Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
For the first time in 22 years during our recent trip to Germany I returned to the city where a little known Augustinian Monk and Professor of Theology, Dr. Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation and changed the world forever. There had been other revolts against the Catholic Church by various dissenters but none of them had ever found and ear with rulers who by their support could change the status quo and protect them from being tried as heretics.
To be tried as a heretic meant that you were also in violation of the law of the local monarch or the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and likewise an enemy of the State. Once convicted of heresy the the opponents of the regime were then executed in whatever way the Church and State deemed to be the most effective way of discouraging future dissenters.
Luther was not only a keen theologian, he knew how to gain the support of common people, as well as the princes and other members of the nobility who knew that they were getting screwed by both the Church and the Empire. Thus while his theological motives based on his experience of the grace of God were genuine, he understood the political implications of his theology which broke the chains of Germans Protestants to Rome.
The result would lead Luther’s political supporters into multiple wars against Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, and then against German dissenters who dissented from Luther. It would also set the stage for successful breaks from Rome in England, and in Geneva, where John Calvin proclaimed a harsh and cold version of Protestantism. In many ways Luther never fully rejected parts of Catholic doctrine such as the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and the efficacy of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, despite writing circles around himself to show his differences with Rome. He would never be Protestant enough for Calvin, or Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, or the later more radical Calvinist separatists in France, Holland, England, and Scotland. Of course none of those were acceptable to the Radical Reformers of the Anabaptist-Mennonite movement in Holland which spread to England in the guise of the early English Baptists, who were simply Anabaptists who had thrown out pacifism.
Luther was a remarkable man with many flaws. His theology led to married clergy, the Bible being translated into German and then many other languages. In fact Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped birth the modern German language as much as the later King James Bible did for English some 80years later.
Likewise, through his emphasis on the Three Solas, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides, and Sola Scriptura he opened the door for individuals to have more say in their spiritual lives and interpretation of the Christian faith, which led to many more breaks with the Church, his Church within a few years. Luther opened the door to a Christianity which has never stopped splitting, often with ugly consequences, and sometimes reforming for the better. Luther was a huge influence on John Wesley who influenced me like William Wilberforce and John Newton who helped abolish slavery in England and it’s colonies. At the same time one cannot overlook just how Luther’s vehement denunciations and demonizations of the Jews helped set the stage for the German anti-Semitism that brought about the Holocaust.
But all that being said from a theological point of view Luther shattered the theological oneness of the western church. Instead of one Pope, Luther opened the door for everyone to be his own Pope.
His theology also allowed rulers to break from Rome and still support their own State Church. In the various fiefdoms of Germany some went with Luther, others Calvin, and still others Zwingli. In England, Henry VIII took the Church of England out of Rome and that church recognized the English King, or at times the Queen the head of the Church.Without Luther to shatter the barrier between Church and State, there would likely never have been the freedom granted to the great
This when the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States wrote those documents they were absolutely opposed to the government of the United States having a State religion or for that matter even endorsing any sect of Christianity. The great Virginia Baptist and friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, John Leland wrote:
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
Luther certainly would not have agreed with that, but he opened the door to it and we should all be grateful that he did. One wishes that the Christian Nationalists of the United States would read their United States history because they are try to establish a particular minority sect of Christianity, a fundamental evangelicalism rooted in the political theology of John Calvin as the official State religion. To do so they are using a man who would shame the Medici Popes in his profound disregard and disrespect of anything resembling the Christian faith; for his carnal indulgence, his wanton greed, vain pomposity, and his narcissism which borders on self-deification. Luther would have recognized him and them as frauds of the most odious kind.
Luther’s flaws are many. He suffered severe, probably clinical depression, and many PTSD from the beatings administered by his father. That was not helped by his understanding as a young man, theology student, and monk of a very punitive and angry God who he could never please. His life crisis came at a time in his life, between 28 and 32 years old, when developmental psychologists tell us that many great thinkers, intellects, and leaders have their breakthroughs.
He was also at times terribly sarcastic, vindictive, and angry. He could turn on friends and former students who broke with him in a visceral manner. He was also beset by an anti-Semitic streak that while it was a part of the times that he lived was used by other German anti-semites, especially Hitler’s Nazis in their persecution, and later extermination of the Jews. He was also prone to see the religious wars of his time, be they against the Turks, the Roman Catholics, or the Radical Reformers, through the lens of an apocalyptic worldview.
Despite all his flaws he is one of the most important men in history. Without his break with Rome and the support of European nobility there probably would have been no Enlightenment as we know it for the great artists, writers, scientists, and others of that period would likely have never had safe places to go beyond the limits of Medieval Scholasticism and Aristotelian philosophy.
Likewise the principle of the Reformation is that Reformation never ends. The Church must continually reform or die. Unfortunately, that is seldom the case, the Christian Church has always been resistant to change and frequently is the last holdout against truly evil movements. Christians, not just in the United States, frequently heed the call of racism, nationalism, and misogyny more than any other group. Of course there are other religions where many of the faithful and their leaders do the same thing, but today’s post is about Luther and the the Christian faith.
Luther understood that the Gospel must speak to the issues of the day. He said: A gospel that doesn’t deal with the issues of the day is not the gospel at all. In our day those issues are ones that I think that had he lived among us that Luther would see and preach about. I could see him boldly condemning the court preachers of Donald Trump, (yes I see the split infinitive and I don’t care – to “boldly go” as someone we’ll know has said). Men like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham wouldn’t stand a chance against the Monk from Wittenberg. Neither would the Medici President and his sycophant supporters who scream in indignation when he or they are exposed for who they are.
So, until tomorrow,
Another Year on the Margins of the Church
Me and my Little Buddy, Minnie Scule
I have been living on the margins of American Christianity for a bit over seven years now. The watershed moment was when I returned from Iraq in February 2008 my faith shattered and my soul wounded suffering from severe PTSD. I was not in good shape then and two years later after faith returned, albeit in a different form I realized that I no longer fit in the mainstream of conservative American Christianity.
The process of return took me to the margins of the faith that I knew and grew up in. For a while I felt like a victim, but over the course of the years I have discovered a tremendous freedom in living on the margins of the church. Jamake Highwater wrote something that really struck me as true:
“What outsiders discover in their adventures on the other side of the looking glass is the courage to repudiate self-contempt and recognise their “alienation” as a precious gift of freedom from arbitrary norms that they did not make and did not sanction. At the moment a person questions the validity of the rules, the victim is no longer a victim.”
When I began to express some of those changes, which mainly had to do in the manner of how I viewed others I got in trouble. At the time I was part of a pretty conservative Episcopal-Catholic denomination with very strong Evangelical and Charismatic leanings. I wrote that I thought that homosexuals could be Christians and not automatically damned to hell. I wrote that not all Moslems were bad. I expressed a great deal of empathy for non-believers, particularly Atheists and Agnostics having recently come out of a period where for all intents I was an Agnostic praying that God really did exist and care. I also asserted that I saw no reason why women could not or should not be ordained to the Priesthood and the Episcopacy and I expressed other views that while not connected with anything to do in the Christian faith was not politically correct in conservative circles.
During that time period I found that I was getting slammed and “unfriended” on Facebook by people I had previously considered friends whenever I had the nerve to disagree with them, or innocently post something that they disagreed with on my Facebook page. I think that was the hardest part for me, I was shocked that people who I had thought were friends, who knew what I was going through were so devoted to their ideology that they condemned me and threw me away. I found that I agreed with Mahatma Gandhi who observed: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Of course I say that with a fair amount of humility because most of the time I am not a very good Christian, if that means actually trying to emulate Jesus.
Of course that is not uncommon in the annals of Christianity. Ulrich Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich was so upset when his students and closest associates became Anabaptist that he had them drowned in the Rhine River. In fact any time Church leaders have had significant powers over people through the levers of the State they have quite often used that power to crush anyone that did not believe like them or questioned their authority.
In a sense for two millennia various groups of Christians have been creating God in their own image and inflicting their beliefs on others. Christians punishing other Christians for having views that they do not agree is so common. Last week a Chaplain of a Nazarene college was fired for questioning Christian support for war in the wake of the movie American Sniper. Sadly most of the time that Christians are condemned by other Christians it is not even for any of major doctrinal beliefs found in the Creeds, the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, or even of the various Confessions or Statements of Faith of any denomination. Instead they usually have to with unpopular stands on political or social issues. Anne Lamott has a pithy little thought that I love which I think describes this type of Christian persecution: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
In September of 2010 I was asked to leave that church, even though my actual theological orthodoxy, as to what I believed about God and Christ was unchanged. Thankfully another church, the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, a denomination of the Old Catholic tradition took me in. It is a tiny denomination, much like the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands, but very affirming and I fit well in it.
As far as my old church, it was going through a difficult time and the Bishop who threw me out was a big part of the problem. He was removed a few months later when it was revealed that he was plotting to take all of the military chaplains out of the denomination to another without consulting the other bishops. One friend who is still in that church speculated that I was asked to leave by the bishop because he thought I might reveal his plans, even though he had not told me directly about them.
What was odd about that church was that in 2004 I was censured by the then second ranking archbishop in that church, forbidden from publishing and even having or having any personal contact with his clergy where I was living because I was “too Catholic.” The irony was that this bishop was a big cause of the trouble that the church went through including the massive splits that occurred in 2005-2010. He left that church, became the editor of a conservative Catholic website and now is a Priest in the Anglican Ordinate and effectively a Roman Catholic Priest. I love irony.
Thankfully I still have a number friends in my old church, and thankfully there are good people there doing their best to live the Gospel. I can’t say that I would fit in there anymore, but I have no residual animosity to the current leadership of that denomination and pray that they continue to recover from the tumult and division that marked their struggle from 2005-2011. I admit that it was a painful time and for a while I was quite bitter about how I had been treated, but it has been easier to live by forgiving. C. S. Lewis noted: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Since I have been forgiven for so much how can I not at least try to live in a forgiving manner?
I have written a lot about my frustrations with American Christianity in particular the conservative Christian subculture. Looking at what I wrote I can see that I definitely exist on the margins of that world. But that is not a bad thing, there is a certain amount of freedom as well as intellectual honesty and integrity that I have now that I could not have being for all intents closeted in my former denomination.
Living on the margins allows me to echo Galileo who wrote: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” It allows me to be at the intersection of faith and unbelief and allows me entry into both worlds, both of which I believe to be sacred and both need to be heard, as well as protected.
Thus when I champion religious liberty, it is not the liberty to use religion to bludgeon others or to use the police power of the State to enforce their religious views on others. Unfortunately that is what I see going on in this country as conservative American Christians especially Evangelicals, Charismatics and conservative Roman Catholics wage a Kulturkampf against modernism and secularism. It as if many of the leaders of that movement desire to set up a Christian theocracy. Gary North, a longtime adviser to Ron Paul and many in the Tea Party movement wrote:
“We must use the doctrine of religious liberty to gain independence for Christian schools until we train up a generation of people who know that there is no religious neutrality, no neutral law, no neutral education, and no neutral civil government. Then they will get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God.”
Personally, and with no invective intended I have to imagine that if a Moslem leader in this country said something similar that the Religious Right would be screaming bloody murder and that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News would be leading the charge.
Thus we see a reprise of the Scopes Monkey Trial in efforts to diminish the teaching of real science in schools and replace it with various religious theories of origins such as Young Earth Creationism. It doesn’t seem to matter what the issue is: equality for women, minorities, gays, teaching science, caring for the poor, the sick and the weak, acknowledging the value of other cultural traditions and religions it seems that many politically charged conservative Christians have no tolerance for anyone outside their often quite narrow belief system. North wrote:
“The long-term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant–baptism and holy communion–must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.”
I’m sorry but again this sounds not too dissimilar to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the sheep and the comfortable clothes, or the Moslem Brotherhood types, Hezbollah or the Iranian Imams. The religion of North might be different from the Taliban but the goals are eerily similar, and only a fool would not see that. But then we Christians are quite good at ignoring the hate being preached by those that claim to be defending us from those “evil” Moslems.
This is no empty threat, throughout the country Christian Conservatives and their political front men are ramming through laws that have but one intent, the establishment of a Christian theocracy and the persecution of those who do not agree. Allegedly all of these laws are designed to “protect religious liberty” but in fact are nothing more than a legislative attempt to disenfranchise non-believers or others that the majority does not approve. Unfortunately the people pushing these laws do not understand that once the become law they can be used against them if another group comes into power. They set precedent and under such precedent even Sharia Law could be enacted in Moslem dominated areas of the country, such as Dearborn Michigan, or polygamy in separatist Mormon communities in Utah and Idaho.
I am sorry but that is antithetical to the thoughts of our founders and the real defenders of religious liberty in the early days of our republic. John Leland, head of the Virginia Baptists and a key player in the drafting of the First Amendment and religious liberty protections in Virginia wrote:
“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”
Leland understood what he was talking about, because in Virginia Baptists and others were being persecuted by Anglicans who before the Revolution had been the State Church of Virginia and wanted to be again in the new republic. James Madison wrote of the danger: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”
I will defend the right of religious conservative to believe what they want, including the right to teach it in their churches, church schools and homes and to express those views in the public square as part of real dialogue. I may not agree with them, but if I want my views to be protected I should grant others what I would want. What I cannot support is the attempt of some politically active Christian conservatives to force those views on others through the power of the State, the public schools or any other place where the citizens of our very diverse and pluralistic society have to co-exist.
Likewise, I have become much more outspoken in defending those who are the targets of real Christian hate, in particular the LGBT community, unbelievers, especially atheists and agnostics and Moslems. That may seem odd, but really, if we as Christians do not show God’s love to them, just how do we expect that they will embrace what we believe?
I love the movie Inherit the Wind. I especially love the scene where Spencer Tracy playing the fictionalized version of Clarence Darrow gives a logical yet passionate defense of religious, civil and intellectual liberty.
“Can’t you understand? That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And tomorrow you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of man. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding. And soon, your Honor, with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward, BACKWARD, through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind!”
Since I don’t want to go back to the 16th Century I will be content to live in the freedom that I have on the margins of contemporary American Christianity. Personally I would rather be there than in the 16th century.
Back in 2010 when I was getting kicked out of my old church and suffering the rejection of friends it wasn’t something that I enjoyed. However, I am grateful to be where I am now and to have the freedom that I enjoy. I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but I am definitely okay with the way things have turned out. Living on the margins of American Christianity beats the hell out of living within the hateful, greedy and oppressive structures that permeate our American Christian landscape.
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