the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
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At a space of several centuries, it is somewhat difficult to tell whether any good came out of the Protestant Reformation. Ordinarily the case is the opposite; historical events cannot be judged until a fair amount of time has passed. In this instance, we are not awaiting clarity on the subsequent events. Instead, we are getting further from the immediate results, and the long-term results are becoming more corrupted by time and human nature. Do the Protestant churches serve the world any better than the Roman church they displaced? Probably, but only probably, and only partially. It can be guessed that they had a liberalizing, even purifying, effect on what remains of the apostolic establishment, and I could point to a limited number of issues on which there are important differences between the two main branches of Christianity in the west, differences which make the Reformation a positive development. But from the perspective of a predominantly Protestant land, it is hard to see the new establishment as especially liberal or pure. We certainly cannot look to the new churches as anything which has great value in absolute terms, anything that we would want to reproduce in fine detail (or even broad outline) should it decline and dissolve. For all the energy spent over the centuries fighting the entrenched church and constructing an alternative, the Reformation has advanced the culture of the world very little. The reforms were small compared with what was needed. If they seemed ambititious at the time, they now seem entirely politic.
But it cannot be supposed that Martin Luther could see into the future, to know how great an undertaking would result from his actions. He, after all, was looking to change the church already in existence, not construct a new one. And if it can be hoped that individuals will transcend the times in which they live, it cannot be expected. Luther did not ask for a greater change in the church because he did not see a need. He set out the terms for what must have seemed from his perspective as the perfect institution. His great virtue was to insist on perfection.
Thus, Luther is of more use as a model of courage, of determination, of devotion, than of vision. He did not transcend his times, he did not create the perfect institution, he did not give the world the full benefit of the work that was eventually expended to build his own conception of the perfect institution. But he did take on the most powerful force in his world, defiantly, resolutely, and at great risk. He took a stand on principle and refused to concede. He made a call for his version of right and would accept no less. Though it does not make me a Lutheran to say so, he risked hell for his stand. He may have had fanciful dreams of throwing shit at the devil (and it was shit, not ink), but he wrestled in reality with a true demon. There can be no mistake on this point: the medieval church was a true terror. Any goodness which might be conceded in the life and work of ישוע Jeśūac of נצרת Nasərat must be denied completely in the workings of this particular eponymous organization. Torture, taxes, subjugation, mind-control, crusades into the Near East: this was, clearly, dominion. It was the government of its own spiritual and temporal fiefdom. It pursued with zealous and ruthless persistence a wholly corrupt vision of itself as master of Earth. It had nothing to do with charity, love, peace, or the welfare of the world. It was in service of a tyrant God, and became a tyranny in that image. We can at least credit Luther with recognizing the devil when he saw it.
And his stand was heroic. He posted his complaints in a public forum. When called to account, he replied with timeless words, words that could be the call of any pure reform movement, great or small: “Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders.”.
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