Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Martin Luther, on rebels and revolution

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which means we will undoubtedlyhear endless variations on the standard narrative: Martin Luther was an anti-authoritarian rebel, courageously fighting for religious freedom against the domination of the Catholic Church. In that light, it's worth remembering what Luther himself thought about rebels.

What is the connection of Luther's doctrines with the psychological situation of all but the rich and powerful toward the end of the Middle Ages? As we have seen, the old order was breaking down. The individual had lost the security of certainty and was threatened by new economic forces, by capitalists and monopolies; the corporative principle was being replaced by competition; the lower classes felt the pressure of growing exploitation. The appeal of Lutheranism to the lower classes differed from its appeal to the middle class. The poor in the cities, and even more the peasants, were in a desperate situation. They were ruthlessly exploited and deprived of traditional rights and privileges. They were in a revolutionary mood which found expression in peasant uprisings and in revolutionary movements in the cities. The Gospel articulated their hopes and expectations as it had done for the slaves and laborers of early Christianity, and led the poor to seek for freedom and justice. In so far as Luther attacked authority and made the word of the Gospel the center of his teachings, he appealed to those restive masses as other religious movements of an evangelical character had done before him. 
Although Luther accepted their allegiance to him and supported them, he could do so only up to a certain point; he had to break the alliance when the peasants went further than attacking the authority of the Church and merely making minor demands for the betterment of their lot. They proceeded to become a revolutionary class which threatened to overthrow all authority and to destroy the foundations of social order in whose maintenance the middle class was vitally interested...

Loewen and Nolt:
At the height of the peasants' rebellion in the mid-1520s, Luther sharply criticized them in a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Luther accused the peasants of breaking oaths to their lords and of taking up arms against divinely instituted governments. 
Luther called the rebellion inexcusable because it led to the breakdown of all law and order. "Therefore," he advised the princes, "let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you don't strike him, he will strike you, and the whole land with you."