Starting Point: The Crises

The quincentenary takes place in a decisive period in the history of humankind and the earth. For example, it is predicted that by 2020 dramatic climate changes will be irreversible, if there are not fundamental shifts in matters of production and consumption of energy. If present policies and behaviors do not change significantly, e.g. the temperature in Africa may be substantially higher by the end of this century. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor keeps increasing, pushing billions of children, women, and men into hunger and death. Moreover, the global financial system threatens to destroy the economy and social coherence of one country after another. These crises are interconnected in the civilization of modernity, originally developed in Europe and since then globalized through cultural, structural, and direct violence.

In the period of modernity, begun already in the late Middle Ages, the European hegemonic powers were in Spain and the upper Italian banking and trading cities, such as Genoa and Florence. But in the 17th century other countries, where different branches of the Reformation were dominant, took over: The Netherlands (originally a Spanish province), then Britain and the USA. The USA and Europe remain the driving forces of this civilization, though globalized in various ways. At present the USA (ab)uses limited natural resources as if it had six planets and the Europeans as if they had three planets at their disposal. In addition, the international financial crisis, initiated in the US in 2008 and currently unfolding in Europe, not only has deepened the extreme poverty and hunger in many parts of the world (Global South and Eastern Europe), but has brought heavy unemployment and poverty into the North itself. Instead of overcoming the capitalist system of financial greed, the western governments have fueled it with public funds. Those identifying with the Reformation need to self-critically assess its role in history and in the present time. But how?

Key Perspective: The Biblical Priority for Those Left Out and Marginalized

Luther’s reformation regarded itself as the protagonist in going back to the roots of the scripture and the early church, and seeking to reform the existing church accordingly. This was grounded in the claim that the Scripture is the final norm (norma normans) of every tradition, socio-economic, political, and ecclesial reality. But which scripture? Socio-historic biblical research has sharpened our listening to the texts by taking seriously the contexts. The result of this re-reading of the texts is that in the biblical narratives God identifies with the victims of a given system and makes them protagonists in an alternative community of new just relationships: the slaves (Exodus), those with unpayable debt (Deuteronomy 15, 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer), the poor (Luke 4), etc. The apostle Paul summarizes this in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:26-28):

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.

Most clearly, this is expressed in the narrative of the Human One coming to judge all people (Matthew 25:31ff.). Jesus receives those who cared for the needs of the “least of these.” Those who failed to recognize the Messiah in the form of those in need (which today includes the earth itself) are sent away. These “least,” the victims of systemic and personal injustices, are given priority by Jesus and liberated to become the protagonists of God’s domination-free order (kingdom). These hungry, homeless, displaced and vulnerable include:

  • children
  • women
  • colonized people(s)
  • rural and urban poor
  • the unemployed
  • those with disabilities
  • the elderly
  • workers in precarious conditions
  • those oppressed by military power
  • refugees and immigrants
  • people of other faiths or no faith
  • and many others

In our research program and action plan the voices of the least including nature will have the highest priority and determine our perspective.

This has clear implications that are crucial for new readings of the Bible:

  • that personal and structural justice, including freedom from exploitation and greedy accumulation, is at the heart of Christian faith
  • that empire in its many expressions must be resisted at all levels
  • that the Jesus movement was antagonistic toward the upper classes in Judea, who collaborated with the empire, but not against Judaism itself and the Torah
  • that patriarchy is a problem throughout biblical traditions, but that there are strong alternative trajectories in the Bible, including in Jesus himself
  • that all Constantinian theology, particularly christology and ecclesiology, must be fundamentally reconsidered
  • that the opposition is to idolatry in its many forms, but not to other religions as such.

No Exclusivity: Biblical Faith in the Context of Other Religions

Biblical traditions cannot be seen in isolation from the larger context of other cultures and traditions. When tribal solidarity structures became threatened through the development of cities and hierarchical and exploitative structures and when, due to the growing division of labor, money became used as a means of exchange and consequently misused for the accumulation of wealth (through taking interest on loans, etc.), attempts were made to overcome the subsequent suffering of people in many places already in the ancient world. In the 2nd millennium the laws of Hammurapi in Mesopotamia or the development of the idea of a final judgment under the criteria of Ma’at in Egypt were attempts to rectify such injustices. In particular, the expansion of an economy based on money and private property (as in the 8th century BCE and the subsequent centuries in Asia up to the Mediterranean) triggered various religious and philosophical counter-movements. The philosopher Karl Jaspers coined the name, “Axial Age”, for this period. However, Jaspers did this with idealistic categories, which claimed that humanity had moved to a higher spiritual and intellectual stage. Recent research has shown that this dawn of new world views and wisdom was inextricably linked to the experience of suffering caused by the social consequences of the new economy and imperial violence.

The cry for justice issued by the prophets and the Torah in Ancient Israel, the call for balance in China (Taoism and Confucius), and the enlightened overcoming of the three poisons (greed, aggressiveness, and the illusion of the Ego) as experienced by the Buddha in India can be viewed as parallel efforts to cope with economic, social, and political crises. The Jesus movement and the early church, building on the grand narrative of Ancient Israel, can be regarded as a second wave of these efforts to counter structures and behaviors of exploitation and imperial violence. This means that these religions and philosophies share a common horizon, but each with distinct characteristics. According to Aloysius Pieris, the specific feature of Christianity is God’s defense covenant with the poor in Jesus Christ, instantiated in the suffering of the cross through the devises of the empire.1 However, the struggle for justice does not end here. Muhammad confronted the class of the rich traders in Mecca, leading to a third wave of Axial Age religions in the forms of Islam.

The Reformation, starting even before Martin Luther with John Wyclif, Jan Hus, Savonarola, and others, and spreading alongside and after Luther through the witnesses of the Radical Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others can be regarded as another wave in rediscovering the impulses of the Axial Age. At that time the context was the emergence of Modernity, building on the ancient money-property economy and the imperial traditions of Hellenism and Rome, and developing them toward the domination processes and rationality of the calculating possessive money subject, capitalist exploitative accumulation mechanisms, scientific and technological control of nature, patriarchy, and colonialism. Of course, there were also many significant human advances in these periods, which helped to emancipate the oppressed from the structures and forces causing human suffering. But these positive elements of Modernity have to be liberated from the negative ones.

Today we are experiencing the climax of this modern civilization in its globalized form. The global economic system is threatening the survival of humanity and the earth. What role did the Reformation and its consequent developments have in the beginning of modernity up to today, theologically, ecclesially, and culturally? This is a key question underlying our project. Insofar as the crisis is global in scope it requires all concerned to resist the present trajectory which leads into an abyss, and to find a new common culture of life – transcending modernity. How can those grounded in theological insights from the Reformation rediscover the liberating power of the biblical heritage in order to join self-critically in the struggle of religious and social movements towards “trans-modernity”? This broad historical framework underlies what we mean by “Radicalizing Reformation: Provoked by the Bible and Today’s Crises.”