Martin Luther and me


Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, Lucas Cranach the Elder IMAGE/Wikimedia Commons

Reckoning with Germany’s Dangerous Legacy

I am a son of Martin Luther. As was my father. As was his father. But as a German man living through today’s German and European politics, what does it mean to be a son of Martin Luther?

It took me a while, more or less the first forty years of my life, to at least partially comprehend this heritage and to understand who I am: a member of a long line of Lutheran pastors. I had not seen myself like that. I had seen myself, in the narcissism so particular to my generation, as independent, a creation of my own.

And so when I eventually opened the Bible that my father gave me a few months before he died, I was shocked to see and read the year it was printed: 1546, the year Luther died. Opening this book, very heavy and clad in old brown leather with two iron bars at the side, was a like staring into a well. It was deep, it was dark, and I plunged right into it: the texture of the paper, the old German letters that I can read only with effort, the way the pages are adorned with drawings of biblical scenes, and most of all the small notations, some in German and some in Latin, that covered each page. The comments on specific lines or words—thoughts of my forefathers—were mostly illegible and hard to decipher, like a very loud chorus that I was unable to hear. It was my family history in a palimpsest.

As a German man living through today’s German and European politics, what does it mean to be a son of Martin Luther?

I was hopeful that this year, 2017, could help clarify some of the assumptions that I—and others–might have about Luther, a man who was at the beginning of one of the most massive and lasting changes in the history of the West. This year, after all, marked the five-hundredth anniversary of his most memorable and famous act: on October 31, 1517, he supposedly nailed his Ninety-five Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, a small university town in Germany along the Elbe river. He was protesting against the papal practice of selling indulgences for higher and higher fees, thus turning sin and absolution into a sort of proto-capitalistic Ponzi scheme for the church in Rome. But in the process, he unleashed an energy that would turn the worldly and the heavenly order in Europe upside down. The Reformation, in many ways, shaped the continent and the globe beyond for the five hundred years to come.

But the problem, as I see it, is that there is a cliché version of Luther and real reluctance to look beyond the historic facts as to what the passion and the energy that drove Luther might mean today. Luther’s legacy is one of a revolutionary who sought to change the way the world works. He is often described as someone who broke with the order of the medieval or pre-modern order that he was part of. Some have even said that Islam needs a Luther-figure to reform itself, implying that the reform process that Luther started was rational or directed towards a more just, equal, and democratic society. They seem to think that the Luther who is being celebrated, or at least commemorated, this year was a figure that could serve as a model for today.

But the truth is much more complicated. Scratch the surface and you’ll find not a prophet of modernity, but a fear-driven fanatic.

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