Reconstructing the Great Speeches – Martin Luther: “Here I Stand”

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I have attended over 35 Jesuit retreats at Demontreville Retreat Center.  Every year at the end of each retreat, I have received a Plenary Indulgence bestowed by the Pope on people who complete a retreat.  Unlike in the day of Martin Luther, I do not have to pay for these indulgences.  My understanding is these indulgences will knock some of the time off that I have to spend in purgatory as reparations for my less than mortal sins.  You still cannot get time off for mortal sins without going to confession.

I am not sure how much time will be knocked off and since I am an atheist or sometimes an agnostic, I am not sure whether or not they will be valid.  I once wondered if I could put them up on eBay and maybe get some money from them.  This would be more in line with the uses that were associated with these plenary indulgences in the time of Martin Luther (1483 to 1546).

Reformation.crop_528x396_2,0.preview (1)There are many who would consider Martin Luther the father of the Protestant Reformation.  Growing up Catholic, we regarded Protestants as heretics.  We all knew that the one true religion was Catholic, and Protestants did not know what they really wanted.  What does the name Protestant even mean?  Taking it at face value, it would seem to mean to protest against.  The dictionary defines a Protestant as someone who has broken from the Roman Catholic church.  If you are a Protestant you practice a form of Christianity in protest to the Catholic form.  There are over 200 major Protestant denominations in the USA and over 35,000 independent or non-denominational Christian churches which are ostensibly Protestant.  During the past few decade, we have seen numerous splits in Protestant churches over such issues as gay marriages, gay clergy, women ministers.  Even though I am a non-Catholic myself, I can’t help but be amazed at the dissension and disunity among Protestants.  I wonder what Martin Luther would have thought if he were alive today.

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In any case, Luther protested against the selling of Indulgences by the Catholic Church and the Pope.  He published his famous 95 Theses (which were polemics primarily against the monetary abuses of the Church) by nailing the theses on the door of All Saints’ Church and other churches in Wittenberg, Germany.  An extremely dramatic way to advance his opposition.  The theses were quickly reprinted and spread like wildfire throughout Europe.  And thus, began what is known as the Protestant Reformation (1517 – 1648).  It actually started even earlier but Luther’s theses were the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

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Martin Luther’s position and actions were quite bold, even audacious.  Luther’s ecclesiastical superiors had him tried for heresy, which culminated in his excommunication in 1521.  This retaliation on the part of the Catholic Church was quite serious.  Luther risked life and limb with his attack on the Church.  The following is a list of people executed for challenging Catholicism during the period from 1500-1600 CE.

  • Ipswich Martyrs († 1515–1558)
  • Jean Vallière († 1523)
  • Jan de Bakker († 1525), 1st martyr in the Northern Netherland
  • Wendelmoet Claesdochter († 1527), 1st Dutch woman charged and burned for the accusation of heresy
  • Michael Sattler († 1527), Rottenburg am Neckar, Germany
  • Patrick Hamilton († 1528), St Andrews, Scotland
  • Balthasar Hubmaier (1485–1528), Vienna, Austria
  • George Blaurock (1491–1529), Klausen, Tyrol
  • Thomas Hitton († 1530), Maidstone, England
  • Richard Bayfield († 1531), Smithfield, England
  • Thomas Benet († 1531), Exeter, England
  • Thomas Bilney († 1531), Norwich, England
  • Joan Bocher († 1531), Smithfield, England
  • Solomon Molcho († 1532), Mantua
  • Thomas Harding († 1532), Chesham, England
  • James Bainham († 1532), Smithfield, England
  • John Frith (1503–1533), Smithfield, England
  • William Tyndale (1490–1536), Belgium
  • Jakob Hutter († 1536), Innsbruck, Tyrol
  • Aefgen Listincx († 1538), Münster, Germany
  • John Forest († 1538), Smithfield, England
  • Katarzyna Weiglowa († 1538), Poland
  • Francisco de San Roman († 1540), Spain
  • Étienne Dolet (1509–1546), Paris, France
  • Henry Filmer († 1543), Windsor, England
  • Robert Testwood († 1543), Windsor, England
  • Anthony Pearson († 1543), Windsor, England
  • Maria van Beckum († 1544)
  • Ursula van Beckum († 1544)
  • Colchester Martyrs († 1545 to 1558), 26 people, Colchester, England
  • George Wishart (1513–1546), St Andrews, Scotland
  • John Hooper († 1555), Gloucester, England
  • John Rogers († 1555), London, England
  • Canterbury Martyrs († 1555–1558), c.40 people, Canterbury, England
  • Laurence Saunders, (1519–1555), Coventry, England
  • Rowland Taylor († 1555), Hadleigh, Suffolk, England
  • Cornelius Bongey, († 1555), Coventry, England
  • Dirick Carver, († 1555), Lewes, England
  • Robert Ferrar († 1555), Carmarthen, Wales
  • William Flower († 1555), Westminster, England
  • Patrick Pakingham († 1555), Uxbridge, England
  • Hugh Latimer (1485–1555), Oxford, England
  • Robert Samuel († 1555), Ipswich, England
  • Burning of Latimer and Ridley, Oxford, 1555
  • Nicholas Ridley (1500–1555), Oxford, England
  • John Bradford († 1555), London, England
  • John Cardmaker († 1555), Smithfield, London, England
  • Robert Glover († 1555), Hertford, England
  • Thomas Hawkes († 1555), Coggeshall, England
  • Thomas Tomkins († 1555), Smithfield, London, England
  • Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), Oxford, England
  • Stratford Martyrs († 1556), 11 men and 2 women, Stratford, London, England
  • Guernsey Martyrs († 1556), 3 women, Guernsey, Channel Islands
  • Joan Waste († 1556), Derby, England
  • Bartlet Green († 1556), Smithfield, London, England
  • John Hullier († 1556), Cambridge, England
  • John Forman († 1556), East Grinstead, England
  • Pomponio Algerio († 1556) Boiled in oil, Rome
  • Alexander Gooch and Alice Driver († 1558), Ipswich, England
  • Augustino de Cazalla († 1559), Valladolid, Spain
  • Carlos de Seso († 1559), Valladolid, Spain
  • María de Bohórquez († 1559)
  • Pietro Carnesecchi († 1567) Florence, Italy
  • Leonor de Cisneros († 1568), Valladolid, Spain
  • Dirk Willems († 1569), Netherlands
  • Giordano Bruno (1548–1600), Rome, Italy

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The famous scientist Galileo was forced to recant his idea that the earth revolved around the sun.  This was widely known among many scientists, but it was opposed by the Catholic Church which held to the view that the sun revolved around the earth.  Thus, in 1521 Galileo was charged with heresy.  After a rather lengthy trial, Galileo retracted his theory preferring to live rather than to be right.  Nevertheless, he spent the rest of his life under house arrest.  Publication of any of his works was forbidden, including any future works.

martin luther

Martin Luther’s Speech at the Imperial Diet in Worms (18 April 1521)

On 18 April 1521 Luther stood before the presiding officer, Johann von Eck at the ongoing Diet in Worms.  Luther was called before the political authorities rather than before the Pope or a council of the Roman Catholic Church.  Eck acting on behalf of the Catholic Church informed Luther that he was acting like a heretic.  Pope Leo X had demanded that Luther retract 41 sentences included in his original 95 Theses.  Luther had been questioned the day before, but he had requested time to think about his response to the charges.  Thus, began Luther’s short but famous speech.   His life depended on his response.

“I this day appear before you in all humility, according to your command, and I implore your majesty and your august highnesses, by the mercies of God, to listen with favor to the defense of a cause which I am well assured is just and right.  I ask pardon, if by reason of my ignorance, I am wanting in the manners that befit a court; for I have not been brought up in king’s palaces, but in the seclusion of a cloister; and I claim no other merit than that of having spoken and written with the simplicity of mind which regards nothing but the glory of God and the pure instruction of the people of Christ.”

Luther begins his speech with humility and with apologies for any lack of etiquette or procedure, but no apologies for his actions.  He is certain that he is right.

“I have composed, secondly, certain works against the papacy, wherein I have attacked such as by false doctrines, irregular lives, and scandalous examples, afflict the Christian world, and ruin the bodies and souls of men. And is not this confirmed by the grief of all who fear God?  Is it not manifest that the laws and human doctrines of the popes entangle, vex, and distress the consciences of the faithful, while the crying and endless extortions of Rome engulf the property and wealth of Christendom, and more particularly of this illustrious nation? Yet it is a perpetual statute that the laws and doctrines of the pope be held erroneous and reprobate when they are contrary to the Gospel and the opinions of the church fathers.”

Luther’s words could not be stronger here.  He accuses the Pope of offense that are scandalous, immoral, and perhaps even criminal.  He softens his words here not one bit.  He is not on the defense but on the offense.  Here is a man not dissembling or hedging his words.  If he is afraid for his life, his words show no fear or caution.  He is doing no political two step or making effort to appease the Pope.  Perhaps Luther knew that he was in little danger of being executed but the fact that he spent the next nine months of his life in hiding would suggest differently.

“In the third and last place, I have written some books against private individuals, who had undertaken to defend the tyranny of Rome by destroying the faith.  I freely confess that I may have attacked such persons with more violence than was consistent with my profession as an ecclesiastic: I do not think of myself as a saint; but neither can I retract these books.  Because I should, by so doing, sanction the impieties of my opponents, and they would thence take occasion to crush God’s people with still more cruelty.”

Luther does not back down one bit.  He confesses to more passion than might have been required but he will not retract anything he has written.  I am no saint he says but I will not be a hypocrite.  Just think of the people surrounding President Trump and contrast their lies, obfuscations, and baffling oratory with the quite clear words of Martin Luther: “What, then, should I be doing if I were now to retract these writings?”  “What if I said my president was lying?  What if I said my president was engaging in double speak?  What if I admitted that my president actually said the words which he claimed that he did not say?  Would I be subject to trial by fire or would I be burned at the stake?”

What makes someone lie on behalf of someone else?

The ending of Luther’s defense was epic.  Perhaps no more forceful words have ever been spoken in history.

“I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience.  Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me!  Amen.”

Emperor Charles V passed the Edict of Worms, which banned Luther’s writings and declared him a heretic and an enemy of the state.  Luther fled and although the Edict mandated that Luther should be captured and turned over to the emperor, it was never enforced.  Bear in mind the list of heretics who came after Luther and was executed.

Luther was a German professor of theology a composer and a priest.  He was no warrior or fighter.  In many ways, he was average, except in one especially important way that mattered and would make him a hero for all time.  He was not afraid to stand up to tyranny and to stand up for his beliefs and to speak out on behalf of what he believed.

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Imagine if more citizens were courageous enough to stand up for what they believed and to speak out forcefully and not meekly on behalf of these same beliefs.  It has been said that “Evil triumphs when good people do nothing.”  Doing nothing or saying nothing are one of the same cloth.  If you want to allow a dictator, bully, or tyrant to take power, simply stay quiet and bemoan the fact that you can do nothing.  Or you can write, speak, march, protest and organize against injustice wherever it can be found.  Any less makes us guilty of a conspiracy of silence.

“A conspiracy of silence, or culture of silence, describes the behavior of a group of people of some size, as large as an entire national group or profession or as small as a group of colleagues, that by unspoken consensus does not mention, discuss, or acknowledge a given subject.  The practice may be motivated by positive interest in group solidarity or by such negative impulses as fear of political repercussion or social ostracism.”  —  Wikipedia

Sinner Man, Sinner Woman, Are You a Sinner?

original sin

Sin has a special place in Christian society.  According to orthodox Christians, we are all sinners.   Most Christians upon hearing this will simply nod their head and agree.  The Catholic Church has two types of sin.  One is mortal sin.  This will get you a place in hell if not confessed before you die.  The other is called venial sin.  A venial sin gives you a place in Purgatory where you fry only for a little while until the sin is expurgated.  Then you can move on to heaven having been cleansed of “sinful” behavior.  Somewhat recently, the Catholic Church got rid of the idea of Purgatory.  It is either heaven or hell these days.

Now if you are of a more secular bent, you may dismiss the idea of sin.  In fact, you may be offended by the idea.  For myself as an atheist, I accept that the idea of sin holds some validity in the sense that some behaviors are so egregious they need strong condemnation.  The Ten Commandments depict several such behaviors that are evil enough to have been banned or outlawed in many societies.  Principally among these are murder, robber and adultery.  Even so, these behaviors are far from uncommon throughout the world.

seven deadly sins

Most of us have no doubt heard of the “seven deadly sins.”  The “seven deadly sins” were originally based on a list of eight principal vices.  This list was developed by the mystic Evagrius Ponticus in the fourth century CE.  In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I changed the list of eight vices into the list of seven deadly, or cardinal, sins of Roman Catholic theology.  This list includes pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth.  The only problem with this list is that you would look long and hard before you would find anyone who did not harbor at least one of these “sins.”  I suspect most of us are guilty of all of them at one time or another.  If sin is so common what good does it do to punish people with threats of hell and perdition?

When some behavior becomes normal, can it still be a sin?  Will most Americans go to hell for being greedy?  You are liable to say “no, surely not!”  There is no law against greed, gluttony or pride.  I am no sinner because I lust after the beautiful babe in the skintight yoga pants

Thus, it would be easy to argue that Pope Gregory 1 went overboard with his definition of these seven behaviors as sinful.  If these are not sins, should they even rank as vices?  What if greed were regarded as a vice, what would that say about modern American society?

“A worldwide survey found that majorities of people in the U.K., Canada, Spain and Australia think of Americans as violent, greedy and arrogant…The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, found that a median of 54 percent of people in countries surveyed associated the negative trait of arrogance with Americans. Fifty-two percent associate greed, and 48 percent say Americans are violent. — The world thinks Americans are violent, greedy, arrogant — and Americans agree  — Teresa Welsh (2016)

I could make a case that each of these seven vices or sins is simply a normal manifestation of human behavior.  Any one of them can be taken to extremes and become dysfunctional but where is the line drawn between normal pride and excessive pride, where is the line drawn between envy and desire and who draws the lines?  My argument is that calling these seven characteristics as vices is almost as extreme as calling them sins.

Does this mean that all of us are perfect?  Can any of us be as pure at heart as Sir Galahad?  Very unlikely, I would think.  So, if we are not sinful or full of vices, then what are we?

I like the word flawed.  Vocabulary.com defines flawed as:

“Flawed objects have some kind of imperfection — a dent or a blemish.  No one’s perfect, so everyone is flawed in some way, but when this word describes a person it often means ‘weak in character.’  A Shakespearian flawed hero has some flaw or foible that will ultimately be his undoing: in other words, a fatal flaw.”

I do not accept that we are all sinful.  I do believe that we are all flawed.  However, I also reject the idea that it means we are weak in character.  Many common run of the mill flaws are more lapses in judgement than they are permanent attributes.  My own definition of a flawed person is “someone who has a behavior that often causes either discomfort to the individual or to those who interact with the individual.”

original-1328023-1There are things that bother other people which may not be flaws at all.  In fact, some so called flaws demonstrate individuals who are marching to a different drummer or who are defying conventional social norms.  To defy anti-Semitism in Germany during the early 20th century would have been considered a character flaw.  To be an abolitionist in the South prior to the Civil War would have led to persecution by your fellow citizens.  Who today would consider these character flaws?  History will often show that a “flawed” individual was a hero or heroine rather than someone with a character defect.

No doubt, some flaws are more serious than others.  Some can be “fatal flaws” depending on the culture and specific context.  Today sexism is widely regarded as being a very serious flaw.  To be accused of sexism can mean the end of a career or worse depending on the infraction.  Witness the number of recent trials for those guilty of sexism.  And of course, it is not only men who succumb to the lure of sex and power but women as well as evidenced by the recent debacle that ensnared former Representative Katie Hill.  No one should be surprised though to know that there are still those who harbor anti-Semitic, sexist or racist sentiments and many who regard these behaviors as normal.

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But sin including the concept of “Original Sin” is something that excuses the participant.  If you sin, you can simply confess to god or your local pastor and be forgiven.  If you believe that we are all sinners, when do you stop sinning?  A flaw does not give you the excuse that a sin does.  Saying “we are all sinners” is like saying “we are all racists.”  Even if it were true, so what?  What are you going to do about being a racist?  Jesus said, “Go and sin no more.”  He did not say “go sin and come back again and be forgiven.”

A flaw must be addressed in a different way.  A flaw is something that must be acknowledged and not simply forgiven.  A flaw is something that you must work on.  If you are lazy or greedy, you can through diligence and discipline become “unlazy and ungreedy.”  History is full of examples of people with “flaws” who overcame them and went on to valued exemplary lives.

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A flaw does not imply any inherent ineradicable weakness.  There is no evidence that people have a DNA gene for the seven vices/sins.  A flaw gives you a choice.  Live with it and deal with the consequences or manage it and improve your character.

“When I pass, speak freely of my shortcomings and my flaws. Learn from them, for I’ll have no ego to injure.”  — Aaron McGruder

 

 

 

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