ON Oct. 31, 1517, an intense 33-year-old Catholic monk with deep-set eyes and a prominent chin nailed an announcement of proposed points—95 theses—for a university discussion to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther, a well-respected University of Wittenberg professor and administrator, was attacking the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, in which the well-to-do “bought” their relatives out of purgatory by investing in “good works” for the church. Poorer people followed suit with a few coins.
Luther was far from the only critic of indulgences, but his action got attention. Intelligent and charismatic, he was not easily dismissed. He sparked the Protestant Reformation, marking its 500th anniversary this year, at that church door. This review touches on three Luther biographies: chiefly the new Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, the first woman named Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, but also Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree, and Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H. Hendrix.
Luther’s fame grew after he refused to recant his criticisms of the Catholic Church at the 1521 Diet of Worms, in front of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. This incident, Roper writes, “probably did more to win people over to the Reformation and shape their hopes and expectations than did his theology.”
Wonderful to see Standing Rock featured on the front cover and within the February 2017 issue (“A Chorus of Resistance,” by Gregg Brekke). One other moment people might have missed: Some among the thousands of veterans supporting the water protectors went down on their knees to apologize for the atrocities committed by Army units against the Sioux people over the centuries of white hegemony. The elders forgave them. I, for one, wept at the grace of this.
Essex, New York
Where Two or More Are Gathered ...
There are some things in the article “Where Protestantism Went Wrong” (by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, February 2017) that leave me unsettled. The article seems to indicate that a single person (a bishop or whomever) is a better arbiter of the truth than a council or a group (presbytery, synod, etc.). By declaring the priesthood of all believers, the Reformation raised up the importance of all people—educated, ordinary, or otherwise. My experience has been that, on the whole, a council or group is more likely to arrive at a truthful, correct, or workable solution to whatever issue is before them than any one individual in the group.
‘Duck’ And Cover?
I finished my reading of Rose Marie Berger’s “Mosquito Manifesto” (February 2017) with a positive feeling. Almost immediately, however, another image flashed through my mind: a short cartoon in which Donald Duck goes on vacation. Sitting in his lounge chair on the lawn, relaxing at last, Donald is set upon by a lone mosquito. Those who know the temperament of Donald Duck can guess the outcome. The final scene shows the mosquito escaping into the sky as Donald destroys his mountain cabin with shotgun blasts in a last vain attempt to rid the world of this pesky mosquito.
Is there not a real danger that instead of bringing down the giant, Lilliputian style, we mosquitos might actually provoke annihilation, not just of ourselves but of many unintended victims of the wrath of the powerful who will not care who they hurt in their attempts to rid the world of us?
Not Alter Egos
In the February 2017 issue of Sojourners, Will Willimon makes an excellent case for the need to address racism from the pulpit (“Preaching the Devil Out”). However, as a Christian mental health professional, I disagree with his contrast between preaching and psychotherapy. I agree the two are separate, but one is not inferior to the other. Willimon characterizes psychotherapy as a luxury only privileged people use. This is based on historical fact, dating back to Freud, when psychoanalysis was provided only to the very richest. Today, however, mental health is constantly striving to be available to the poor and culturally diverse. I can think of no other institution, including the American church, that is more dedicated in practice to understanding and spreading unity among diverse people groups. I suggest that therapists and pastors pursue this goal together, using our unique talents in tandem, instead of trying to become an alternative to the other.
“On the other hand…” Write to email@example.com or Letters, Sojourners, 408 C Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. Include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited.
Eye of the Beholder
In “Where Protestantism Went Wrong” (February 2017), Wesley Granberg-Michaelson rightly critiques some of the consequences of the Reformation. Surely he is inaccurate, however, in arguing that “the Reformation bred a mistrust of aesthetics.” It would be more accurate to state that it promoted a different aesthetic than that prevalent in Catholicism. New England Puritans, for example, developed a “plain style” in literature and architecture evident in the accessible prose of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation and the beauty of many Congregational churches still standing in town squares. This plain style influenced modern literature and the “form follows function” aesthetic of much modern architecture. Sometimes, to quote a fine expression of the Protestant aesthetic, “ ’tis a gift to be simple.”
Jim Wallis has asked the question that I, and I am sure others, have been wrestling with for some time: “What is an evangelical?” (“White Evangelicals and the Election,” January 2017). As an 81-year-old Lutheran pastor, I have been advocating that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America drop the word “evangelical” from our name. The word has been hijacked; the original meaning has been perverted! Retaining the word in our church’s name distorts the very heart of our identity. The change should not be that significant for Lutherans; when “evangelicals” meet, the ELCA is usually absent. It is sad but true that other words must be employed to convey the powerful identity that the word evangelical once held.
North Richland Hills, Texas
Stick to the Facts
I was disappointed in your January 2017 issue’s exclusive focus on the danger Trump poses because of a “racist, misogynistic, ethnocentric brand of nationalism” and policies that likely will hurt poor, vulnerable people (“Is America Possible?” by Heath W. Carter). What of his cavalier attitude toward facts, evidence, and truth, such as his disputing the overwhelming scientific evidence for human-caused global warming? When our culture is on a binge of finding “truth” in unwarranted places, and people are believing what they want to believe no matter how far off the mark (with the encouragement of our president), our democracy is in serious, long-term danger.
In David Gushee’s November 2016 piece on abortion (“The Abortion Impasse”), where are women’s voices? Where is the acknowledgment that there are no women’s voices here? Gushee supports not banning abortion. In some cases. I get that. But the rhetoric, implicit and explicit, embodied in such statements and phrases as “abortion is the sad song that never ends,” “the everyday ‘garden variety abortions’ go on and on,” and “that miserable drive to the abortion clinic” send chills of exclusivity, domination, privilege down this reader’s spine. “What is an anxious Christian to do about all this?” Listen to women’s and girls’ stories. Listen. And listen. And listen.
FIVE HUNDRED YEARS after Martin Luther’s charge semper reformanda (“always reforming”), we stand on the precipice of climate disaster.
In Marrakesh, Morocco, people of faith met at the 2016 U.N. Climate Change conference (COP22) to face an impending climate disaster—a disaster that now seems likely to be exacerbated by U.S. political leadership rather than mitigated by it.
The World Council of Churches held an event in Marrakesh to emphasize how transitional justice- and rights-based approaches, alongside faith-based moral perspectives, can address challenges as complex as natural-resource management and ecological, humanitarian, and spiritual crises exacerbated by climate change. WCC organizer Henrik Grape hoped that “COP22 will take steps forward to fulfill the expectations from Paris and that nations will raise their ambitions to keep the temperature [rise] well under 2 degrees Celsius.”
A wide variety of church bodies were represented at the gathering. The Lutheran World Federation brought youth delegates from Africa to Marrakesh to promote intergenerational collaboration and solidarity with people most affected by climate change. “One of our thematic approaches to the commemoration of 500 years of Lutheran Reformation is the theme ‘Creation: Not For Sale,’” said Caroline Bader, youth secretary for the federation. The Act Alliance, a coalition of 143 churches and parachurch organizations, established a gender-climate change working group to address sustainability among poor and marginalized people through a gender lens.
Catholic theologian Guillermo Kerber believes that Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment is a turning point for the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, by including ecology in the social concerns of Catholics. “The celebration of the 500 years of the Reformation should be an opportunity to express an ecological conversion of all Christian denominations,” said Kerber.
Even by this pope’s standards it was a bold move.
Francis, the spiritual leader of more than a billion Roman Catholics across the globe, this week traveled to Sweden, one of the most secularized countries in Europe, to take part in events marking 500 years since Martin Luther kickstarted the Protestant Reformation.
Some Protestant churches mark the day as Reformation Sunday, and celebrate it on the Sunday just before, or just after, Oct. 31. More often than not, the hymns sung in church that day include “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” with words and music composed by Luther himself. But most members of Lutheran churches — the direct descendants of Luther’s movement — wait until Oct. 31. And that, as we know, is also Halloween, and has led to some creative celebrations for kids.
On Monday, Oct. 31, in Sweden, Pope Francis will take part in an ecumenical service commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th year.
It is stunning to think the start of this momentous anniversary features a visit from the Roman pope.
And it raises a question: Does the Reformation still matter?
There is a lopsided divide in America about what it means to be a religious person, with a majority believing that it’s about acting morally but a strong minority equating it with faith.
Nearly six out of 10 Americans (59 percent) say that being a religious person “is primarily about living a good life and doing the right thing,” as opposed to the more than one-third (36 percent) who hold that being religious “is primarily about having faith and the right beliefs.”
The findings, released Thursday, are part of a report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution that aims to paint a more nuanced picture of the American religious landscape, and the religious left in particular.
Do Evangelicals hate smart people?
No. But it is such a persistent rumor that it might take something as momentous as another Protestant Reformation to see it die.
Because there are folks out there that do hate smart people. More precisely, there are people of faith who draw a line between "God's Word" and "Man's Opinion." They set up human reason as a force fighting against God's truth. While I think most Christians would agree that human reason is imperfect and limited (as humanists and scientists would probably agree as well) that doesn't make it antithetical to "God's Word." Most Christian traditions acknowledge reason as a gift from God not an enemy of God.
Most of my friends knew evangelicalism only through the big, bellicose voices of TV preachers and religio-political activists such as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Not surprisingly, my friends hadn't experienced an evangelicalism that sounded particularly loving, accepting or open-minded.
After eschewing the descriptor because I hadn't wanted to be associated with a faith tradition known more for harsh judgmentalism and fearmongering than the revolutionary love and freedom that Jesus taught, I began publicly referring to myself again as an evangelical. By speaking up, I hoped I might help reclaim "evangelical" for what it is supposed to mean.