My friends have been writing about a nascent movement called #DecolonizeLutheranism, and Lenny Duncan has written a great deal lately about James Cone’s critique of the reformation theologians’ support of power over and against the oppressed, citing, in particular Luther’s anti-Semitism and his support of the princes against the Peasant’s Revolt. Cone himself claims that there is an error at the core of reformation theology in that it failed to take seriously the oppressed voices.
I want to take a different angle at this. While Cone’s critique is valid, I want to disagree. It is important to remember that the earliest reformers: Tyndale, Hus, and Luther all lived under colonizing powers, and Tyndale and Hus in particular were martyred for their opposition. Instead, I want to argue that Luther’s own thinking is deeply anti-colonizing, but is beset by the common problem of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, something that Paulo Friere has written about extensively in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Instead, we must reclaim the fullness of the Luther’s theology that gave life and spirit to an anti-colonizing movement, while putting it into conversation with someone like Friere who has identified the fatal and flawed movement that besets so many.
Now, I’m no Lutheran to defend Luther’s own blood-stained tragic errors (though Luther himself writhed over the mistake of supporting the princes as he did, as Timothy Lull (rest eternal) outlined in his recent biography on Luther), but as Luther’s himself articulated, we are all trapped in the simul, the reality that we are all a mixed bag of being fully a sinner and fully a saint.
Which, of course, raises the question: instead of dismissing Luther out-of-hand as being an oppressor, are there germs of a decolonizing tradition in his thinking and theology that, while acknowledging that it’s a mixed bag, can be re-utilized and reclaimed? The answer, I believe, is a resounding yes.
In this post, I want to look at two in particular: what prompted Luther’s reform movement in the first place, and his understanding of the role of the church in supporting the underside of society.
In Luther’s Germany, there was a singular colonizing power when it came to religion: The Holy Roman Empire. The era of the Reformation, in particular, saw a Church in captivity to a hierarchy of priests, bishops, and a Pope in ways previously unseen. Luther, himself, saw this colonizing action with his own eyes:
- The mass was conducted in Latin, which was part of an effort to form the laity in the Roman way, instead of in their native tongue. This also allowed the priesthood to hold significant power over the laity, since they were often the only ones who could read Scripture, in Latin (let alone be literate in the first place). This is a deeply colonizing action, and keeps a power dynamic of colonizer and the oppressed in place.
- Only one form of the Eucharist was given to the laity, and in this case, the Chalice was withheld from the people, due to their lack of “holiness.” Again, a colonizing action.
- The Church more or less taxed the people by indulgences, keeping them under thumb by claiming that it could lessen the time loved ones spent in purgatory, and using money to further build the empire. This is a classic colonizing action, of taxing the people and using the money to fund occupation.
- The Church has married itself, as any good colonizer does, to local rulers, in this case the Princes, Bishops, and Priests across Europe.
Luther saw these actions for what they were, protesting vigorously about their spiritual and practical applications. In particular, Luther was concerned that the captivity of the church by the priesthood was not allowing the laity in Europe to be formed in a way that allowed them to have ownership and autonomy of their own faith. Luther, then, suggested these anti-colonizing actions:
- That not only should the Bible be translated and read in German, and in native tongues (following Tyndale in England), as a way to allow the underside of the church to have ownership of their faith, and for it the Mass to be said in native tongue, ending the captivity of the Mass.
- That the Eucharist should be received in both kinds, because the laity and priesthood are no different in their holiness, but only in their vocation or function.
- Those indulgences, literally functioning, as an oppressive colonizing function of the church, without any actual spiritual benefit, must end (Luther followed Jan Hus here).
Luther’s core belief in the freedom of the Christian, in giving Scripture, Mass, and Eucharist back to the people was an inherently decolonizing function. By reading Scripture and hearing the Mass in their own language, people became literate, and came to understand the theology of the church, not just being force-fed information and by ending of the indulgences, people were not held in spiritual captivity to the Church.
It was, actually, Luther’s ideals and his vocal support of peasants’ rights that eventually gave grounding and ideological support to the Peasant’s Revolt.
Unfortunately, Luther’s own a priori commitment to peace at all costs, and his personal opposition to Thomas Muntzer, led to him eventually personally supporting the Princes’ violent repression of the peasant revolt. But, this should not disqualify the germs of Luther’s anti-colonizing mindset, as this is a deep and cautious tale of the faith: the oppressed becoming the oppressor.
Luther, no doubt suffered, as Paulo Friere himself writes in Pedagogy, from one of the most difficult parts of embracing decolonizing action: “Fear of freedom, of which its possessor is not necessarily aware, makes him see ghosts. Such an individual is actually taking refuge in an attempt to achieve security, which he or see prefers to the risks of liberty.” Luther, tragically, not so much because of his theology, but because of his own distorted humanity, tried to regain life by becoming an oppressor.
Lutherans, in restoring and reclaiming Luther as we work to #decolonizeLutheranism, must keep Friere’s maxim in mind: “In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.”
Maybe it’s no surprise that Lutheranism is expanding in formerly Colonized powers; Ethiopia, who colonized by the Italians; Tanzania, by the Germans; Indonesia, by the Dutch and Japanese; and India, by the British.
The germ is there in Luther’s theology, and is empowering people across the world, can we claim it?
P.S., if you want to read a Lutheran work by a non-Western writer, in a complex Empire, that was both oppressed and oppressor, find yourself a copy of Kazoh Kitamori’s The Pain of God, a Japanese-Lutheran theologian from the 60s.