As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic church split following the radical act of Martin Luther tacking his 95 theses to the church door, some difficult questions are in order: How is the church today cooperating with authorities who promote hatred, greed, and violence? Who are those powerful religious leaders who stand as mediators between the people and God, asking us to dismiss our conscience in favor of stale church doctrine and dogma? How are we indulging and profiting them? Luther, who was excommunicated from the Catholic church, declared this radical notion: people of faith ought to be moved by their own conscience, regardless of consequence, not by the so-called religious authorities.
That the religious tradition named for Jesus, whose ministry actively subverted religious authorities while healing and empowering those on the margins, could catapult into reform in a time when it was dangerously fused with the political powers of the day should give us all hope. Luther's reforms not only served to create the Protestant church, but also forwarded literacy for many Germans, especially the poor, made space for clergy to marry (a precursor to the ordination of women and LGBTQ+ individuals), and sent the message to even the most common folk that their relationship with God required no mediation from a priest. They could, and we can, confess our sins directly to God and seek forgiveness directly from God. They could, and we can, interpret Scriptures for ourselves through the prism of our own contexts, a move which led to the liberation theologies that inquire what word God has for those who live every day "with their backs up against the wall" (Howard Thurman).
One of the greatest American theologians widely influenced by Martin Luther is none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, who was named Michael at birth. His name was later changed to Martin Luther after his father visited Germany with other clergy colleagues and studied the great reformer. The notion of one standing before the authorities and refusing to recant, claiming accountability to one's personal conscience, casting one's lot with the mercies of God--these are the commitments of Luther that stirred the soul and consciousness of King as he came of age. He went on to live them out in his own context, and in so doing reshaped both the church and the world, claiming that God stands with those who struggle for justice; claiming our nation's laws and policies must ultimately square with the moral consciousness that stems from God. We hear Luther's urgency in King's letter penned from the Birmingham jail, as he calls white clergy colleagues to consciousness, writing, "You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative."
Today we hear the same calls for respectability, the same anemic posturing that implores people of color, immigrants, and Muslims to simply wait for justice to emanate from power structures that the rest of us know will never yield. Today entire segments of the church not only fail to rally in the streets to stand up to the hatred organizing in our parks, our places of higher learning, and on our streets, but the church named for Jesus Christ is invoked to enforce white supremacy.
As we remember Martin Luther's courage, 500 years beyond his Reformation, we also must tell the truth about the places where he lacked conscience and courage--specifically in his anti-Semitic views that were so inflammatory that Nazis claimed Luther would have been on their side. This should call us to interrogate the limits of the individual conscience, particularly as Christianity contorts itself today to the will of political authority. Christians must speak plainly: we lack a moral voice when white supremacists invoke Jesus Christ; we have closed our ears to the liberating voices of those on the margins when we allow our tradition to make war war on immigrants and refugees.
As a clergywoman in this present era of seismic change and moral bankruptcy, still I believe: there is no better time to be the church. Reformation is in our blood, it is part of our heritage--from Jesus to Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr.--and we must be about the business of reforming the church again. We must stand at the threshold of the church, the doorway between our sacred places and the wider world, and disavow the structures, systems, and authorities within today's church that collude with the powers of hatred, greed, and violence. We must throw off the shackles that colonize our minds and occupy our moral imagination with lies. We must link arms and walk through the streets, shouting, "Enough!" as we wrestle our public spaces away from supremacists and pluck the church from the pockets of authoritarian power. But we also must remember Luther's shadow side, and create new structures and spaces that invite deep listening and accountability to one another, especially to those on the margins. May we remember the purpose of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and the religion founded in his name: to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of our God. As the stakes are made more plain each passing day, may this be the year when we reform the church again. If we fail to do so, may God have mercy on the church's soul.