What Does The 500th Anniversary of The Reformation Have To Do With Equality and Justice?

By Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen

Today marks the 500th anniversary of a young unknown German Monk named Martin Luther posting his 95 debate theses on a Wittenberg church door. It might be seen as an historical event concerned with arcane dogmas of little concern to precious few in our 21st century world.

But recently at a recent Lutheran-Roman Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Catholic scholar Dr. Sandra Schneider named Vatican II as a watershed for Catholics in answering, and in some sense extending, the best of the Reformation in relation not only to Lutherans but all people of good will. I was struck by her focus on the elements of mystical and pastoral theology in Vatican II as an opening to a right regard for others. She described the hear of this openness in terms of shifting rhetoric, a shift from:

“a rhetoric of admiration and appreciation for its interlocutors rather than defensiveness and aggression, of persuasion rather than coercion, one in which ideals are presented and people, on both sides, are urged to embrace them, not out of fear but because of their intrinsic attractiveness, their beauty. It is rhetoric not of threat aimed at conformity but rhetoric of appreciation aimed at community, mutual conversion, and, ultimately, holiness.”

The trouble is, the very structure of our society, shaped largely by forces like early capitalism and colonialism that emerged around the time of the Reformation, make me skeptical that the Reformation could be a force for liberation by “word alone” (to use a classic Reformation phrase).

How difficult? Let me use an example from a recent retreat I attended. Our facilitator took us on a pathway for dealing with the power of white supremacy, built upon the pattern of the 12-step program. The first couple steps, as in dealing with any addiction, are related to admitting you have a problem. In the case of being caught in the logic and practices of white supremacy, a critical social analysis is necessary to see what it is we are caught in as a society. To do this work, we were asked to play the well-known Hasboro board game, Monopoly.

However, in this version of the game, each of the players on the team had specific rules guiding their play to simulate the actual starting places of people in the economic games of our society. Player one started with the typical amount of cash ($1500) and on top of that, the ability to take the total property and money of player 3, except for the mere $200 dollars that player had at the start. I was player two, and I started with $500 and no other limits. Player 4 started with half the money, and could only buy properties on the first half of the board, all which are less valuable. Players 5 and 6 got only a little and no money, respectively, and neither could start the game till after round five. The results were not surprising, I can tell you. We had to do financial reports after rounds five and ten, and it was striking how quickly the divides reproduced themselves with material consequences.

I think of Jesus’ powerful parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 20. The parable juxtaposes the experience of those in privileged positions, those who play by the rules and expect to be rewarded fairly for their labors, and the various sorts of disadvantage experienced by others, who unfortunately receive worse opportunity and smaller or no reward for their efforts. It fits nicely with the monopoly game and the way our game stacked the deck in favor of a few players, while greatly disadvantaging others players.

Yet in the world revealed in Jesus, there is no thought of letting such inequality stand, either on the eschatological ‘last day,’ or today. At the heart of Jesus’ parable we meet the wild and prodigal heart of God disrupting the structures of division and privilege we who are privileged structure and defend. The migrant day laborers, waiting in the marketplace for work, are hired throughout the day, and regardless of their start time, are paid a living wage. When the lord of the vineyard comes to pay the workers, they are paid from the last to be hired to the first, meaning those who worked all day had to stand, watching everyone receive equal play. How is it not surprising that the privilege ones, those who got the job starting in the morning, and with the assurance of the ‘daily wage’ for their labor, complain instead of cheer. They do receive their just reward, but the weight of the parable, and more profoundly, the weight of God’s prodigal mercy, falls upon those most marginalized.

While in seminary at the Graduate Theological Union, one of the most influential classes I took was at the Jesuit School of Theology on faith-based organizing. Taught by Fr. John Baumann, a grizzled old Jesuit priest and founder of the PICO organization, our final exam for the class was pulling off an action with our Berkeley City Council member. Ever since, I’ve been connected to and supportive of organizing work across the country. Back home in Minnesota, a friend, fellow Lutheran pastor, and PICO organizer, Grant Stevenson took me out for coffee a while back. It was a classic one-on-one meeting, if you know organizing. At one point in the conversation, however, he said, ‘let me share a project I’m working on and get your reaction.’ In the next few minutes, he described a project he was part of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. They were, he said, trying to recover Luther’s 95 theses as a vital document for today because of how it combines both a pastoral concern for the poor, and a social critique of economic injustice. It was not, he argued, as most people assume: an important but arcane document about ecclesiology and sacramental theology. I nodded my head enthusiastically, knowing most ordinary folks would be taken aback to read theses like these:

  1. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences;
  2. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.
  3. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew of the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.

Luther pointedly references Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, arguing that it is not indulgences but the Gospel which is the true treasure of the church.

  1. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20.16).

The gospel is odious, it turns out, for the powerful, for those who are first, and wish to remain so. One could direct the question to those privileged laborers hired first, and promised a fair daily wage. Do you care more about the justice of your own ample wage, than mercy towards those who do not have enough to even feed their families?

The mysterious gift God comes, in the end, for all of us. The powerful, those who are ‘first,’ are harmed by their self-inflated egos, and sense of entitlement and distinction. Their full humanity only comes through the humility of becoming last. And the various groups of marginalized—think of women who still do not get equal pay for equal work, or trans women of color who far too often are beaten or killed, or the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers whose lives are disregarded and threatened by a president enthralled with his own white power and privilege-these groups are no longer last but first.

The reformation today is an organizing project funded by a gospel that turns our world upside down. May that same reforming gospel persistently invite us today to turn our lives and communities upside-down. The reality is, when we find ourselves filled with the spirit of this wild and prodigal love of God the turning has already begun.

Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and the Center for the Study of Theological Education and a Lutheran Pastor. 

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