Friday, June 29, 2018

Support for the Underdog. . ., Luther is criticized for supporting the nobles against the common man in the Peasants' War that brought to a climax what had been relatively small rebellions over issues of taxation, corruption, and more local concerns.  In this context, we find it hard to understand Luther, who in our own imaginary world is the voice of the ordinary person, the first to effectively promote the cause of the individual, and one of the inventors of humanism.  But things are seldom as simple as we wish them to be and things seldom as black and white as we desire.

Lyman Stone wrote in First Things of this.
Luther is sometimes criticized for not supporting the peasants, as if he owed complete loyalty to the populist wave. But we should note that the rebels were not democratic reformers, but apocalyptic radicals seeking the institution of heaven-on-earth. When a group of radicals took the city of M√ľnster in 1534, they formed a polygamous death-cult centered around charismatic leaders who duped their followers into a disastrous siege, in the hope of initiating the End Times. Their campaign was more Jonestown than Yorktown. Thus, when Luther condemned the rebellion, he did not condemn a political platform. Indeed, he supported many of the practical reforms the peasants demanded, and pushed the German nobles to adopt them! Rather, he condemned the mobs for trying to institute cultic theocracies based on their idiosyncratic and often violently repressive readings of scripture. He argued that the conflict was basically civil in nature—neither side could claim to be representing God.
Though we would like to believe that the Peasants' Revolt was the first spawning of a movement that would ultimately find its noble fruit in our own American Revolution -- a revolt less about taxes than the birth of a philosophy, a cultural identity, a societal transformation, and a brave new world.  It would be a convenient idea but not one that smelled of much truth.  Though some blame Luther for siding with the overlords against the righteous cause of the peasants, this was not the only context for what happened.  Luther has much to account for in this as well as other areas but the chaos promoted by some would have resulted in a tyranny that would have been no better and most likely far worse.

The point is this.  I love the old saying that when you venture across a pot of crazy, it is best not to stir it.  Luther was only marginally responsible for stirring the pot that resulted in the death of so many peasants and a supposed smear upon Luther's democratic credentials.  There were many things at work.  There were legitimate complaints against excesses and corruption in church and state but there were also illegitimate folks who took advantage of the people's cries for their own corrupt and excess purposes.  The cost in blood of this revolt did not simply give Luther pause, it encouraged him in his pursuit of the two kingdoms idea, in the cause of vocation for the common man and the noble and the cleric, and the acknowledgement that although the citizen has duties to the state, the state also has duties to the citizen. Different duties but both accountable to the God who will judge all. 

In the end, perhaps, Lutherans became gun shy.  They had their own ecclesiastical structures so closely tied to the state that the prophetic voice was silenced and so in Europe today the church may have actually aided in the creation of a secular state filled with people who view religion as heritage and not faith.  If we Lutherans today have anything to learn, we cannot abdicate to the state the moral voice nor can we dutifully follow the rules of the state that would diminish, dilute, or destroy the voice of the Word.  It is messy, to be sure, to be in but not of the world.  But it is where God has placed us and it is in this context our holy vocations meet civic responsibilities.

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