Kittredge: Luther’s Legacy

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(Host) As Halloween approaches, commentator Susan Cooke Kittredge reflects on its religious foundations and Martin Luther’s choice of that day to take a stand of protest and proclamation.

(Kittredge) Next Tuesday is All Saint’s Day. In Medieval England it was a day to remember those who were “hallowed,” honored as holy, revered and sanctified, most notably, the leaders of the Church. The night before All Saint’s Day was celebrated in the festival of All Hallow’s Eve; we call it Halloween.

494 years ago, on All Hallow’s Eve, a young, wiry man named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five proclamations, or theses, to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, protesting the importance placed on All Saint’s Day by a corrupted Church. He chose October 31st with great intention; and what came from the tap of his hammer was no less than the Protestant Reformation; that day is known as Reformation Day in the Protestant tradition. Luther was specifically objecting to the Church’s practice of granting indulgences: a system whereby, in exchange for generous donations to the Church, eternal salvation was sold to individuals. In the sixteenth century, crusades, cathedrals and clerical finery were paid for by the money collected from selling indulgences.

The impetus for Luther’s action was not his fury at the growing decadence of the Church, though it repulsed him, but his faith in God. He was a tormented soul striving for redemption and clarity. He lead a monastic life, he obeyed every order, observed every statute, fasted to the brink of starvation, but felt that he could not rid himself of sin. What he came to believe finally was that it is not what we do, but what God has done for us that is important. It was a radical way of seeing God; and, though Luther was not calling for a reformation, that’s what happened. His vision, his spirit, re-formed, in the true sense of the word, the way people came to see their relationship with God: as one based on grace and gratitude rather than a metered system of action and reward.

Like Luther, those occupying Wall Street and demonstrating around the world are protesting what they see as corrupt practices by those in power. Luther objected to indulgences, and the protesters on Wall Street rail against the indulgent, greedy behavior of the reigning financial monarchy.

At the heart of the Occupation protests is not only a stance against corruption but a call for the reformation of our country’s economic and political structure. It’s based on the belief that equality of opportunity, access and justice belong to all people. In this case it is access to government, services and opportunity; in Luther’s case it was access to God.

As Reformation Day approaches next Monday, it’s worth thinking about what we as human beings, citizens of the United States and individuals might reform in our own lives and how we might go about it. Non-violent protests, teach-ins, political engagement all have great merit. But, as Luther knew so well, it takes concerted reflection, prayer and faith to change behaviors, hearts and lives. It also takes the inspiration of the saints, wherever we may find them.

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