It Started with a Letter to the Archbishop 

19 October 2017

He was born on November 10, 1483 and died on February 18, 1546. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest, composer, and professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Protesting abusive indulgence practices in the Catholic Church, he became a key figure in the Protestant Reformation.

This year we celebrate his 500th anniversary. 

He may or may not have actually nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, (the majority of contemporary Luther researchers stress that Luther did NOT nail his theses to the door of the Castle Church) but on 31 October 1517 theologian Martin Luther did send his “Ninety-Five Theses” to Albert of Brandenburg, the Archbishop of Mainz. His theses were a list of propositions for an academic disputation about abusive practices connected with the Roman Catholic sale of indulgences. 

A bit of background: Although one does not hear much about it these days, medieval Catholics had a strong belief in PURGATORY: a place of temporal punishment between hell and heaven, a place to purge souls of the remnants of sin and enable them to eventually move on into heavenly glory. They visualized the time in purgatory the same way they understood earthly punishment or imprisionment for criminal actions: calculated in so many days, months, or years. 

An indulgence was like an official pardon that could wipe out all or part of the time one had to spend in purgatorial punishment and purification. Church authorities could grant indulgences for saying certain prayers, performing good deeds, or visiting and praying at special shrines. If one had a loved one who had died, for instance, a person could gain indulgences for him or her and lessen the number of days that person would have to endure the pains of purgatory. One could also pile up indulgences for oneself; and indulgences could be plenary (wiping out all purgatorial time) or partial (just wiping out a certain number of days). If, for example, one performed a pious act labeled as “300 days’ partial indulgence,” then that person would spend 300 fewer days in purgatory. 

By the late Middle Ages, granting indulgences became big time big business for the church. In Martin Luther’s Wittenberg, for example, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican monk and a popular preacher, visited churches and traveled through neighboring towns and villages selling indulgences at good prices. He was a top salesman. Legend says he even had a little jingle for selling his indulgences:  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.”  

The pope too was in the indulgence business. In the early sixteenth century, the current St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was under construction but the pope ran out of money. Indulgences solved his financial problems. More than a few coins of course had to ring in the
papal coffers…..

On March 15, 1517, Pope Leo X declared that anyone who contributed to the St. Peter’s building project would be granted an indulgence. His decree explains the product he was selling and its benefits: “…[I] absolve you …from all your sins, transgressions, and excesses regardless how enormous they might be…and remit all punishment which you deserve in purgatory on their account; and I restore you…to the innocence and purity which you possessed at baptism, so that when you die the gates of punishment shall be shut… If you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.” That’s quite an insurance policy. 

Luther of course was disgusted and flabbergasted at such a crass distortion of Christianity. The young theologian, was strongly condemned by church authorities and the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Nevertheless, he was a Christian prophet and his message endured. 

In every age we need to be alert and critical and prophetic believers. Institutions and institutional leaders (as we see in the political arena as well) often succumb to self-promoting power maneuvers that distort the truth, offer people false hopes, and end up using and abusing them. There will always be someone who takes advantage of people and offers them quick salvation by selling the latest golden calf. 

It would help if we could see the church not as an institution but as a community of faith: a vibrant community of brothers and sisters, united in the spirit of Christ, and constructively critiquing and motivating each other to be his living presence in our contemporary society.  

Jesus of course said absolutely nothing about indulgences. He never constructed a golden calf. He did say the Reign of God has already begun….He wants us to live the Reign of God here and now, today. 

We can ignore all the contemporary, and often colorful, Johann Tetzels. 

Thank you Martin Luther! 

Words — Reality — Bridges 

5 October 2017

I feel our language has been so impoverished by mass media headlines, Facebook exclamations, and twitter outbursts that it is difficult to express genuine concerns today about the demise of human solidarity, compassion, and civilityProtest movements and counter-protest movements, becoming increasingly violent, are tearing the country apart. These developments are hardly limited to the United States of course. Hardened Catalan attitudes against Madrid and vice versa, as both sides dig in, may very well trigger a constitutional crisis, with profound implications for Spain and Europe. 

Where do we go from here? We are caught in a kind of disruption, disorientation, and social malaise……..One only needs to mention names: Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Charlottesville …..Varieties of physical, psychological, and social climate change. Institutional and political impotence abound. Again on both sides of the Atlantic. This week in Rome at the famous Roman Catholic Gregorian University, a conference is being held on “The Dignity of the Child in the Digital World.” International experts are exploring the issue of child protection on the internet. At the very same time, a Vatican diplomat, accused by Canadian authorities of downloading child pornography in Canada, is living inside Vatican City and strolling in the papal gardens, protected by the Vatican’s sovereign diplomatic immunity.

People react in strange ways. And we hear strange voices. The Rev. Pat Robertson has blamed LGBTQ people for the recent hurricanes; and he says that disrespect for the US flag and the US president are the real cause of the Las Vegas mass shootings…….Simple explanations? An Arkansas firefighter wrote on Facebook that NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be shot in the head. He wrote that President Donald Trump “should post snipers at every game” and they should fire their weapons at any player who refuses to stand for the national anthem.  

Words and actions. How they affect us, and how we react to them. How do we really handle angry rage? Right now it seems to me that more people are interested in yelling and screaming about athletes kneeling for the national anthem than they are about the men, women, and children dying in Puerto Rico. What words and actions best express a commitment to “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? 

Talking with an American friend this week, I said I was concerned about a loss of civility, the rise of vitriolic hatred, and a lack of compassion in contemporary society. He said he was more concerned about a loss of respect for the flag. I said perhaps respect for the flag is best demonstrated by concerted actions in support of people suffering and dying. “It is about symbols and meaning,” I said. 

“It’s about patriotism,” he said, “and a lack of traditional American Christian values.” 

Christian values. I chuckled and said I was happy to get into a theological discussion. Love and hatred, friendship and alienation, wealth and poverty, guilt and forgiveness, and most of the other things that make life happy or miserable for people are rooted in spiritual realities.  

“Acceptance, belonging, community, and forgiveness are spiritual realities” I said. “They take root in people, when they have shelter, warmth, nourishment, medication, and a healthy environment.” 

“Thanks for the pious talk,” my friend said. “I have to get back to reality.” End of that conversation. 

Reality….When we look at the life of Jesus in the synoptic gospels, we see it characterized by ministry to others, especially the sick and the suffering. In the fourth gospel, Jesus tells his disciples in no uncertain terms that they are to love one another in the same way that he loved them. 

We need conversion and bridge-building. Conversion means a serious examination of conscience and behavior. Are our attitudes and our behavior authentically Christian? This is the big reality question. 

If we are going to be authentically Christian we need to repair and construct some bridges: 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between far-right and far-left Christians? If we are all part of the Body of Christ, we need to get our behavior in sync. This is a bridge I need to work on…. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between Republicans and Democrats? A house divided against itself will not survive. I am a Democrat and most of my family are Republicans. We do love and respect each other.  

How about respectful dialogue bridges between “straight” and gay and transgender people? Along with respectful listening and dialogue with researchers in the fields of human sexuality and gender issues. 

How about respectful dialogue bridges between the economically impoverished and the advantaged wealthy?  
Some quick thoughts, in our restless days. All of these issues would be great adult education themes….

I agree with Isaac Newton: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”