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Danish Folk Meeting • August 18, 2017
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation provides an occasion to assess the ongoing significance of this event. There are many voices doing this from many perspectives. Today I want to focus attention on one small piece of the Reformation legacy. To anticipate where I am headed, here’s my main point: I want to argue that Luther’s approach encourages and equips us to take steps to overcome the polarization in our society.
PART I Luther
Let me begin by noting that Luther was a complex person. When it came to his understanding of the gospel, he was bold, combative, and stubborn. This came in part from his personality, in part from the kind of response he received from church authorities (and some other theologians that seemed to devalue what he had to say), and in part from his deep sense of being called to be a teacher of the church. Later in his life, with the weight of leadership on his shoulders and numerous health problems, he often was irascible. But this is not the only Luther. He also could be a tender-hearted father, a generous friend, a convivial host, a self-doubting reformer, a sensitive, compassionate, and encouraging pastoral counselor, and an advocate for social reform. What I want to do today is pick up on one aspect of Luther and his influence, fully recognizing that what I have to say is not the whole story.
Before I reach my topic, let me say that we can make sense of the various, seemingly incompatible aspects of Luther, if we recognize the overall framework within which he worked. For him, what God was up to was reconciliation. God was, in Christ, reconciling all people unto Godself. And only God can do this reconciling. Because of sin, we are powerless to make it happen. But God’s project is much larger than bringing people to faith. God’s project is also the reconciliation of everyone and everything to each other. To borrow a phrase, God is mending the world. Healing the God-human relationship is part—but only part––of this mending. As is evident from all the images of shalom in the Bible—whether it is the image of swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, or the image of a wolf lying down with a lamb, or the image of going the second mile or turning the other cheek, or the image of a city with all its gates open with medicine, food, water, and immediate access to God available for all—God’s project is to foster whole, healthy relationships among humans, between humans and the rest of creation, and between God and humans. God is making all things new. On Luther’s view, God does this by working behind the scenes, through humans and other creatures. So our calling, our vocation, is to be agents of reconciliation in the world. And, I should add, this is also the calling of the Church.
So long as any group of people is being devalued, so long as any group of people is excluded, so long as the earth is being damaged, and so long as we behave as if our fate is not connected to the fate of every other creature, reconciliation has not yet been achieved.
Having sketched this larger framework, let us turn to a dimension of Luther’s thought that does not receive as much attention as his religious struggles and insights. This dimension is the role of reconciliation in the public sphere. We should remind ourselves that Luther was involved in virtually every issue of his day—whether it was recommending public schools for all young men and young women, or changing the rules for who could marry, or providing for beggars, or opposing a crusade, or opposing high rates of interest, or settling disputes, or reforming the university. This list could easily be extended.
Though his involvement in these issues took diverse forms, let me focus on two:
Example #1. The last thing he did in his life was to arbitrate a dispute between Count Albrecht III and the mine workers in Mansfield. The mineworkers “complained about oppression and exploitation because of the count’s avarice.”1 (The Count, by the way, did not get along with his relatives any more than he did with the miners!) Three times before, Luther had tried to mediate, including one unsuccessful trip in 1545. But none had worked out until 1546. In that case, after three weeks of negotiation, the dispute was finally settled. Luther died the next day. This arbitration is only one example. It was not the only time he was called upon to settle disputes.
Example #2. When, twenty years earlier, the peasants of Swabia sent to several theologians the 12 articles in which they spelled out what changes they were seeking, Luther was the only one to respond. Though he objected to including the word “Christian” in their name, “Christian Association,” he considered most of what the peasants were seeking to be just. Addressing the princes, he urged negotiation rather than force.
1. “If it is still possible to give you advice, my lords, give way a little to the will and wrath of God. [To cite a proverb of the day] A cartload of hay must give way to a drunken man—how much more ought you to stop your raging and obstinate tyranny and not deal unreasonably with the peasants, as though they were drunk or out of their minds! Do not start a fight with them, for you do not know how it will end. Try kindness first, for you do not know what God will do to prevent the spark that will kindle all of Germany and start a fire that no one can extinguish.2”
He makes clear that he thinks both the princes and the peasants are in the wrong. The princes have “done nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you [they] may lead a life of luxury and extravagance” (p. 19) and the peasants are wrongly trying to use violence to change the situation. They too should not take up arms. Near the end of his response he says to both sides:
“Take a hold of these matters properly, with justice and not with force or violence and do not start endless bloodshed in Germany. For because both of you are wrong, and both of you want to avenge and defend yourselves, both of you will destroy yourselves and God will use one rascal to flog another.3”
Of course, things did not turn out as Luther wanted. The princes did not negotiate. Instead, they did as Luther had worried; they waited until rebellion broke out and then responded with a great deal of force. And the peasants also did not negotiate. They tried to take over castles and other property in order to advance their cause.
What shines through Luther’s main involvements in the social conflicts of his day is not only his appeal for negotiation, but his concern for the common good. When he is writing to the peasants and the princes he is worried about the effects of conflict on the whole of Germany. Again and again he worried about the common good, and was especially concerned about the effects of a present injustice or a potential change on ordinary (poor) folks.
PART II Some Features of Our Society
Turning to today, I want to identify a cluster of features of our society that together result in polarization (I will explain what I mean by polarization later in this presentation).
The first item in this cluster is fragmentation. Sociologist tell us that our housing patterns and work patterns mean that we seldom talk with anyone who is not like us—in economic status or in job setting or in political outlook. As political scientist Katherine Cramer4 discovered when she spent five years visiting with people across Wisconsin, one form of this fragmentation is that those in rural areas often feel ignored or misunderstood by public officials and those in urban areas. There are many other such divides but another is that only about 5% of the people in the U.S. have ever met a Muslim. When we have no personal contact with another, it is hard to sort out what is true and what is not.
Anxiety and Fear
Another thing that characterizes our society is anxiety and fear. As distinguished from fear, anxiety is free-floating. Fear is focused. If I am afraid of a bear crossing my path while I am on a hike, my fear disappears as soon as I know the bear has wandered off. But when anxiety is present, it persists. It then attaches itself to real fears and inflates them—making them seem more ominous than they are. It is hard to know the source of this pervasive anxiety that afflicts many Americans. We lack communities of support, so we are dependent on ourselves. Only a serious illness or a new economic recession separates most of us from financial ruin. That may be one source. Advertising keeps reminding us of what we do not have. This is another. As we have recently been reminded by the bellicose threats exchanged by the leader of North Korea and the President of the US, the mushroom-shaped cloud hangs over us. The news media provide us with a steady stream of disasters (not because they are to blame but because that is what people read or watch). Our anxiety grows. And the effects of pollution and climate change are increasingly evident, yet are on such a scale that what we can do seems ever so tiny. These are all possible sources of anxiety but likely not the only ones. Once internalized, they are buried and no longer identifiable. But the combination of anxiety and fear threatens to dominate our thinking. When it does, we become distrustful. We identify enemies. Boundaries become barriers. The world becomes divided into good guys and bad guys. Our thinking becomes so “either-or” that it is hard to come up with constructive alternatives. And all of this leaves us susceptible to manipulation when any politician or talk show host appeals to those fears.
A third feature is our tendency to group ourselves by Ideology. An ideology is not just a set of ideas, but a set of ideas that are regarded to be the whole truth about a topic and to issue in proposals that are the only ones worth considering. Again, differing opinions or judgments are not necessarily ideologies, but disagreements that completely discount the alternatives are ideological. A lot needs to be done about roads and bridges in Minnesota, but mention the topic and ideological differences about funding take over, and nothing happens. Or take the problem of gun violence or access to abortion or the size of the military budget or—in every case conflicting ideologies contribute to polarization—and, in some cases, to paralysis. It is also true that a faith system can be made into an ideology. When this happens a new barrier is created. And one of Luther’s fundamental insights is lost—that faith is relational. It has to do with trust, not with having complete and final answers.
Economic and Racial Inequity
Still another feature of our society contributes to polarization. This is structural. It is economic inequity and racial inequity. The dynamic here is different. The structural issues cause a kind of blindness. Those who are doing well do not even see the poor, or, if they do, they assume that poverty is the fault of the poor themselves— which is just another way of not seeing them. Those who benefit from white privilege do not see how different the day-to-day experience is for persons of color. For example, if one of my sons had been caught doing something wrong, the police likely would have brought him home, chalked his act up to a teenage mistake, and that would have been the end of it. But we lived in a city of 105,000 and he attended an urban school. If one of his black or Hispanic friends would have made the same mistake, it is much more likely this friend would have been arrested. Unless a person like me moves outside my own circle, it never occurs to me that not everyone is treated the same way I am. Without this recognition, I am blind to my economic privilege, my family privilege, and my white privilege. When differing experiences lead us to perceive our society so differently, it is hard to avoid polarization and hard to formulate an understanding of the common good that takes both experiences into account. We need to work at it together. A similar difference affects those who are poor, because poverty usually entails not only a lack of money but also a lack of access. The world looks different when every problem brings a person face-to-face with yet another roadblock. How does a person get to a job without a car and how does one get a car without a job? How does a person organize one’s life if your employer puts you on variable schedule so you do not know from day-to-day what hours you will work? How do you solve a legal problem when you cannot afford a lawyer? How do you access medical care without medical insurance or with a high deductible? And how do you encourage your children to stay in school when you had to drop out to work and have no experience with it? And all of this becomes even more difficult when one is both poor and an immigrant unfamiliar with the language and customs of the land.
All of the features I have mentioned––fragmentation, fear and anxiety, ideology, and economic and racial inequity-- all contribute to polarization. Polarization goes beyond differences of opinion. It involves a perception that the alternative approach is dangerous and has to be resisted in every way. Compromise then becomes a bad word, and the result is, at worst, conflict, and, at best, paralysis. David Brooks, the conservative columnist for the New York Times wrote an op-ed piece on September 2, 2016, in which he said this: “Identity politics [dividing groups according to citizenship, race, ethnicity, etc.] … distracts from the reality that we are one nation. It corrodes the sense of solidarity. It breeds suspicion, cynicism, and distrust.” What happens, he continued, is that “politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents in the box of the untouchables.” This is an apt metaphor for polarization: seeking to put those who disagree in “the box of the untouchables.”
I worry a lot about polarization, because it gets in the way of solving problems. What has been lost, Robert Putnam says,5 is the social capital that a community needs in order to solve its problems and deal with its crises. This social capital comes, he says, from regular face to face encounters. When one thinks about it, this is an astonishingly simple way to build social capital. Regular face to face encounters build the trust that is the core of social capital. As he has documented, this trust has steadily declined over the last sixty years. In its place, I suggest, has come polarization. It is worrisome because democracy depends on reasonable people working out what is best for the society as a whole. It assumes that the people who hold differing views are to treat each other with respect. (Consider what Goldwater said in an interview shortly before his death. He said that he and Kennedy respected each other enough that, had they been the Democratic and Republican candidates in 1964, they would have flown around the U.S. together and offered audiences their respective hope and dreams and proposals for our society. Of course, that did not happen because Kennedy was assassinated, but think of how significant a model that would have been!) The issue with polarization is that it prevents us from solving our other problems. So long as we do not trust each other, we cannot make any progress on improving access to health care or providing jobs for those displaced by technology or rebuilding infrastructure or any other of the other problems we face.
I also worry a lot about polarization, because of historical precedents. In the late 1920s political polarization in the Weimar Republic produced gridlock in the German Parliament. The government was unable to respond to the economic crises that hit Germany in the 1920’s and again in 1930. The Nazis gained a following simply by claiming to be able to get things done and claiming to be able to overcome the divisions and create a unified society. Their share of the vote shot up. Though never receiving a majority, they gathered enough votes to secure a cabinet position. With that, they quickly undermined any semblance of democracy and plunged the country into totalitarianism and war. (Given what happened in Germany, It was chilling to see Nazi flags in Charlottesville.) Polarization is not something to be ignored. We all need to take steps to correct it. Otherwise, someone will come along who promises to get things done and create unity, at the cost of our democracy.
1 Walther von Loewenich, Martin Luther: The Man and His Work (Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1986), p. 381.
2 Luther’s Works (American Edition) 46:20-21.
3 Ibid, pp. 40-41.
4 See Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
5 He has discussed these ideas in various places, but he introduced the ideas in an article called “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” in Journal of Democracy, 1995
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