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Reform Magazine | June 29, 2017

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Editorial: A thought experiment about Worms

steve_tomkinsStop me if you’ve heard this one, but, in 1521, Martin Luther was interrogated at the Diet of Worms, and went there knowing it would probably cost him his life. He was shown the books he had written in the last few years and reminded of the vast libraries of church doctrine, built over a millennium, which contradicted and condemned his newfangled errors. Asked to recant, he said the Church could not change what he read in the Bible, and his conscience was captive to the word of God, adding, if only in legend: “Here I stand, I can no other, so help me God.”

This heroic, inspiring stand for freedom of thought and conscience against oppressive orthodoxy was somewhat compromised when nine years later Luther approved the execution of Anabaptists. His later call for the synagogues, schools and homes of observant Jews to be burned was a shameful horror. What a confusion between heaven and hell the Christian spirit is.

I wonder how it felt to stand at Worms and defy the world. I wonder more how it felt to call for Jews to be persecuted. Luther did not, I imagine, feel stupid, wrong, prejudiced and wicked. Perhaps he burned with resentment for some deep pain. Perhaps he was consumed by fear that all he worked for was threatened by unbelievers. Nothing is easier than seeing how horribly wrong Luther was; understanding it is a lot harder.

It’s a useful thought experiment though, if you really want to have a conversation with someone you completely disagree with. I’m surrounded, all the time, by people who seem obviously and badly wrong. Wrong about religion, wrong about politics, wrong about whose fault it was that we missed the turning off the motorway. When I ask: “What are they saying?”, I hear their arguments and continue disagreeing. But if I ask: “What does that opinion feel like?” I have a better chance of making contact with the person behind the opinion.

Take, at complete random, the subject of Christian sexuality. Does being more conservative than me feel like oppressive bigotry, or like Martin Luther making a desperate stand at Worms? I suspect it’s the latter. Does the person more liberal than me feel like a scripture-twisting sell-out, or like someone taking the side of Christ against a millennium of Christian prejudice? I suspect it’s the latter again. In which case, that’s probably the one I should be having the conversation with.

If we want to listen better to people we disagree with, it might be worth asking ourselves, not only how their opinions sound, but how they feel. And I’m pretty sure it was my fault we missed the turning, but if you have other ideas, I’m all ears.

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This article was published in the September 2014 edition of  Reform.

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