Over this sad and violent week across our country, I pondered some reflections to post today, but good folks of all faith traditions and humanitarian impulses have written and spoken with far more credibility and insight that I can muster. Of note is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement of Friday, May 29, which included this:
“Racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient. It is a real and present danger that must be met head on. As members of the Church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of indifference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.
While it is expected that we will plead for peaceful non-violent protests, and we certainly do, we also stand in passionate support of communities that are understandably outraged. Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their complaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.”
I had planned to pick up our Reformation stream on the Café today, and at first my heart was not in it. But upon reflection, I returned to where we left off the stream in February, and I realized that we had reached a point in the narrative where the theological debates between Luther and the Catholic Church would soon pass into violent confrontations and then to wholesale wars. 1524 began a period of violence that extended well over a century until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and even beyond, that essentially divided Europe into Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist regions which did not necessarily correspond with national boundaries. It is impossible to know how many people were killed in what history now calls The Religion Wars [1524-1648].
Given the intertwining of religion and state in the late medieval and renaissance era, any significant stirrings in religious practice were bound to have implications throughout society. When Luther proclaimed his 95 theses of reform in 1517, he did not wish to eliminate the Roman Catholic Church. His hope was purification. His need was direct conversation with Church leadership to explain the theological principles of his protest, most notably his contention that the Scripture was final arbiter of faith and morals in the Church. He contended that too many aspects of faith and practice were man-made, notably but not exclusively the sale of indulgences and commercial means of attaining salvation.
Luther was excommunicated in 1521 and summoned to the Diet of Worms, conducted by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, where he would contend with the noted scholar Johann Eck. There are various opinions about this classic confrontation of Luther and Eck. The papacy, which Eck defended, did not appear interested in the various aspects of Luther’s theology, but instead pressed Luther to renounce several key points which could be interpreted as undermining the supreme power of the pope. For our purposes, Luther’s belief in sola scriptura, by Scripture alone is man saved, [the entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica outlines the precise points of contention] was the turning point. He would not turn his back on the freedom of conscience to obey the Bible. “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Luther’s position rendered him a heretic and an outlaw; any civil authority was bound by the Church to arrest him and turn him over to Church authorities for what would no doubt be public execution by burning.
Luther was ready for this martyrdom to his ideals, but his civil protector Frederick, Elector of Saxony, whisked him away to a hidden mountaintop retreat in Wartburg where he remained for about one year and produced one of his greatest works, a German text of the New Testament. While Luther was sequestered, his location known only to Frederick, circumstances in his home base of Wittenberg conspired to bring about a slow but certain nuclear meltdown of religious and civil disorder. The beginnings were simple enough. Luther had a devoted following across the board in Saxony, where he lived and taught at Wittenberg University. When Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther and ordered his writings burned in 1521, Frederick did not carry out his orders; Luther’s students and supporters instead burned the decree of excommunication.
Luther’s teaching on freedom to obey one’s conscience informed by Scripture was subtle for its time; the indispensable codicil, “informed by Scripture” was often forgotten by those who interpreted Luther as a prophet of free conscience, period, more along the lines of the contemporary “do your own thing.” In 1524 an army of peasants, inspired by two mis-interpreters of Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Müntzer, decided to take up arms against German princes. This action was a major war; 100,000 peasants were killed by 1525 fighting for agrarian reform and fair taxation. Luther, returned to public life from Wartburg, was appalled at this breakdown of order, and sided with the princes in crushing the rebellion.
Among the Reformation figures, Luther was conservative. His goals were religious, pastoral, and theological. He was backward looking, drawing from early church structure and ancient writings of church fathers in his study of Scripture. He respected civil authority as an instrument of protection of reformed religious practice, just as he recognized the need for a holy church to promote community prayer, sacraments [Baptism and Eucharist], and theological competence. Perhaps because he was busy laying the groundwork for the German needs of the Church—creating and writing hymns for public worship, translating the Mass and the Scriptures into German, the vernacular language—he did not have time to think through the possible misuses of his teachings, which at their worst led to anarchy, bloodshed, and the further divisions of the Body of Christ. Nor was he always available to tamp the
Luther’s support of the princes led to great disappointment among the desperate farmers, and won him support among nobility, who themselves now felt free to engage in another assault on the accepted order, a refusal to pay church taxes to Rome. It was the German princes who provided Luther with something his reformist predecessors such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus never enjoyed, civil protection in their regions. The common classes, disenchanted with emerging Lutheranism, often moved toward apocalyptic, future oriented sects and religious assemblies such as the Anabaptists, who held that only an adult could be baptized and who condemned the practice of infant baptism. In 1535 40 Anabaptists seized a police station in Amsterdam. Twenty-eight were killed, and the survivors were butchered in the town square while still alive.
The development of the Reformation is enormously complicated on the ground. If one were to rise above the European continent in around 1550, the general picture is the domination of three main Christian bodies, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. [England, under Henry VIII, had its own crisis of religious division.] One of the causes of so much warfare across the European continent was a new principle of governing independent of the Catholic Church, cuius regio, eius religio, “whoever is king, his is the religion.” The idea of two religions in the same region was considered at the time to be a danger to the state, such that conquest and eradication fueled the relationships of religious movements, nationally, regionally, and locally.
Conflicts great and small erupted regularly from the 1524 German peasants’ revolt to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Wikipedia has an extremely colorful and useful graphic of the forty or so major conflicts; by placing the computer cursor over a particular war, its reasons and casualties are immediately available. The history of sixteenth century France is but one of these wars but is a good example of the complications and violence of such engagements. About three million persons lost their lives in a 36-year conflict [1562-1598] between Catholics loyal to Rome and Calvinists, called Huguenots, loyal to the reforms of John Calvin, who trained young preachers and ministers to cross the border to return to France and make Huguenot converts. This war is remembered for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the conversion of Henry IV to Catholicism. Henry’s observation is still cited today: “Paris is worth a Mass.”
It is impossible to summarize the destruction and loss of life that plagued Europe during the Reformation, and hopefully it is inconceivable to believe that this mayhem pleased God or brought credit to any religious body. At the end of his comprehensive The Reformation , the historian Diarmaid MacCullough tallies the greater ironies of the religious war era: by 1648 many devout members of all the major religions longed for an inner peace and personal spirituality. The controversies and bloodshed had exhausted organized Christianity. Little wonder that the Catholic resurgence of devotion to the Sacred Heart in the seventeenth century led to the universal observance of the Feast of the Sacred Heart in 1670.
But there was another reaction to this troubled age. Given that one of the major dynamics of this troubled time was conflict between churches, educated persons across the Western world began to question the idea of divine providence and denominations in general. Again, no mystery that Rene Descartes [1596-1650] developed a philosophy of man as the center of reality, coining his famous Cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” The Enlightenment and the modern era of life, law, and science without religious reference was born and created the stage for life today as we know it.