Wednesday, November 1, 2017


Because yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation--marked by the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--I've been thinking about the idea of reformation, and what significance that idea has for us today.

As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born through the efforts of Luther and Philip Melanchthon and others to reform the church. In taking that monumental step, not only did they stand against certain abuses of the church at the time while standing up for specific theological ideas, they also stood for the idea of reform itself.

Reform is not revolt or rejection. Reform begins with a spirit of allegiance. It begins with the idea that there is something here of value, but something that has become, we might say, deformed. We don't repair what we don't value. Instead, we throw it away. If a ship sets sail for a destination we don't want to arrive at, we may not be especially bothered if it has drifted off course.

The desire for reform is like the desire to heal the sick--something we wouldn't do if we didn't value them and their health.

In other words, there's something conservative about reform. When we heal the sick, we may try to cut out tumors or kill bacteria, but it's for the sake of the conserving the life of the patient.

But reformation is also about criticism and change. It is about identifying sickness and seeking a world where that sickness no longer distorts, no longer impedes, no longer puts us off course. It's about saying, "The way things are is imperfect. And these imperfections are not something we should just be content to live with. Even if perfection is beyond us, we can and must strive to move in its direction by identifying flaws and failures and correcting what we can."

Reform, in other words, is progressive. It is about valuing our inheritance enough to progressively identify and correct its flaws. To be a reformer is to criticize and correct.

And I don't think we can truly embrace the Reformation if all we do is embrace the specific criticisms and corrections of Luther and other reformers of that age.

Let me explore this point a little more deeply. Luther persistently declared that we are all in bondage to sin, and as my pastor reminded the congregation on Sunday, in the first of his 95 Theses Luther stressed that Christ "willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Repentance, like reform, is an act of change. It is a change of direction--the Hebrew word for it means "return," and is about turning back to God; the Greek term is about changing one's mind, or perhaps rising above one's mind (something that can only be done with the help of what is greater than oneself). To repent is to correct one's course or even rise above one's limits. When Luther claimed that the Christian life is one of repentance, he seemed to be envisioning an ongoing process of turning ever back to the only thing that can lift us above our limits, turning ever back because so long as our limits remain we will drift off course.

To become what we are meant to be--children of God who consistently reflect in our lives and our souls the loving essence of our creator--we must continually turn away from the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism that our broken natures incline towards. We must turn instead towards the God who is love, the God who loves us and calls us to love one another, the God who fills us with the power to love when we turn to God in love.

Or perhaps, in the spirit of Luther, I should put the point a bit differently: we must stop turning away from God, stop choosing the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism, stop hugging these things close to our hearts as if they were our god. We should, instead, let God turn us toward the divine love; and whenever we notice ourselves rejecting that love, as we will, we should again just stop.

To suppose that this is the proper life for the Christian but not the proper life for the church is to suppose that a community of people is somehow immune to the limits of individuals. And while it is true that communities can stand firm against things that individuals fall before, it is also true--as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his book, Moral Man in Immoral Society, that humanity in its collective life can fall prey to evils of a magnitude that no individual could ever dream of.

Human flaws play out differently in collective life than in private, but they play out with as much inevitability. Within a group, members can encourage and support mutual care in a way that makes us better towards one another than we might otherwise be. But often, as Niebuhr pointed out, the effect is to inspire us to channel our moral impulses so fully towards other members of the group that we direct none of those impulses towards the "other," towards people at the margins and members of other tribes not our own. Our tribal origins can lead us to restrict our moral sentiments so that we are moral only within our group. We fall prey to us/them ideologies that pit our group against others and that represent salvation as found in the defeat--the destruction or humiliation or oppression--of rival groups and communities.

Human communities are organized around institutions and ideas, social structures and systems of belief. And because human communities are made up of finite human beings with tribal impulses that create us/them divisions and limit our moral sentiments to "us", we are always in danger of shaping our communal social structures and belief systems to serve these tribal instincts. The way to overcome that is to never stop criticizing and correcting our own social structures and belief systems. And this includes the ones that are precious to us. In fact, it especially applies to the most important, the most valuable, the most meaning-enriching systems for organizing our social lives.

If there is a communal aspect to Christian life (and there is), it is the church. And so, just as repentance is a never-ending need of the individual, reformation of the church is the never-ending call of the Christian community.

It didn't stop with Luther and his allies. Luther was well-positioned by his life circumstances and unique talents to discern and speak out against a distinct set of abuses within the church. But like all of us, he was in bondage to sin, as is evidenced by his tendency towards rhetorical excesses that strayed out of the domain of passion into that of verbal abuse. More importantly, it is evidenced by the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of his later life--diatribes that were used and exploited by the Nazis in largely-Lutheran Germany to fuel one of the most horrific genocidal evils of human history: the Holocaust that systematically organized the murder of millions of Jews (as well as gypsies, gays, and others).

I am gratified that my denomination, the ELCA, along with the Lutheran World Federation, in 1994 clearly and unequivocally repudiated the evil of Luther's anti-Jewish hatred and the deeper evils that it helped to breed. This reforming act was late in coming, and one might wonder how history would have gone differently if this act of reformation had happened sooner. But this very question speaks to the urgency of the reforming project. We are blind to so much, and we trivialize or put off what is far more important than we know. It becomes especially easy for our churches to capitulate to evils when those evils have seeped into and found expression within the church itself, and we have failed to take seriously enough the duty of reformation.

If we honor only the specific reforms that Luther called out for but do not embrace the spirit of reformation that Luther embodied, then we become mired in the limitations of Luther's vision. Worse, without ongoing reformation, those limitations are compounded by the distinctive limitations of each subsequent generation. Without ongoing reformation, each generation of the church has an opportunity to let its own collective expression of human sinfulness twist and distort and corrupt what it has inherited. Rather that progressively working to improve an inheritance that is inevitably flawed by human sin, we cement the flaws with our lack of critical reflection, and we layer onto them our own generation's unique ways of going wrong.

The Reformation isn't something that happened five hundred years ago; it's something that needs to happen over and over again. The Reformation was a reminder of a responsibility that all of us have at all times--something that the church did in fits and starts before Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, and something that we are called to do today. 

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