Children of the Revolution

Steed V. Davidson—October 28, 2007
Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Davis, California

Jeremiah 31:33

Not many who examine the work of Luther and the events after 1517 regard that time as a revolution. Admittedly, today we observe Reformation Day, a term applicable to a religious movement, and one more appropriate to events that resulted in the split we still recognize as Catholic and Protestant. Such a split admits, many argue, that at best a reformation rather than a revolution occurred. While some merit exists in such a position, the term revolution sheds light on that time in the 16th century when the cleavages in Church and society stood so widely that notions of human rights and human dignity produced peals of laughter. Whatever else Luther may not have accomplished, his theological and academic disputations produced a new sense of all human beings as children of God. The Lutheran movement taught the priesthood of all believers, removing restrictions of ordinary humans to the counsels, scriptures and usages of God. The Lutheran movement insisted on salvation by faith and thereby convinced many that they need not be doomed to eternal damnation simply because they could not raise sufficient funds to ensure a proper passage to the other world. The Lutherans believed that God’s grace flows eternally without restriction, without merit, without favor, and that belief caught the attention of many who because of lowly birth never saw themselves as of any worth. The transformation in the self-consciousness of common people in that time helps explain the rapid movement of change not simply in chapels but in matters of state. Princes and electors who for years remained under the thumb of Pope and Emperor in Rome found a new voice in the Lutheran gospel. Political, economic and social transformation took hold of Europe occasioned by the Lutheran message. You may not wish to call it revolution, you may not wish to call it social change, you may not even wish to label it regime change. Whatever you call it, we do know that when that Augustinian monk searched the scriptures, read through reams of Church traditions, reflected on human life and spoke and wrote, the world was changed and the way ordinary people saw the world changed. Today we stand as inheritors of that message, that spirit, that tradition, that transformation.

Luther’s revolution, should you choose to so call it, has always been a different revolution. Not long after giving voice to poor, disenfranchised and oppressed people we see Luther withdrawing his support for the Peasant Revolt. In some of his harshest words against another person, Luther regards Thomas Müntzer as a devil in his leadership of the peasants, who sought better working and living conditions. Peasants rose up against princes and lords threatening violence, much to Luther’s disapproval. The revolutionary quickly became the voice of the establishment, it seems. But Luther understood then what George Orwell later came to experience and what we only still see darkly, that oppressed people easily become oppressors without the necessary restraints in place. In Luther’s revolution no place existed for a social vision that vested political leaders with a copy of the Bible lest a new theocratic state emerge but without a pope. In Luther’s revolution no place existed for religious leaders to engage with unchecked zeal enforcing their understanding of faith upon the entire society lest some awful form of utopianism take hold of the society. In this revolution the two realms of power—spiritual and political—would remain separate and apart. People of faith would live in obedience to the scriptures while demanding justice from their princely leaders. In many respects Luther understood the engine of the revolution to be God and that under God’s guidance new societies can emerge with new faithful people. In other words, God is the revolutionary, God is the transformer and the changer, God is the one who ensures that unjust princes get their due recompense, and that faithless Christians be justly punished. The revolution belongs to God.

In the book of Jeremiah we find words that reflect a new understanding of God’s relationship with God’s people for a new time. These words speak of a new covenant, a new dispensation that God ushers in for a new time. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the deportation of its leading citizens and the general chaos of life under the Babylonians, this word comes to give a new vision for the lives of God people. This word contains revolutionary aspects, talk about a monarchy are absent here, talk about rituals systems left out, talk about confidence in the temple completely missing, talk about powerful military might noticeably gone. All that Jeremiah presents is covenant, relationship so close that each person would know God. No one would need to be told, to be taught, to be tutored in God’s expectations, even the youngest and unlettered would know. This teaching will be so embedded into the heart of each person. At a time of reconstruction and change God prescribes instruction and teaching—torah. What is revolutionary about this is that each person has direct access to instruction. Jeremiah presents a democratization of knowledge that would govern the lives of people—equipped to obey God and demand justice.

These two sources challenge us in several ways today. For one thing we remain challenged about our constant instruction by the scriptures. Despite the lament that Christians do not know the Bible, the real danger lies not in less knowledge but in wrong knowledge. Far too often what passes for Biblical literacy remains either a dangerous form of demagoguery that views God as the absolute tyrant that would destroy the least sinful without a thought, or a form of indulgent cheap grace that simply forgives because loving comes easily. The knowledge of a God of grace, a God who struggles with human sin and the dangerous aspects of human anger and pride, who struggles with punishment, who seeks to protect the weak against the strong gets lost in most representations of the Bible. This knowledge you do not get from popular streams of consumption. This knowledge comes from your reading in community with those who under the pain of loss of loved ones, those who know the real effects of crime and violence, and the horrors of war, those whose hearts are ripped apart by betrayal and yet ask where is God. This knowledge comes from reading in community that struggles to understand God’s will and way for their faith and their work in the midst of dwindling resources, set backs and lack of progress. The instruction that Jeremiah speaks of the new covenant comes from the experience of getting and losing the land. It is the testimony of losers who tell others about a God who is their God. The revolution that God leads lies within the pages of the book. The description can be seen in the transformation of the lives of people there and throughout history. The subtle shifts can be detected with each page turned and as new breath is breathed into our lives to enrich and transform us for our lives here.

The second challenge comes to us in our demand for justice. Lutherans can teach our age the dangers of religious fanaticism and the absolute absurdity of religious zealotry in public life. Lest we think that such a problem lies outside of our country it lies within. More and more well-meaning people become attracted to the idea that everyone should share our values, or enamored with the idea that American values are Christian values of a particular sort. And not wanting to appear less Christian than others, even Lutherans can confuse the demand for simple justice with the imposition of Christian will in the society. Such zealotry has lead to a stronger commitment to an issue than to people who suffer injustice and want. The simple equation of the covenant that God is our God and we are God’s people suggests that as God’s people we live out the expectations of our God for the well being of all people not because they look, think, act, believe like us but simply because they are people. The demand for justice is at one with the Lutheran focus on the common person. A civic duty to the poor, a civic duty to homelessness, a civic duty because people get robbed by their bank and mortgage companies, a civic duty because children are denied proper education, a civic duty because many get locked away in prison torture executed for crimes they either did not commit or were that serious. A commitment to the dignity of human because of the God who leads the revolution will move us into our communities with a new understanding of our place in the world.