A message from Martin Luther 500 years on

What is the link between social media and Easter? Don’t we live in a secular society now? Isn’t Easter just a paid holiday from work?

The answer is that six months from now will come the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous, and fabled, nailing of “theses” to a church door which sparked a revolution — via the still newish medium of printing.

Luther’s door-notice proposed a seminar on the church’s sale of “indulgences” which, for a price, allegedly got people more quickly into heaven through purgatory, where one purged one’s earthly sins. Luther, citing Augustine of Hippo, reckoned that the decision on where one went after death and how quickly was for God alone.

This was a wrathful God, angry at humans’ disobedience, but also a merciful God, redeeming chosen repentants through Jesus Christ. The church had interposed as intermediary and the cash fed the clergy better.

Luther’s seminar didn’t happen. But that was not the end of the matter.

At the time upstart communities of friars such as the Dominicans and Franciscans had church bigwigs fearing they might lose control. They turned on Luther and demanded obedience.

As often in such circumstances, which some autocrats learn the hard way, this was a counterproductive overreaction.

A stubborn sort, Luther instead expanded his inquiry into the clergy’s other ungodly activities.

Working with an artist friend and writing in straightforward language, he published short pamphlets with jazzy front pages questioning aspects of doctrine.

These quickly caught on. They were bought and read, then read out to others — an early sort of social media.

The result was fast popular ferment. In today’s parlance, we might say Luther went viral.

When church authorities legislated to try to supress support for Luther, some German rulers objected. These “protesters” and their followers spread what became Protestantism. Then came the Reformation and a widening variety of dissident sects, including those seeded by John Calvin.

The hitherto catholic, meaning universal, church became the Roman Catholic church — that is, not any more truly catholic, just a sect centred on the Pope in Rome.

Ironically, Luther’s version of Christianity and its derivatives led many to doctrines as narrow as, or narrower than, what he protested against.

So what? The eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its logic of personal liberty led our sorts of societies over time out of such narrow thinking. By the mid-twentieth century churchgoers were much less likely to sit mute in a pew deferring to an all-knowing minister in the pulpit. And by the late twentieth century few went often to church.

But the core values of Christianity still underpin national values. That is, you can take the New Zealander out of Christianity but you cannot take Christianity out of the (true) New Zealander. At some fundamental, even if little acknowledged, level Easter still is more than chocolate bunnies, marshmallow eggs and hot-cross buns.

And 500 years on, there is a timeless message in Luther’s gruff challenge to rigid doctrine.

Politicians and many of those who serve politicians — the rulers of our time — can readily slide from open-minded observation and evidence into doctrine. Ideas can degrade into ideology. Ideology is easierthan rethinking.

Ideology works for a time — but not at historical turning points. Then those running the show can find themselves blindsided.

That was the case for the church authorities in the decades after Luther’s protest. It took a century and a-quarter till the peace of Westphalia to settle Europe down from resultant sectarian conflicts.

Fast-forward to now. Over the three decades since the radical economic deregulation of the 1980s, policy that originated from intellectual analysis of economic imbalances has increasingly come to resemble doctrine, notably, as indicated here last week, in monetary policy.

It is a doctrine from which a few benefit handsomely, the middle gets by and a large swathe of people are trapped in indigence. Think ultra-low interest rates and high house prices and rents, for example.

A modern Luther might nail “theses” to a Facebook page or blog or tweet demanding an end to an arrangement that privileges a few and offends public decency.

And if, as 500 years ago, this modern Luther were to apply ingenious design, clear messages and new technology to spread a message fast and wide, the doctrine might suddenly be overturned — a twenty-first-century Reformation.

This could then take one of two courses.

One is what is going on in rich northern democracies, a descent into populism or populist-distorted policies defensively adopted by established parties.

The other is a rethink from first principles by cooler minds responding sensibly to 2010s conditions that are very different in many ways from the 1980s — a rethink that leads not to schisms and conflict but a constructive 2020s future.

The second is much harder to do. As Europe found 500 years back.