Welcome to the Crawl
Welcome to Theology Crawl! This year, we are meeting online to really try and unpack one big question…”How the heck did we get here?” 2020 has been a year of reckoning on a lot of fronts, and we want to take time to discuss how God-talk has often contributed to the many problems we are facing, and how better theology might help us navigate our way out.
This week, we are talking about how Christian theology has been used to squelch resistance to abuses by governing authorities, and how the prophetic tradition might help us new ways to resist and protest injustice. Before you start, make sure someone gives The Spiel to your group.
HISTORY: MARTIN LUTHER’S AGAINST THE ROBBING AND MURDERING HORDES OF PEASANTS
Beginning in 1524, the Peasant War was the result of radical social upheaval and new spiritual ideas which combined to combat the abuses of the feudal system. Over the next two years, protests, riots, and battles covered the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire, as peasants joined forces to declare “that we are and that we want to be free.” While Luther’s radical ideas helped fuel the fire, by May 1925 he had enough and wrote Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. In this document, Luther rebuked the peasants and laid out a quick theology that explained why radical opposition to governing authorities was a “terrible sin.”
The peasants have taken on themselves the burden of three terrible sins against God and man, by which they have abundantly merited death in body and soul.
In the first place they have sworn to be true and faithful, submissive and obedient, to their rulers, as Christ commands, when he says, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’ and in Romans 13, ‘Let everyone be subject unto the higher powers.’ Because they are breaking this obedience, and are setting themselves against the higher powers, willfully and with violence, they have forfeited body and soul, as faithless, perjured, lying, disobedient knaves and scoundrels are wont to do. St. Paul passed this judgement on them in Romans 13 when he said, that they who resist the power will bring a judgement upon themselves. This saying will smite the peasants sooner or later, for it is God’s will that faith be kept and duty done.
In the second place, they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. …
In the third place, they cloak this terrible and horrible sin with the Gospel, call themselves ‘Christian brethren’, receive oaths and homage, and compel people to hold with them to these abominations. Thus they become the greatest of all blasphemers of God and slanderers of his holy Name, serving the devil, under the outward appearance of the Gospel, thus earning death in body and soul ten times over. I have never heard of a more hideous sin. …
THE MAIN QUESTIONS
Historical / Theological Questions
Do you agree with Luther’s first claim that revolting peasants are bringing judgement upon themselves by opposing the governing authorities? Do you agree with his use of Scripture? Why or why not?
Do you agree with Luther’s second claim that anyone who incites violent rebellion against a governing authority “is outside the law of God and Empire” and thus worthy of death? Why or why not?
Do you agree with Luther’s third claim that by “cloaking” violent resistance with Gospel language that the peasants were committing a grievous sin? Why or why not?
Do you see any of the ideas Luther espouses at work in contemporary responses to civil unrest, protests, or riots? If yes, how so? If no, describe what you see.
How would you describe the role of a prophet?
Read the section below (“Theological Concept”). What do you think of Heschel’s description of the prophet? How does it differ/relate to your definition of a prophet?
How do you think Heschel would respond to Luther’s argument in the above section?
Have you seen Heschel’s sort of prophetic burden at work in the church? If so, where? If not, why do you think that is?
From a prophetic standpoint, is violence ever justifiable in responding to egregious abuses of governing authorities? Do you agree or disagree with this view?
THEOLOGICAL CONCEPTS: HeSCHEL ON THE PROPHETS
Abraham Heschel was a leading Jewish philosopher, theologian, and civil rights activist in the latter half of the twentieth century. His expanded dissertation on the Hebrew prophets remains required reading for the study of prophetic theology. Taken from this work, Heschel describes the burden of the prophet.
We and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us life is often serene, in the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion. The prophet makes no concession to man’s capacity. Exhibiting little understanding for human weakness, he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man. Who could bear living in a state of disgust day and night? The conscience builds its confines, is subject to fatigue, longs for comfort, lulling, soothing. Vet those who are hurt, and He Who inhabits eternity, neither slumber nor sleep.
- Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. // Romans 13:1-4
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. // Matthew 5:9
- Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. // 1 Peter 3:9
- Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. // Mark 12:17
- For the kingdom is the Lord’s / And He rules over the nations // Psalm 22:28
- Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. // 1 Peter 2:13-15
THOUGHTS FROM OTHERS
- The gospel of Jesus is not a rational concept to be explained in a theory of salvation, but a story about God’s presence in Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed, which led to his death on the cross. What is redemptive is the faith that God snatches victory out of defeat, life out of death, and hope out of despair. // James Cone
- The denunciation of injustice implies the rejection of the use of Christianity to legitimize the established order. // Gustavo Gutiérrez
- But [Christians] never render to any authority under God absolute allegiance. We never give unlimited, unconditional obedience. We never say, “I submit to you because you are my final authority.” We always do it for Christ’s sake, which turns our obedience to human authorities into worship to God. // John Piper
- The shift to a general attitude of ‘toughness’ toward problems associated with communities of color began in the 1960s, when the gains and goals of the Civil Rights movement began to require real sacrifices on the part of white Americans, and conservative politicians found they could mobilize white racial resentment by vowing to crack down on crime. // Michelle Alexander
- We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. // Elie Wiesel
- The government has interpreted the peacefulness of the movement as a weakness: the people’s non-violent policies have been taken as a green light for government violence. Refusal to resort to force has been interpreted by the government as an invitation. // Nelson Mandela
- Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. // Martin Luther King Jr.
- Book: The Prophets // Abraham Heschel
- Treatise: Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants // Martin Luther
- Podcast: A Theology of Protest // Missio Alliance
- Article: The Theology of Riot // Jim Coppoc