Frustration with the status quo; confusion about patriotism; name-calling and immaturity by high-profile people; suspicions of outsiders; prejudice against neighbors; perceived excesses of the ruling elite; money controlled by a favored few; rising nationalism; increasing insecurity; expanded media options; new opportunities of expression for more people; more possibilities for persuasion with news as well as “fake news”; flirting with a prosperity gospel …
If these social dynamics sound familiar, you have just been reminded of the wild and raucous days in and around the world of — 1517. As perhaps you sensed, 500 years later our world again echoes with a plethora of similar tensions, prickly personalities and transformative technologies.
In the background of both ages, relentless change eroded the stability so many had taken for granted. For our time, technological advances and a global economy created winners and losers. Communities who benefitted so successfully from industrial expansion over the last two centuries began to feel abandoned. New economic realities dislocated millions the world over creating frustration, anger, and despair. Simultaneously, new opportunities arose for the well-connected, well-prepared or lucky.
Some thought we could begin to celebrate a rising middle class across most of the planet, with lower poverty rates, fewer deaths from hunger, better unity in battling environmental concerns. But then our time suddenly morphed into an unexpected and disruptive shift. Now divisiveness abounds. And so it seemed exactly 500 years ago.
For the world just before and just after 1517, the Reformation emerged as an unplanned, organic response to very similar and equally rapid forces of change unleashed upon communities across Europe. Then like now, broad spectrums of society initially appeared unified. Rising access to upward mobility, widening literacy, better communications, and an expanding global network of trade and opportunity offered positive signs of exciting days.
The age of Columbus, beginning 15 years prior to Luther’s 95 Theses, ushered in new and unimagined wealth. His transformative, divisive, destructive series of voyages forged entirely new arenas to be exploited. New money from Spain’s tragic conquests filtered quickly into the consolidating national interests in Europe. Increasing resources expanded art, leisure, learning and new technology. Hunger for new conquests and competition for more riches and additional territory captured the attention of a restless public. Building projects would reflect the new day of expanding power.
St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome rose majestically, the most audacious example of the church’s artistic and materialistic exuberance. But then, like now, change happens. Bills came due and vast influxes of precious metals from the New World caused massive inflation. Church leadership encouraged a sixteenth century version of the prosperity gospel called “indulgences.” Church representatives like Johannes Tetzel manipulated ordinary people into paying funds to the church coffers by convincing them of a “blessing,” a post-mortem pass through purgatory directly into paradise.
Leading up to 1517, Luther’s concerns about the church’s growing materialism and the manipulation it spawned joined with his own spiritual discoveries. The relevance of scripture (sola scriptura), the availability of grace (sola gratia) and the power of faith (sola fides) coalesced for him into a movement of individual as well as societal reform. That reformation further morphed into a new gathering of disparate people ready for a new era. The Protestant Reformation unfolded, in fits and starts, ebbs and flows, excitement and tragedy.
Similar dynamics of discovery, manipulation and widespread dislocation exist today. Hurting people search for reasons to explain their unhappiness. We look for meaning in the midst of our confusion. Many make choices based upon fear. Unstable surroundings create an environment easily exploited. Prejudice thrives in such a time, as does the manipulation of people’s anger and vulnerability. Enter the prickly personalities who captivate those passed by and overlooked. Easy explanations to complex issues feel like good news to hurting people. True or not, cleverly marketed ideas gain viable traction. Fake news and real news battle for hearts and minds.
Our world is and has been reforming. The post-World War II “American Century” and Cold War settled into a broader and far more complicated global enterprise. This world is no longer controlled by national priorities voiced in the U.S. Congress. New movements are afoot.
In 1517, rapid change spawned reactionary responses. News in Luther’s day, fake or otherwise, found voice with a new media of moveable type and open access to a plethora of perspectives. Social movements fueled by anger and resentment needed a voice to activate their resentment. This was a large part of Luther’s genius. He seemed to understand more readily than his contemporaries the value of a clear marketing strategy and regular publicity.
The movement of 1517 began to take shape under Luther’s sharp words and digestible sound bites. He also leveraged a growing national consciousness among the German states of his day. When the Vatican communicated with him in Latin, he began to retort very publically in his native Saxon German. Responses like these implied a kind of Germanic nationalism wedded with a desire for spiritual integrity. This would become both highly motivating and broadly troubling. Luther’s effective use of his new 16th-century media options corresponds eerily to the social media onslaught now so prevalent in our time.
We know how 1517 turned out. Luther, the movement he spawned, and the reformers who followed stumbled into a vitriol and violence that rocked European society for decades to come. Yes, we benefit in many ways from the good that emerged in those days. Yet the legacy remains all mixed up. With helpful spiritual insights, Luther challenged deeper theological thinking and broader participation in the life of the church. His passion for gospel clarity and the reclaimed vision for following Jesus transformed societal norms. Yet the searing mistakes of his reformation should serve as vital warning signs for our own.
Luther’s infamous anti-Semitism was not unlike the current waves of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee impulses ebbing and flowing in our country and in Europe. The time was ripe, then and now, for high profile personalities to fill airwaves and minds with simplistic reasons for societal angst. Open discussion, reasonable discourse, mutual respect and genuine compassion are vital now. They were mostly missing in 1517. And today, each must be intimately paired with integrity to stand for what is right, and the courage stand against what is wrong. The unsettling parallels of those days and today need not remain so similar. Let us learn well from our troubled past. We need not repeat it.
Related opinion: ‘Exsurge Domine’: Pursuing Re-formation | Bill Leonard