Editorial: Trump and the Reformation
Autumn in a German mining town. A Dominican friar is in the street, preaching about purgatory. He graphically describes the wretched agonies suffered by the departed loved ones of his audience. They wail, they plead. If only there was some way to ease their torments.
It turns out there is. The Pope has issued indulgences for sale to release people from the flames. Each one saves one person, at a cost of three days’ pay, and the money goes to the 11-year-old building project of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The preacher’s assistant carries a papal bull stamped with the Pope’s coat of arms and sings the jingle: ‘When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.’
This was the iniquitous swindle that Martin Luther responded to with his 95 theses 500 years ago this year, starting the ball rolling that became the Reformation. His objection to the scam was partly theological, and Luther’s later breach with the Roman Catholic Church was thoroughly theological, but it’s easy to forget that his first stand against the ecclesiastical establishment was more than anything about justice.
Indulgence pedlars were using working people’s grief and piety to defraud them. It would be better, said thesis 50, ‘that the basilica of St Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of [the Pope’s] sheep’. Luther was confronted by a clear evil, and driven by a holy compulsion to fight it in whatever way he could. The ‘good question’ that we’ve set Reform’s contributors this month is: ‘What does the Reformation mean today?’ Some excellent answers await you (unless you read that feature before this editorial, and why not?) and here’s mine: Isn’t the Reformation an example of the call upon the Church in every generation to take a stand against injustice in whatever form it confronts us (even if it is in the Church)?
It strikes me that the powerful statement by the Moderators of the United Reformed Church in response to President Trump’s ‘travel ban’, reported on page 5, is one contemporary response to that call. Others include demonstrating in the street and the more long-term commitment of churches who work with asylums seekers (see page 18).
Any one of our contributions might seem so small as to be barely worth it. But that’s another thing the Reformation means. Nailing 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church was not an action to shake the whole of Europe. Luther taught at an undistinguished university and was presenting his theses for students to debate in the usual manner. It wasn’t much, but it was what he could do. The rest is church history.
Same here, same now. We do what we can and what we must. Whether it will shake the world, or just hang pinned to a door, isn’t really any of our business.
On another tack, if you value Reform and are lucky enough to read it for free, please consider buying a subscription to ensure the magazine has a future. It almost certainly won’t get you out of purgatory, but it may just give you a warm glow.
This article was published in the March 2017 edition of Reform.