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Twenty-First Century Truth-Telling and the Reformation

Oct 31, 2017 — Categories: ,

This week is highlighted in many quarters by a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which challenged the Roman Catholic Church. Mostly Luther denounced the corruption he saw in the church and the selling of indulgences, described by some as “get out of purgatory free cards.” But historically there is no argument that his protests in medieval German shifted the axis of The Church and signaled the split in Christianity that later became Protestantism.

Twenty-First Century Truth-Telling and the Reformation

Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune

This week is highlighted in many quarters by a celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses which challenged the Roman Catholic Church.  Mostly, Luther denounced the corruption he saw in the church and the selling of indulgences, described by some as “get out of purgatory free cards.” But historically there is no argument that his protests in medieval German shifted the axis of The Church and signaled the split in Christianity that later became Protestantism.

This is a moment in history that deserves our attention. Five centuries have passed since Luther refused to obey the Pope and created the Reformation, even though that was never his intention. Certainly his writings contributed to the birth of modernity in Europe. But as scholars debate and ordinary Protestants celebrate this history, it is important to recall the whole context of the man, Martin Luther.

In his writings and in the stories told of him, he is revealed as a brilliant theologian and scripture scholar and a crude, earthy husband and father. Freed from the expectations of celibacy, he married Kate and together they had six children. Although the record suggests a genuinely affectionate relationship with both his wife and children, Luther describes his violence towards both without apology. In general his attitudes towards women were quite negative: “If a woman becomes weary and at last dead from bearing, that matters not; let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it.” His sexism and patriarchalism are part of his legacy. I expect that this does not deviate from the norms of the day, but it is nonetheless reprehensible.

Likewise Luther’s extreme anti-semitism, revealed in his writing and speaking, was probably common in 16th century Germany. But as a public figure, he promoted and sustained it. Thus he was often cited as foundational to the rise of National Socialism and the Nazi state in 20th century Europe.

The point is that whenever we consider public figures who have shaped cultural norms (whether religious or secular), we must acknowledge the good, bad and ugly. Although this may present us with uncomfortable contradictions which we would just as soon avoid, we do so at our own peril.

I am reminded of the controversies now stirring over what to do with Confederate monuments still standing in public spaces over much of the south, celebrating Confederate generals and political leaders. I grew up in North Carolina seeing these monuments as normal, unaware of the pain they caused to African Americans.

While I prefer to see monuments in public spaces to figures who led us forward, not backward, at least we should tell the truth about these persons who have been immortalized. Whether it was Robert E. Lee, Confederate General and slaveholder who brutalized his slaves, or Nathan Bedford Forrest who was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

I suggest we not hide our history in warehouses, but display these statues in museums and tell the whole truth about the people we are asked to remember. They are part of our painful history but they should not be regarded with adulation as suggested by Alt-Right White Nationalists in our own time.

So likewise, as we recall the man Martin Luther and his actions which changed the world, let us remember him, warts and all, and with critical minds that allow us to choose to do better.

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