Radicalizing Reformation in North America

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  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. desribes being part of the Chinese Lutheran church in the.greater Boston area,  where a challenge is to make clear that the good news is about more than individual salvation. “By raising people's awareness of the relationship between justice and the gospel, we are envisioning and pursuing together an alternative way of life that takes seriously the dignity and wellbeing of others. And by making a difference, it further means that we do not shy away from interrogating power and bringing civilization to justice.  ...While many Chinese immigraints who come to the US for a better living they would accept whatever working and living conditions available for them (even to the point of exploitation), many others who have benefitted from the exsting economic systems are silent to injustice inherited from the biased systems and institutions.”
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. writes, “We at Wartburg Seminary are and will be pursuing this together....we have a variety of gifts and emphases – ethics, liturgy, ecology, theology, education, student organizing....I especially focus on shaping and equipping leaders of the church to become ecclesial and public leaders....I blog personally, though the Living Lutheran, locally in Dubuque and on Huffington Post.... We simply must be Reformation people in the public, global world.”
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.hopes that this emphases can be brought into the “Teaching Luther in the 21st Century” event that will take place in June at Luther Seminary, the Association of Teaching Theologians event in Berkeley in August, and the Luther studies conference in September at Pacific Lutheran University (which will focus on Jewish-Christian relations).
  • The Lutherans Restoring Creation network (www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org)has been promoting a resolution to make ecojustice a focus of 2017 Reformation in the ELCA. In a video, Barbara Rossing highlights why an Eco-Reformation is crucial.  See the LRC for other resources, including a resolution for divestment from fossil fuel companies, which as James Martin-Schramm points out, is important but must also needs to involve advocating for more regulation of fossil fuel.
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.report on a a symposium being planned for November (2015) in Washington DC, on “the forgotten Luther,” focusing on how Luther engaged the systems of his day, and how this connects with economic inequality today.  They also hope to develop a video package of lectures, drama, and music for use in congregations.
  • Silicon Valley [in CA] is one of the  wealthiest metropolitian areas in the U.S., but according to a 2014 analysis of Census data by Working Partnerships USA (WPUSA),  the valley has an “invisible workforce” of primarily Black and Latino contract workers who can’t make ends meet. The AFL-CIO’s South Bay Labor Center, a coalition of 90 local unions, has sought to hold tech companies accountable with a “Silicon Valley Rising” campaign launched in February 2015. Connecting their struggle to the one fought by Cesar Chavez for farmworkers in thethe same region half a century ago,the coalition of unions and community organizations aims to unite the “janitors, food service workers, maintenance workers, security guards, and shuttle bus drivers who help build and sustain the tech economy.” (from article by Mario Vasquez, In These Times, May 15, 2015).


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On October 30, 1999, I was among those in the elaborate gilded Town Hall in Augsburg, Germany, as the town's Lord Mayor proclaimed that the event to occur the next day -- the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutheran and Catholic churches --- would be a truly historic event for healing those political and religious divisions that began in the 16th century and have pervasively defined and determined all of Europe ever since. How startling that sounded to one coming from the USA, not only because our national sense of history is much shorter, but because public, political insights from Lutheran theology have not played much of a role in US history.

The Reformation Luther initiated in 1517 is to be observed in 2017, which is a much different time.  Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff notes, “With Pope Francis in Rome the situation of Christianity has fundamentally changed. If Luther were living today, he would be full of a spirit of joy because finally his concerns are heard – as inspiration for a reform of whole Church.”[1] Observances today are expected to be far more ecumenical and interfaith in nature, and avoid any “Lutheran triumphalism."

This is an opportunity to make more public certain distinctively Lutheran tenets, such as how God's grace come to us as free gift (in contrast to the works-righteousness pervasive in American society).  Raising up distinctively Lutheran theological themes alone could provoke significant awareness-raising, but a more public witness in North American settings today needs to go further.

In Luther’s time in Germany, the Papacy was the most powerful institution ruling over people’s lives, with closely intertwined religious, social, cultural, and political aspects. Under this system, no one could do enough so as to be certain of his/her salvation. Luther came to view this institutional power of domination as a theological matter which threatened salvation itself.[2]  He broke open this system of domination, by proposing a much different relationship with God. Luther responded both to people’s fears or captivity  and touched the church's nerve center: its financial support and its divine legitimacy.[3]

The point here is that the Reformation Luther initiated was systemic or structural from the beginning.  Justification cannot be reduced to being only a subjective, privatized matter, but needs to be closely connected with the more public pursuit of justice. Much as Luther spoke to the crises of his day on the basis of what he read in Scripture, so must we today in the spirit of “radicalizing” (going to the root of) what the Reformation was about.  This is what the global Radicalizing Reformation project seeks to do.

“The rampant destruction of human and non-human life in a world ruled by the totalitarian dictatorship of money and greed, market and exploitation requires a radical re-orientation towards the biblical message, which also marked the beginning of the Reformation....Our churches, congregations, and individual Christians have often become complacent and complicit with the established status quo and have lost their critical-prophetic power to protest, resist, and change what is occurring. God’s justification by grace has been detached from social justice and thus serves as “useless salt” (Mt 5:13). Because the Reformation legacy has gone astray, we must at the same time return to some of Luther’s thought and legacy, as well as standing decidedly against other things he said and did, if this is to become a kairoitic time of transformation today.”  (preface to the 94 theses)

In other words, if justification remains confined to a personal dimension apart from the wider societal, creation-wde implications, then injustices will continue to have free reign, distorting our most basic elationships: with God, ourselves, one another and the rest of creation.

What is unleashed is a power that cannot remain quiet or passive in the face of unjust systems --- because of how they themselves distort what it means to be human and hold people in captivity both spiritually and materially.  Exposing what is operating today is not only a matter of denouncing and extricating ourselves from it.  We who benefit from “the way things are” -- are too enmeshed in the complexities of this web for a straightforward denunciation of this idolatry to be authentic or persuasive.  We are “in and of” that which we are called to critique.

How then might this become a kairos for embodying a bolder public witness to how aspects of the legacy coming from the 1517 Reformation can make critical and provocative differences in how we engage with pivotal societal challenges today?  How might this provide a much different framework, set of assumptions and values, and fundamental shifts in what has brought about these crises today? 

The 94 theses [identified here by #] and related articles in five books published in the global Radicalizing Reformation project can be especially insightful and helpful, and well as many other written resources and organizing efforts here in North America (too numerous to list here).  The following are suggestive of the public crises among others, that especially need to be engaged. Much more has been written and is being done with regard to each of these, and their implications. We encourage you to let us know of such, as an emerging North American network develops.

1. CREATION in CRISIS:   As the worst drought in California history continues, and dramatic changes in the climate occur not only here but throughout the country and world, the manifold crises in creation cannot be ignored.  People of faith must join with scientific and other activist groups in pursuing what is occurring, such as disparate farmers having to tap into the increasingly depleted groundwater, and working for long-lasting systemic policy changes, such as lessening dependency on fossil fuels.

Following Luther, we pursue these and other strategies out of an expansive sense that all of creation is the abode of God, who is in, with and under all that is created. This is in stark contrast to a sense that creation is a means to the end of unfettered human expansion and profit. God graciously “labors” for the sake of the redemption of all of creation (Romans 8).  Sin is the refusal to accept the limits and responsibility of the place of humans in the whole of creation. (http://www.e-alliance.ch/fileadmin/user_upload/docs/God__Creation_and_Climate_Change.pdf)

Many have devoted considerable attention to expanding this sense of the theological and ethical significance of creation, such as through the Lutherans Restoring Creation network (www.lutheransrestoringcreation.org), and have developed a number of articles, resources and strategies, such as focusing on 2017 becoming a time for “eco-Reformation.”   The crisis here is dire because of the many ways creation is being destroyed --- how human beings are becoming “uncreators” (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda) –  and thus, whether there will even be a future of creation.

However, transforming these matters systematically cannot be done apart from attending to how the reigning economic assumptions and paradigm worsen climate change and the other challenges to God's creation.  This tends to be far more controversial and risky to address – but crucial – because “today the forces of economic growth, monetary expansion, and privatization threaten planetary death” (#22).

2.ECONOMIC DISPARITIES: Probably nowhere in the U.S. are the economic disparities between the rich and the poor greater than in San Franciso and the surrounding area.  The cost of housing is so high that it is increasingly difficult for all but the richest 1% to live in San Francisco; people of lower income and/or of color must move elsewhere (the African American population of that city has now dropped to below 6%). Meanwhile, lying on the sidewalks are scores of people who are homeless, desperately needing what individuals, churches and other non-profit organizations can provide them. Those doing so, ask how systemic changes can be made for the sake of greater equity -- for the sake of “sufficient, sustainability livelihood for all” (http://elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Economic_LifeSS.pdfELCA statement on economic life).

“The Bible establishes a political economy of 'enough for all' based on the sharing of what is given for the common good of all (Exodus 16). The reformers were unanimous in believing that the economy should serve the common good and the specific needs of the neighbor. In our time, we ... call for forms of economic life that build on God’s gifts, protect the commons, and produce and distribute goods and services in ways that are both democratic and ecologically sensitive.” (#16)

“Living at the onset of modern capitalism, Luther engaged in systemic critique. Living at the end of this murderous and suicidal period of human history, we must listen anew to the sources of our faith and join others in ‘putting a spoke in the wheel of the car, when the driver is drunk’” [Bonhoeffer]. (conclusion of 94 theses)

In the 16th century, the financial practice of using money to make ever more money was rather new. “Usury” was the term attached by Luther to a number of practices of  large-scale economic actors, – “the great powerful arch-thieves” who lived off the neediness of the poor, and in their greediness, destroyed the common good.  In a large number of Luther's writings and sermons, his condemnation of  systemic developments was quite blatant. He condemned  how the “laws” of the market were endangering especially the poor.  “When any economic system and its effects are accepted without question –  when it becomes a 'god-like' power reigning over people, communities and creation – then we face a central issue of faith.” (ELCA economic life statement).

So, today when these forces and systems have become far more powerful, pervasive and blatant  – in their damaging effects on our neighbors, communities, and world – why are Lutherans not saying and doing more publicly on this today?  Doing so would be particularly appropriate and strategic for making the wider public aware of how perspectives going back to Luther do make a difference today. Christians, especially those who stand in Luther's legacy, are called publicly to reject unequivocally the destructive elements of the growing profit economy, and to develop constructive alternatives to such.

3. POLARIZATION: What especially immobilizes politics today, particularly in the US.,  are the heightened polarities between sides – such Republicans vs. Democrats, those on the Right vs. those on the Left. Many polarities are developed on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship (vs. immigrants), U.S. “exceptionalism” (vs. the rest of the world).  Alliances or coalitions across these polarities are rare when this “us vs. them” is so entrenched.  This in part is why effective address of the systemic challenges of climate change and economic inequality is so difficult.

Here we find little help from Luther, because of how he took for granted and actually intensified polarities prevailing then. These were exasperated later (anti-Judaism being only one example).  Those seen and treated as “other” often were cast as opponents in the theological points he made quite polemically --- whether against the Catholic church, Jews, Turks (Muslims), “enthusiasts”, or whoever he viewed as “other.” He sometimes did so to the extent of excusing or justifying the use of violence against them, which Luther's followers subsequently and tragically carried out.  No wonder historic “peace churches” have had such longstanding objections to Lutherans at this point!  Systemic patterns of domination, colonialization, and racism became entrenched, which the current “Black lives matter” movement in the U.S., as well a host of contemporary movements throughout the world have continually exposed.  Polarization has too often led to systemic and vicious outbreaks of violence.

Here radical repentance is needed as we approach 2017.  It is not only the vicious polemics and resulting practices that need to be denounced, but questions need to be raised as to whether the very framework traditionally used to cast central Lutheran theological categories (such as “law vs. gospel”) must be examined and perhaps revised, in light of how Scripture  – especially Paul -- is read today. 

New Testament scholar, Birgitte Kahl, points out that  the antithesis of “Jews versus Christians”embedded a deadly enemy construct into the core of justification theology.  In his letter to the Galatians (so central for Luther) Paul was opposing “law” as embodied in and enforced by the Roman Empire, rather than Jewish law (torah).  At the heart of Paul's theological claim is not a polarity of Jews versus Gentiles, nor any other polarity. His radically new insight is that “in Christ” the dichotomies of the current world order are invalidated, such as hierarchical polarities that juxtapose Self and Other, good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, and, as we might add today, Christians vs. those of another (or no) faith.  These vanish in the radically new practice of becoming “one” with another, rather than one against the Other.  (this is further reflected in theses #59-64, and Kahl's related article). Because of how being “in Christ” was subsequently used in a conquering way over others, the freshness of this Pauline insight was soon lost.

“For Paul, the justice of God implies ...that “in Christ” the polarities and hierarchies of this “present evil world order” (Gal 1:4) have been overcome.  “We” are not what segregates us from the “others” but what interconnects us with them. The human divisions of nation, religion, gender, and class, which constitute the “self” as enemy and rival of the “other,” are removed in baptism “like old garments.” A new praxis of becoming “one” through mutuality and solidarity creates a new form of being human – and a new world (Gal 6:2.15). ... God's justice, the justification of the human being, and human justice are all inseparably connected.” (#59)

In his time, Luther did not pursue this, largely because of his adversarial stance toward all those opposing his reformation efforts. In our time, not only must we denounce the deplorable antagonisms that resulted, but insist that solidarity across such boundaries is at the heart of the Gospel.  It is from such a stance of solidarity, rather than from entrenched and often vicious political polarization that more effective address of today's crises of climate change and economic inequality can occur.

You are encouraged to respond:  what are you saying, writing or doing in this regard?  What further implications and actions are you (congregation, synod, institution, coalitions) intending to pursue and how, so that insights and critiques arising out of the 1517 Reformation might collectively make more of a public difference as we observe 2017 in North American contexts today?

Send responses to and contact Dr. Karen Bloomquist (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), who is coordinating a North American network


[1]  Church – Liberated for Resistance & Transformation; vol 5 of Radicalizing Reformation (LIT Verlag, 2015), addendum

[2]  Scott Hendrix, Luther and the Papacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981), xii.

[3]   Walter Altmann, “Justification in the context of exclusion – Latin America,” in Justification in the World’s Context, ed, Wolfgang Greive (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 2000), 121.