In recent weeks, social media has been ablaze with opinions over what does or does not constitute an “appropriate” protest.
This piece, however, is about a much older controversy.
Exactly five hundred years ago (this month) an act of dissent began that was far more incendiary than a few athletes kneeling for an anthem.
In the heart of Germany, a young monk named Martinus Ludher (Martin Luther) felt compelled to speak out against the abuses of his church—and particularly, against the unjust selling of indulgences.
Yet while many celebrate Luther’s legacy this year, it bears noting that he was hardly a hero to many at the time.
Protests, it seems, can be variously interpreted.
Thanks to J. Gutenberg’s 15th century invention of “social media,” one can still access a plethora of medieval memes depicting the Reformer in all manner of unflattering ways.
There was Luther as the beast of Revelation; Luther as the devil’s bagpipe (below); and Luther as a sex-crazed infidel who wanted only to satisfy his lust and break his vow of celibacy.
Like and share if you agree!!! –proclaimed the Hapsburg troll farms.
On the other side, the pope was also lampooned in a variety of viral
.gifs, er… pamphlets.
The holy father was here depicted as a bare-breasted dragon with the head of an ass; and as a decrepit pseudo-Jew riding a pig while holding a pile of steaming excrement.
Apparently, the poop emoji is hardly new.
Nor, sadly, is anti-Semitism.
In response to Luther’s protest, the Holy Roman Emperor himself decided to weigh in. And in 1521, at the Diet of Worms (not a .gif), Charles V pronounced a somber “SAD!” over the idea of justification by faith alone.
Oddly, however, the interjection of a world leader only fueled the fire.
Luther’s protest spread.
BLOOD AND SWORD
In the wake of such polarization, one might hope that the following decades would bring a return to civility between the factions—both claiming to be Christians.
It did not.
So while the fruit of the Reformation is now seen in ideas like sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura (grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone)—the more immediate fruit was the Thirty Years War: the deadliest religious conflict in European history.
Many cite this bloodshed today as a reason why Europe became aggressively post-Christian in the years to follow. The idea was that strong theological commitments invariably bring bloodshed. And while the twentieth century would show that atheists can wage jihad even more effectively (#Marxism), the damage was done.
WORTH THE TROUBLE?
So was Luther’s protest worth it?
I think it was–although I don’t agree with all his tactics.
As a Protestant myself (though one with great respect for Catholicism, and for my Catholic brothers and sisters), I tend to think that the Reformation was necessary, not least because the gospel badly needed a retrieval from the tentacles of medieval tradition.
Even so, Martin Luther was a terribly imperfect activist.
Believing that all his adversaries were literally in league with Satan, Luther often chose the most profane words and images imaginable. (I’ll let you Google it.)
He had seemingly never met an ad hominem—or a reference to the human G.I. tract—that he disliked, and he shared more than his share of “fake news” stories, especially against the Jews.
His treatment of “law” and “gospel” sometimes verged toward anti-nomianism. And his anti-Semitism made the Holocaust more possible in modern Germany (though most of the blame for this lies elsewhere).
Partly to shore up political connections, he once commanded that the “murderous, thieving hordes of peasants” be slaughtered in the most inhumane of terms. And while some of these peasants were indeed both murderous and thieving (see Münster), others were just poor farmers who had been frightfully oppressed by local lords.
Apparently revolts against an over-taxing monarchy can also be variously interpreted.
What then is the point of this history lesson?
To be sure, every act of protest is unique–as is every “protestant.”
Thus it would be wrong to equate any of them, just as it would be wrong to declare every protest praiseworthy. Some are not.
Even so, we fool ourselves if we think that any act of dissent was ever deemed “appropriate” at the time. That’s just not how it works.
Just ask the other Martin Luther. In 1966, Gallup registered MLK’s disapproval rating at 63%, while only 32% of Americans approved of him. Yet in 1999, MLK ranked #1 amongst U.S. citizens to be voted on.
Apparently it takes more than flash polls or “gut feelings” to discern morality.
And perhaps in one instance, it took a chronically cussing and perpetually constipated monk to get a needed conversation going.
Happy (early) Reformation Day.