Lutheran church, but, because of his ideas, he was excommunicated from the church and he found himself, with Johannes Bugenhagen, his pastor, and the rest of his colleagues, in rural areas of Germany, where people had no experience with the tradition of Christ. They discovered a lack of resource and education in these areas, and Bugenhaden began to establish churches in Germany and Scandinavia that focused entirely on Christ and His teachings, rather than including the auxiliary tenets of Catholicism.
Why does this information not land? Why does my sister think that Martin Luther marched on Washington? Because the Lutheran, and American, community still struggles with the central insight of the 95 Theses. The outstanding majority of American Christians, Lutherans, even, do not focus their religious experience on Christ, but on America. 70% of white, evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. This is curious because, sticking to the ideologies of Christianity, Trump’s campaign promises and his presidential action thus far do not line up. In this modern America, without a drastic change in ideology, it will always be difficult for Luther’s ideas to dig their heels in. Worldly Christianity is starkly different from American Christianity. We are not welcoming, kind, accepting, caring… anything that one would expect a Christian, nay, a religious person, nay, a HUMAN, to be.
My point is, Martin Luther and the junior King are different people, but didn’t have entirely different dreams. Both envisioned a world of equality, love, and care.
Happy quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation, all!