When Frank Senn asked me to write an essay on what I appreciate/don’t appreciate about Luther I practically jumped at the chance. Why? Because writing out my answer gave me the chance to share one of my most perplexing observations of Lutherans. For what confuses me about Lutherans is not so much what they appreciate or don’t appreciate about Luther, but rather how little of Luther’s bold witness (which they claim to appreciate) actually influences their lives and ministries.
For Lutherans often talk about their affection for Luther’s earthiness, his bluntness – and they’re right. In Table Talk (the focus of much of this essay) he has doozies, like calling St. Jerome “leprous” because he “believed that breaking wind was a sin.”1 Though I haven’t been able to find it this time around, there’s one conversation in which Luther refers to the sad state of a self-castrated monk, who now, without his pudenda to play with, had no outlet at all for his carnal frustrations. Luther wryly commented, then, that his sad state proved that it was “better to have two of those things than none of them.” And as for drinking, he also once said that if God can pardon him after having “crucified him for about twenty years [presiding over communion]” he can also approve of Luther “occasionally taking a drink in his honor… no matter how the world may wish to interpret it.” 2 And of course who could ever forget that time that Luther said that he chases the devil away “with a fart?”3
However, standard Lutheran tittering about these stories gives me the impression that for all of its power and impact, many see Luther’s forthrightness mostly as a charming, if sometimes questionable, quirk. But this just is far from the truth.
For instance, take a look at this rather insightful comment he makes about sex and respectability:
[The papists teach that] the Act of concupiscence [sex] is illicit; that the marital act is an act of concupiscence; therefore [marriage is illicit]. I reply to the minor premise: The marital act is not an act of concupiscence. Rather, the act that attracts sex to sex is a divine ordinance. Even if by itself the act is impure on account of original sin, in itself it’s still pure and licit.4
So here not only is Luther speaking pretty boldly against any kind of self-righteousness or prudishness around sex, he even goes so far as to say that sex itself is a “divine ordinance… pure and licit,” even if the impulse for sex is corrupted by sin. Still more shocking, and in one of his most respected treatises – The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, no less – Luther states that if a woman is married to a man who does not satisfy her sexually, that “divine law” stipulates that “the man ought to concede her right [to marital exclusivity] and give her up to somebody else” who isn’t dedicated to his wife only “in outward appearance.”5 And who could forget Luther’s approval of Phillip Landgrave of Hesse’s marriage to two women – as he shared the Hebrew Bible’s preference for bigamy over divorce – despite the fact that such offenses were technically illegal, even worthy of death?6
So now tell me, what percentage of contemporary Lutheran leaders do you think are willing to make such bold statements and such bold acts around sex, sexuality, and relationships?
Similarly, remember that earlier quote about chasing away the Devil “with a fart?” Well, it actually comes from an extended reflection – one of many in Table Talk – where Luther shares his thoughts on dealing with depression. If you feel like this, you “ought to be very careful not to be alone, for God created the fellowship of the church and commanded brotherliness” as a way to help you.7 In a similar passage he shares that God personally “hate[s]” depression because “it is destructive to the body,” and that when we feel the darkness winning, to remind ourselves that God’s love and support is constant and secure.8 Even on such a controversial topic as suicide, Luther defied common convention, saying that people who took such drastic measures to escape suffering were not damned, but rather “overcome by the power of the devil… like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber,” and should not be shamed in death.9 Luther’s entire oeuvre is littered with such painfully frank discussions of life’s most intractable quandaries, and does so with an honesty and intensity that would make many, if not most, Lutherans squirm with discomfort and confusion.
And there-in lies my own observation and critique of many Lutherans on this matter.
Because when you really start to read him you soon see that his brusque assessment and diagnosis of the world’s ills is not some playful and innocuous protest of churchly stuffiness – as it is often presented. Rather, his willingness to baldly defy convention through unvarnished observation and decisive action is central to his Christian being and praxis – not only as a theologian, but also as a pastor and a human being. And his predilection to disrupt how we do church wasn’t just because he liked to rile feathers, but rather because he understood that this disruption was necessary in order to dispel the self-delusion and prudery that so often undermines the work of the Gospel and saps the vitality of the Church.
Like my title suggests, his ‘table talk’ didn’t stay just table talk – but found its way into church reform and revitalization that is as remarkable now as it was back in the early 16th century.
These thoughts have been weighing especially heavy on me these days as I travel the country in my capacity as the Convener of #decolonizeLutheranism – a group of insurgent Lutherans dedicated to making our churches places of genuine welcome and understanding. And just as Luther hesitated to violently rattle the then-pillars of church and community, I wonder what would happen if today’s church leadership would use similarly reliable boldness when confronting today’s problems; pushing their communities to accept the people of color in their neighborhoods and in their midst; embracing parishioners with disabilities as having a unique voice, not as a cause for charity; screaming bloody murder that women make up less than 19% of all senior pastors and less than 15% of all bishops despite being 35% of those ordained to word and sacrament in our church – and this after more than 40 years of having women ordained in Lutheran congregations across the United States.
See where I’m going with this?
For Luther, flawed-but-filled with the power of God, forever testified to what God’s love had done for and to him, and that love gave him the persistence necessary to incite the church to change – dynamically, impatiently, scandalously, and passionately. We do Lutheranism a horrible dis-service if we reduce Brother Martin’s fire for social iconoclasm and religious reform to a funny anecdote or a fart joke, as opposed to seeing it as it truly is – a challenge and inspiration for how we live our call to ministry, and how the church is always at its best when these fires of death and rebirth burn ever hot. Only then may genuine reform and renewal happen in our communities. Only then will all of the ubiquitous talk of the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation in the US have more than self-congratulatory meaning – not when we use it as an facile excuse to make Lena and Ole jokes and reminisce about Norwegian sweaters and Luther League, but as a reminder that no matter how glorious the changes have been, there is still so much work to do.
And that the love of God will be there with us every step of the way!
What’s more, it’s fair to say that if Luther put his full faith and power into being a witness for Grace – and subsequently changed the world – surely God will do the same through us when we “go and do likewise” where we live (Luke 10:37). Luther lived big, laughed big, and messed-up big too (anti-Semitism and the Peasant War, anyone?), but by doing so released the power of God among hundreds of thousands throughout Europe, and then later millions throughout the world. Surely God will do the same for us, too?
This is most certainly true!
- ^Martin Luther, Table Talk, (Fortress Press and Concordia: Minneapolis, MN. 1957), 16.
- ^ Ibid., 20.
- ^Ibid., 16.
- ^Martin Luther, Table Talk, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1955. 324.
- ^Martin Luther, Three Treatises, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1970), 234.
- ^Eric Gritsch, A History of Lutheranism – Second Edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 75.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^Ibid., 75.
- ^Table Talk. 29.