A Date from the Past, for the Future

Are you Catholic? Protestant? Or do you practice another faith? Or count yourself among the “nones”?

Whatever your answer, here’s a date for your calendar: October 31. It’s more than Halloween! In 2017 that date will not only throw new light on an event 500 years ago, a moment that rocked the world; it will also help us understand certain perplexing realities of our time.

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That moment of truth occurred when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther took hammer in hand, nailing “95 Theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. Using the 1517 version of a community bulletin board or online posting, he was inviting people to debate, freely and openly, a set of ideas about the way faith was being practiced and church life operated. The monk’s action itself probably lasted a few minutes but it triggered global results, setting off a chain of events that over time split Western Christianity. More than that, it altered the way millions would view the world, exercise faith and practice right living. Surprisingly, what might have been a respectful conversation about theology soon became a superheated struggle for power and, in the process, changed the religious and political map, popular culture, and even the way people understood themselves. “Catholic” and ”Protestant” shifted from mere descriptions to labels that hardened into factions.

“So what?” we might ask. “ I go to my church, my neighbor goes to another, what’s the big deal? We still laugh at the same jokes, enjoy a backyard barbeque together, grouse about global climate change.”

To look at life only through such contemporary questions is, however, to distort. We’ll never understand the story of our world using only our 21st century lenses. More precisely, we need to set aside our present-day experience of individual rights, personal freedom, democratic institutions and the rule of law. Instead, think rigid political structures. Think decision making by a nonelected elite, whether called barons or kings or bishops or bankers. Think cuius regio, eius religio – the then-current Latin way of declaring that the guy who got to rule the territory told you what religion you belonged to. For example, you lived in Munich, you were automatically Catholic; you lived in Geneva, you were Protestant. If, after a war or a coup, an area passed from control by “A” to “B” the people moved at once by fiat – and I don’t mean a car – from religion A to religion B. Residence ruled!

Within a few decades the Reformation had swept through much of Europe, changing how people exercised faith and understood life. In Germany and Scandinavia followers of the new approach were known as Lutherans, in Switzerland, Reformed, in Holland, Mennonites, in France, Huguenots, in England, Anglicans, in Italy, Waldensians. This map shows dominant affiliations in the mid-16th century.

Within a few decades the Reformation had swept through much of Europe, changing how people exercised faith and understood life. In Germany and Scandinavia followers of the new approach were known as Lutherans, in Switzerland, Reformed, in Holland, Mennonites, in France, Huguenots, in England, Anglicans, in Italy, Waldensians. This map shows dominant affiliations in the mid-16th century.

Wars of religion dominated. While these are sometimes seen as struggles over doctrine (differing interpretations of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, for example) such conflicts may be better seen as power grabs between rulers and would-be rulers. Ordinary people had no vote; they were told when to go to war, and on which side. With few exceptions, notably Northern Ireland, those days seem extremely remote. All the more reason to celebrate how far Protestants and Catholics – and by implication, the larger world, have come. So on October 31 this year Catholics and Protestants will jointly honor the movement started by a monk who dared to think for himself.

Martin Luther, once labelled a heretic, excommunicated and forced into hiding to save his life, has now been highly honored by Pope Francis among others. Catholics and Protestants gathered on October 31, 2016 in the Cathedral in Lund, Sweden (pictured here) and in the nearby Malmö arena seating 10,000, to celebrate what Luther contributed to Christianity and to the civil liberties that people of all faiths – or none – enjoy today. Those celebrations gave a head start to the 500th anniversary, to be marked October 2017.

Why is this important? As I see things, it should have three components:

  • Celebrating the end of an era of hostility. Uncounted thousands died violently at the hands of “the other” – that is finished. Over. Done for. Just as any two human beings are different, so two faith systems will never become carbon copies.  But the animosity between them is history; it’s time to rejoice. Let’s have a party!
  • Acknowledging wrongs by all sides. This is no time for finger-pointing or assessing mathematical levels of blame; it is a time for common confession and reconciliation. Time to embrace one another!  
  • Hoisting a marker of hope. The world is full of factions. They go by different names today: in place of Protestant/Catholic your list might include pro-Trump/anti-Trump, support NATO/reject alliances, how to handle Russia, whether the minimum wage should be boosted, what we mean by “success” in life, how to deal with people far removed from us on the economic ladder, the best way to deal with crime on the sullen streets and in the halls of polished power.… In short, what happens in Lund must be seen as a sign that today’s divided world, like that of five centuries ago, can be reconciled. What’s more, now that we’re getting the hang of it, who’s to say we need to wait 500 years?

Sure to make the top 10 is terrorism: threatening activity of all types but especially that which claims Islamist-roots. Worry about terror seems to split the world between perpetrators and targets, between the violent and the victims. Is the world doomed to be divided between “them” and “us” – between the world of Islam (as in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Indonesia) and the word of freedom (say North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand)? In spite of our democratic and welcoming traditions – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” should we now force Muslims to register as suspected enemies the way Nazis once required Jews to register and be treated as dangerous? How can the changing map of Catholic/Protestant relations, about to be demonstrated this October, inform our thinking about how we see relations between Muslims and the Western world? In spite of all the attention they get, the number of deaths by Islamist extremists attacking Western targets is only a fraction of the killings in Protestant-Catholic wars. Would it not be better to make peace now, before the statistics pile up more hostility?

We’ll slate that discussion for a later time. The map of the world is changing, and it’s altering how we all interconnect. Stay tuned for further developments!