Rev Dr Simon Perry
8th October 2017
Medieval Western Europe had been largely a Christian realm for well over a thousand years, with a worldview derived from Christian belief. Everyone was baptized at birth. Everyone, after all, was a sinner from birth, in constant need of forgiveness. And everyone wanted to get into heaven, so you needed that forgiveness. And the only way you could achieve forgiveness was through the Church. And the church had a clear hierarchical structure – at the top of which, sat the Pope. You can imagine the amount of power he wielded – and of course, power is also open to corruption. Not all popes were hopelessly corrupt, but some were corrupt, and some were more corrupt than others. And in the early 16th Century Papal authority over Western Christian Europe was not in a good state. The Pope was in need of money, and how was he going to get it?
Forgiveness. Since the church had a monopoly on forgiveness, they were gatekeepers to the Afterlife. If you were a hard-working, field-ploughing, grass-chewing, straw-hat-wearing yocal, how could you guarantee that you and your loved ones had access to an eternity of blissful rest beyond the grave? Forgiveness. And the Church knew how to sell forgiveness. To keep it an attractive commodity, you needed to keep everyone terrified of hell, remind them that they are horrible sinners worthy only of unending torment. What was the only way to avoid eternal torment, being skewered with a red-hot-poker, in an unspeakable orifice, by Lucifer’s depraved minions? Forgiveness. And forgiveness cost. In what amounted to a means-tested forgiveness-tax, the church’s Roman headquarters grew very wealthy.
Enter Martin Luther. Having wrestled his whole life with the guilt he felt at his own sin, and then witnessed at close hands how corrupt the Rome of his day had become, and how it profited from guilt – he launched a scathing attack on the Pope. In 1517 he famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church. Historians tell you there is no evidence for this action, but if you look on the front cover of the Term Card, you will see photographic evidence, albeit taken on a Nokia 3210. The technology of the time obviously means there was a gap between the event, and the image capture – in this instance a gap of 3-400 years.
But as a former monk, plagued by the sense of his own unworthiness, he was convinced that no Christian could earn or buy or achieve God’s forgiveness. Instead, he relentlessly emphasized that God’s grace alone is what saves people, and there was no need for a priestly middleman. Luther’s widely publicized polemic triggered an ideological avalanche across Christian Europe.
I’ve never been convinced by those who regard history as the history of great acts by great men who conjured up a new epoch like a rabbit from a hat. After all, if Luther had been born 50 years earlier, his actions would simply have led to his execution. Had Luther been for 50 years later, the upheavals he triggered would no doubt have long since been triggered by other means. But Luther was born when he was born – and he proved to be a colossal historical figure with as much claim as anyone to be a great man of history.
But was he a great man? If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it is that there are rarely good people and bad people. Luther was an astonishing, electrifying combination of good and bad. For some he was a Ghandi-like purveyor of ancient wisdom. For others, he was a raving anti-Semitic misogynist. There is evidence of both. For some he was humble, tentative in his claims, open to the fact he might be wrong. For others he was insecure, arrogant and unable to cope with people who disagreed with him. There is evidence of both. He once said of the Pope, “You say, “What comes out of your mouth must be kept!” … which mouth do you mean? The one from which … farts come?” (You can keep that yourself). For some he was a PR genius, a brilliant wordsmith, whose rhetoric was devastatingly effective. For others he was naïve, with little idea of the effect his loud-mouth claims would have. There is evidence of both, and perhaps the combination of both is what made him Martin Luther.
Karl Barth account is particularly apt for Luther: that his actions amounted to climbing the tower of a medieval cathedral in the dark, reaching out for the rope to steady himself, and accidentally pulling on the church bell to wake up the whole world. This seems like a pretty good description. Hi relentless barrage of rhetoric, emphasizing how the individual’s fate was in the hands of a gracious, forgiving God rather than a corrupt ecclesiastical regime, had a massive impact on world history. In fact, here in England, the Royal Title ‘Defender of the Faith’ is held by British monarchs because in 1521 Henry VIII wrote a theology book defending the Pope precisely against the rhetoric of Martin Luther.
All this talk of sin, and buying forgiveness, of course, seems very dated today because we no longer use that language. But that does not mean that the concept of sin is still essential to modern politics and culture. The weight loss club my parents attend, is sensitively named ‘Fat Club’! Their strict dietary regime allows them two ‘sins’ per day. Sins here, are where they are allowed to eat terrible food. As evangelical Christians it’s a bit odd to hear them complain in the evening – ‘I haven’t had my sins yet’ before feasting their chops on a tub or lard. But the idea of sin is well and truly there – as a departure from a strict regime designed to make them feel bad about themselves.
There are multiple examples from which to choose. For instance, a friend of mine has a PhD student who gave up a life in advertising – because she would often found herself sat around a table with a group of other advertisers, attempting to conjure up new ways to make women feel bad about themselves.
This marketing method dates back at least as far as the 1950s. Your job is to make people feel to fat, too thin, too out of date, too stupid, to be happy with themselves. You present them with an ideal to treasure, a minimum standard to which they must measure up, a law to obey. They can them buy their way out of their deplorable state, out of their social unworthiness, out of the low self-esteem you implanted into them. So they click, ‘buy now’, present their credit card, or even hand over money. Low and behold, they feel better. Or in medieval terms, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
The trouble is, once you’ve bought the product, that’s it. There’s no more money to be made from you. You have already purchased the most fabulous shoes in all Christendom, so you feel fulfilled! How are you, the advertiser, guarantee that person will keep buying stuff? You have to ensure that they are kept in a state of social unworthiness, of feeling bad about themselves, of feeling unsatisfied soon after buying the last product. You have to convince them, in other words, in perpetual need of the forgiveness only you can offer. You have to keep them forever bound by a sense of not being good enough. You have to keep instilled within them, the deep conviction that they can never measure up to the ideal you have rooted deep into their worldview. In theological terms, you have to make sure – in the most subtle and undetectable fashion – that they remain sinners.
From a theological perspective, the social dynamics of sin and forgiveness is almost as old as humanity – and is alive and well in the modern secular West.
What might a Martin Luther have to say in our own culture? Different speakers will address this question from different perspectives this term. In one way or another, it may well be that today’s Martin Luther’s are equally those fallible, faltering, fault-ridden people who nevertheless climb that tower and inadvertently pull on that bell that wakes up the world.