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Martin Luther, Pacifist?

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

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The idea that you could associate the name “Martin Luther” with “pacifism” will come as a shock to most people, including most Lutherans. So let’s be up front about it: Luther would not qualify as a pacifist, plain and simple, by today’s definition. He strongly believed that God called certain people to certain public offices for the protection of the weak and innocent from harm, and those offices might well involve some violence in order to prevent even more violence. He called this “temporal authority” and not only theorized about it but at times also invoked it – and being that he was Martin Luther, the princes listened.

Unfortunately, when people today hear anything of Luther’s political philosophy at all, it’s only his views on temporal authority. And the exact nature of temporal authority à la Luther is explicated by his “two kingdoms doctrine”: God reigns in the right-hand kingdom through the church, in the left-hand kingdom through the state, and ne’er the twain shall meet – or so it’s said.

Again, this shorthand is not entirely false. Luther was dealing with a church that had acquired far too much civic power and abandoned far too many of its spiritual duties in the process. It’s no surprise he wanted the church to keep out of the way of the state.

Luther was dealing with a church that had acquired far too much civic power and abandoned far too many of its spiritual duties in the process.

But Luther’s distinction, in time, turned into an absolute division – which gave license for Christian acceptance of the state’s ever-increasing power. In some of the countries influenced by Luther’s legacy the results of this are horrifying – from the execution of Anabaptists in the sixteenth century to collaboration with Nazis in the twentieth.

Frankly, it’s hard to see how Christians could resist the absolute pretensions of the state if temporal authority and the two kingdoms were the whole story, politically speaking. But that definitely isn’t the whole story where Luther is concerned.

So in this anniversary year of the Reformation, when the world’s escalating violence needs faithful Christian correctives more than ever, it’s time to mute the overplayed aspects of Luther’s political philosophy and in their place resurrect his call to radical personal pacifism and civil disobedience.

Like many Christian pacifists, Luther began with the Sermon on the Mount, especially Jesus’ instructions: “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39) and “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Medieval Christianity took these, along with much of the rest of the Sermon, to be “counsels of perfection” – optional exercises in sanctity for the especially virtuous, particularly monastics. Ordinary Christians were exempt; it was just too hard.

Luther protested vigorously. Every single Christian without exception is called to suffer as suffering comes, without revenge, without even self-defense. In fact, Luther assumed that true Christians wouldn’t even pursue justice when they were mistreated, but would take all things as God’s providence for the ultimate good, even if it seemed to be hiding under a mask of evil. Only the most mature Christians with long practice of patiently enduring evil were ready to pursue justice – and then, not for their own sake, but in hopes of recalling the perpetrator to repentance and salvation. “In what concerns you and yours,” Luther wrote, “you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice toward yourself as a true Christian.”footnote

This basic insight shaped Luther’s advice to the powers of his day. He has often been criticized for how he handled the Peasants’ War, when Saxon farmers rose up in rebellion against their oppressive overlords, but his initial concern was not whether their cause was valid – it was, he thought, and he berated the lords for their abuse of the peasants – but that the peasants invoked a Christian right to rebellion. Your cause might be just, Luther conceded, but it is not Christian to resort to violence in your own cause.

Instead, Luther argued, “Christ says that we should not resist evil or injustice but always yield, suffer, and let things be taken from us. If you will not bear this law, then lay aside the name of Christian and claim another name that accords with your actions, or else Christ himself will tear his name away from you, and that will be too hard for you.”footnote If you engage in violence, you lose the right to call yourself Christian.

Even more controversially, Luther denied the Christian right to fight against the Turks, whose armies were drawing closer and closer to the Holy Roman Empire. Luther granted that the emperor and princes were obligated by their office to protect their subjects by means of the sword – though only in self-defense, only if there was a good chance of winning quickly, and with full awareness of the danger to their own souls in authorizing such violence.

But it was wicked, Luther insisted, when the military leaders would “fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ. This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name. It is against his doctrine because he says that Christians shall not resist evil, fight, or quarrel, nor take revenge or insist on rights (Matt. 5:39).”footnote

To put it another way: for Luther, pacifism is simply the exercise of the Christian life. It is the continual death of self-will. It is the crucifixion of the old Adam who cannot help but always look out for his own interests. It is accepting the impossibility of being the judges in our own cases and submitting ourselves to God’s righteous, gracious judgment instead. Radical pacifism and radical trust in providence go hand in hand.

Is a Christian, then, to be a limp rag in the face of evil, a passive collaborator if not an active one? This points us toward the counterpart of Luther’s pacifism, which is conscientious disobedience. But there’s an interim step first: prayer and repentance.

Radical pacifism and radical trust in providence go hand in hand.

Again, for Luther, this is an expression of faith in God’s providence. In matters great and small, we are to take the log out of our own eye before going after the speck in our neighbors’, or even our enemies’ eye. Threatened or actual evil must prompt self-examination first of all, confession of sin to God, and prayer for deliverance. God will do what is right.

“Christians do not fight for themselves with sword and musket,” Luther writes, “but with the cross and with suffering, just as Christ, our leader, does not bear a sword, but hangs on the cross. Your victory, therefore, does not consist in conquering and reigning, or in the use of force, but in defeat and in weakness.”footnote

And yes, God may grant the victory to your enemy. You may lose your goods, your home, or even your life. So did the people of Israel; so did the Son of God. Suffering is not proof of God’s abandonment. On the contrary, sometimes it is proof of God’s love.

Armed with prayer and repentance, Christians may need to take a stand on a larger stage. They are enjoined by Romans 13 to obey the ruling authorities, but what if they are commanded by the state (or God forbid, the church) to do what is evil?

Luther still denies the right to a violent solution. But he doesn’t advocate collusion in its place. “Outrage is not to be resisted but endured,” he says, “yet we should not sanction it, or lift a little finger to conform, or obey.”footnote If a government does wrong – for instance, inciting a war of aggression – then the people are released from their bond of obedience. They should defy their government. To justify such disobedience, Luther invokes Acts 5:29: “[I]t is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men.”footnote

Christians thus have the right, even the duty, to disobey if they are commanded to do evil. They can’t sacrifice their consciences on this score; they can’t plead obedience to temporal authorities before the throne of God. They must refrain from evil, even if that involves civil disobedience.

Christians thus have the right, even the duty, to disobey if they are commanded to do evil.

In the 1530 Augsburg Confession, which became the “charter document” of the Lutheran churches, Philip Melanchthon declared that Christians are “obliged to be subject to political authority and to obey its commands and laws in all that may be done without sin. But if a command of the political authority cannot be followed without sin, one must obey God rather than any human beings (Acts 5:29).”footnote Melanchthon later “apologized” that the Wittenberg party could not reach an agreement with the emperor because the conditions of peace were at odds with the gospel and, again, they must obey God rather than men.footnote If they had to suffer for their disobedience, they were ready.

Unfortunately, Luther, Melanchthon, and their colleagues didn’t always follow their own advice. Almost before they knew what was happening, the princes and electors and other political leaders weighed in on Reformation debates, sometimes out of personal conviction and sometimes out of opportunism. What started as an academic debate on the validity of indulgences erupted into a pan-European brawl.

Luther’s pacifism evaporated when he lost confidence in God’s providence. At times he feared that the survival of the gospel depended on the princes’ armies, or that the sword could solve the problem of people who interpreted the gospel differently. These are terrible blights on Luther’s legacy, appropriately confessed as sin by his heirs today, as for example in the Lutheran-Mennonite reconciliation in 2010.

But, as is so often the case with historical errors, Luther’s are instructive: if you are going to attempt pacifism, the first step is to commit yourself utterly to God’s providence. Beware of the violence that will erupt the moment you stray from providence’s hidden course through history.

For all his failures to live it out, the core commitments to God’s providence, personal pacifism, critiquing and warning those in public office, and commending civil disobedience in the face of evil stayed the course in Luther’s theology all the way to the end. These themes resound throughout Luther’s lectures on Genesis, which took up the last ten years of his life.

For example, in 1542, just four years before his death, Luther pondered how to deal with the obedience commanded by the Second Table of the law (toward parents, authorities, spouses, and so on) if it comes into conflict with the First Table’s command to worship God alone. “There are degrees of rendering obedience,” he observed, “and careful regard for them must be maintained. For if the First and Second Table come into conflict, the simple and correct method is that by which the Second is ordered to yield to the First, for God is the Creator, the Head, and the Lord of father and mother, the state, and the home.”footnote

Five hundred years after the Reformation, the same tendencies toward violence, revenge, and intolerance continue to fester and erupt around the world – and the weapons at hand are that much more deadly. Many persons and powers command our obedience, and we will not cease to have governments, armies, or police forces any time soon. But we can imagine generals and commanders-in-chief who would rather lay down their lives than take another’s; we can imagine senators and judges who would rather disobey publicly than collude with unjust laws.

Prayer, repentance, and the mercy of God can get us there. And surprisingly enough, even Martin Luther might turn out to offer some help along the way.

stone statue of Martin Luther

Footnotes

  1. Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” in Luther's Works, American Edition, 55 vols., eds. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.) [hereafter cited as LW], 45:96.
  2. “Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia,” LW 46:28–29.
  3. “On War against the Turk,” LW 46:165.
  4. “Admonition to Peace,” LW 46:32.
  5. “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:112.
  6. “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:125.
  7. Philip Melanchthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) [hereafter cited as BC], 50.6–7, Latin text.
  8. Philip Melanchthon, “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” BC 294.24.
  9. “Lectures on Genesis,” LW 6:27.
Contributed By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson Sarah Hinlicky Wilson

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a Visiting Professor of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the Editor of Lutheran Forum. She lives with her family in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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