As a junior at Morehouse College, I was first introduced to a German monk by the name of Martin Luther in Roland Bainton's autobiography Here I Stand. I was enthralled by his volatile stand against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.
The day was All Hallow's Eve, the precursor to what we celebrate as Halloween. Luther knew that on this day the villagers, students and fellow college faculty would file through those church doors for a special mass and that, while entering, some would stop to read his pastoral thoughts on problems in the church at large. Luther wasn't the first to post things in this manner. Back then, church doors were commonly used as community bulletin board of sorts.
October 31st will be the 495th anniversary of Luther's posting his 95 Theses on the doors of Wittenberg's Castle Church, and event that sparked what we know as the Protestant Reformation. But at the genesis of this history-shaping, Jesus-focused revolution was one man, one pastor who simply saw something wrong and offered a solution. He was a man who believed that every once in a while; something is so bad that you simply can't stay silent. Sometimes you have to speak up. As Martin Luther King, Jr. affirms that "Cowardice asks the question 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question 'Is it political?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right."
For Luther as found in the 95 Theses it was on the issue of indulgences. Church officials sold indulgences, claiming they set sinful souls free from purgatory and into the arms of Christ, and used the money to build fancy digs such as St. Peter's basilica. Luther's convictions reinforced with his Lectures on Psalms and Lectures on Romans developed his emerging theology that was articulated in the 95 Theses.
I do believe that the true gospel for Luther and motivation for his stance was this: We're too broken and messed up to stand in God's presence, but God makes us worthy to walk in his love. We're weak and unable to do what's right, but God, in God's goodness, provided us with power. We don't deserve such gifts, yet God showers us in grace. Most of all, none of it can be earned. Therefore, Christ has claimed it for us through his death on the cross. God does all the work. We reap all the reward, and Jesus gets every ounce of the glory. Salvation is ours, to receive, but it isn't ours to earn. Sola fide. By faith alone. Our right standing with God as members of his family is given to us as a gift; we are passive receivers, not active earners. Later, in his work on the book of Romans, Luther writes: "Faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace so sure and certain that the believer would stake his/her life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God's grace makes humanity glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all other creatures....without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him his grace."
Legacy of Martin Luther and African Descent Traditions of Faith
That the faith of our heritage and in God to endure the Middle Passage, the invisible institution of slavery, Jim Crow Laws and present day oppression has sustained us. This experience of faith has not only sustained us or those who are considered of African descent but also those who are Native Americans, Spanish-speaking people, and women, have had this experience. We must affirm that speaking the truth can land us in trouble.
Just as Martin Luther after posting his list on the door of his local church and had to appear at hearings and give numerous accounts of all he believed. The pressure weighed on Luther who -- at the Diet of Worms in 1521 -- was told to recant his teachings or face the prospect of death. This was his response: "Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Luther's refusal resulted in his excommunication. He was forced to live in hiding, under the condemnation of popes and emperors, as well as the constant threat of execution at the stake.
But a funny thing happens when you stand up and speak the truth. Even if people in charge don't agree, the rest of the world standing near you still hears it. They can believe it. They can join you in sharing it and fighting for it. That's exactly what happened with Martin Luther. Others saw the message he'd rediscovered in the Scriptures and the abuses he noted in the church. Suddenly, what started with a lengthy note from one pastor to a powerful pope became a massive movement championing the message of grace.
Though in hiding for most of his remaining years, Luther kept on writing. He saw to it that the truth of Christ made its way into the hands and hearts of everyday people. He went on to translate the entire Bible into German and coordinated a German-language mass, both firsts. His greatest joy was the completion of a catechism -- an overview of Christian doctrine and life -- that was intended to help fathers teach the basics of following Jesus to their children. That same catechism, Luther and others would eventually take from house to house in an effort to personally pastor the people.
There are moments in life when you just have to speak up. There are certain moments, certain situations where you think, "I know someone might be mad or disagree, but I just have to say something!"
As African Descent communities of faith, may we welcome those moments when they arise in others. May we pray that those stances of leadership will be in the shaping of future prophetic leaders. May we be people who can't sit still in the face of injustice, error and oversight. Most of all may the unwavering confidence we have in God's grace drive us to do good, loving, selfless, joyous, Jesus-glorifying things. Let it free us to serve our neighbors, share our goods and, when necessary, speak our minds. Why? Because sometimes doing so can change the world.