Responding to Tragedy: Insights from Lutheran History

Lutherans have the unique distinction of being the only mainline Protestant denomination named after its founder. While other denominations take their name from their church structure (Presbyterians, Congregationalists), geography (Moravians), or reappropriated pejorative terms (Methodists), Lutherans take their name from a single theologian. This was not by Luther’s design, either. During his life, Luther vehemently discouraged leaders in the movement from using his name to define the movement. It didn’t quite work out as he had hoped.

As a result, parsing out exactly what Lutheran theology is can be problematic. Does Lutheran theology refer to Martin Luther’s views? Or does it refer to someone who drew from his tradition? The conflation of Luther’s own life with the Lutheran tradition can also be problematic because of the complex and provocative views he held. In many circles, enthusiasm for Luther’s theological beliefs about the use and means of grace is tempered by discomfort over his later writings about non-Christians. The soaring heights of his theological genius are often sprinkled with reminders that Luther was a sixteenth-century writer bound by his own context and experience.

But these reminders of Luther’s historicity are also useful for us. They remind us that what matters is not only what Luther wrote, but also the context in which he wrote it. Luther didn’t just publish his canon in one chunk and walk away. Luther’s writings affected the society he lived in and these societal changes prompted him to write more. Luther did not write outside of his world, but embedded within it.

In wake of a tragedy, like this week’s bombings in Boston, many of us return to our faith’s traditions and practices in search of clarity, meaning, and direction. This is one example of an occasion in which Luther’s life can actually be as instructive as his writings. One event in particular stands out as a useful cautionary tale: the Peasant’s War, a series of uprisings in which close to one hundred thousand people died.

Luther’s interest in the Peasants’ War was precipitated in large part by Sebastian Lotzer and Christoph Schappeler’s The Twelve Articles: The Just and Fundamental Articles of all the Peasantry and Tenants of Spiritual and Temporal Powers by Whom They Think Themselves Oppressed. The Twelve Articles, which Luther read in the spring of 1525, synthesized the grievances of  German peasants into twelve clear points.  The Articles included arguments for a right to elect one’s pastor, fair taxation, and freedom from oppressive serfdom.  The Twelve Articles found a receptive audience and 25,000 copies were printed within two months.

Luther, concerned over a possible increase in violence, published a tract chastising both peasants and lords. The lords, he claimed, were needlessly oppressing the lower social classes, while the peasants were incorrectly claiming the support of the gospel in their campaign.  Both sides, Luther argued, should find a way to negotiate a peaceful agreement with one another instead of destroying one another.

Unfortunately, events moved faster than Luther’s pamphlets. By the time Luther’ tract was published, the peasants’ campaign had escalated and Luther began to hear of towns being taken over by peasant militias. Frustrated over the lack of response to his first tract, Luther followed with the more pointed Admonition to Peace and Also Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of the Other Peasants. Though Luther did encourage lords to “stop your raging and obstinate tyranny and not deal unreasonably with the peasants,” he took a harder line against the peasants Luther believed to be winning the battle. Because of their misappropriation of what he believed to be the gospel message, Luther characterized the peasants as “enemies who, under the name of the gospel, act contrary to it, and want to do more to suppress my gospel than anything the pope and emperor have done to suppress it.”

And here is where things began to go awry. First, the printers left the phrase “of the Other Peasants” off of the title of the tract, giving the impression that Luther was coming out staunchly against the peasants’ cause as a whole. In fact, Luther was trying to distinguish between those peasants he deemed just and those he criticized for using excessive violence. This distinction was lost on many. Second, the Battle of Frankenhausen happened. Some historians have estimated that the battle claimed the lives of six thousand peasants, while killing only six lords. Having misjudged the situation, Luther’s criticism of the peasants was read as news about the massacre at Frankenhausen. After realizing his egregious error, Luther tried to explain the nuance of his position, but the damage to his image could not be fixed.

Luther’s response to the Peasant’s War can help elucidate how we should respond to tragedy. The most obvious lesson to be learned is one of humility and restraint. It is hard to overestimate the impact the printing press had on Luther’s world. That writings could spread so quickly revolutionized the spread of information and social organization. But advances in technology can also be hazardous, leading us to hasty judgments and misinformation if used improperly. Some of this is due to “Maslow’s Hammer.” If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have a printing press, or a twitter account, everything looks like something that should be published. In the wake of tragedy, we should not let our technology drive us to post, like, and tweet before we have had a chance to think.

But this talk of social media is really a sign of a bigger problem and a perhaps greater lesson to be learned from Luther’s tracts on the Peasants’ War. The most powerful way to respond to tragedy is to listen, not to speak. It is also one of the most difficult ways to respond. Events can change, but words can never be taken back. Even if arguments are misunderstood or misread, as Luther’s were, corrections never hold as much as weight as the claims that preceded them. Luther learned this in 1525. We would be wise to not repeat his mistake today.

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