The sound of hammer hitting nail continues to reverberate through imaginations five hundred years after it ceased echoing through Wittenberg. On this day, five centuries ago, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses and, so the story goes, began the Protestant Reformation. It is a moment that has been captured in art, drama, and film many times through those years—yet often it is remembered more as a symbol of the larger moment than as a particular historical event.
Admittedly, it is a captivating image: a lone, solemn man standing at the door of a medieval church, angrily nailing his list of grievances to a building that symbolizes to many the very thing he was criticizing. As a symbol, it is often used to suggest an underdog fighting a corrupt establishment, or a rebel taking a stand on conscience, or perhaps even a revolutionary bringing about a better system. Perhaps more than anything else, though, it evokes a sense of righteous indignation.
Righteous indignation is one thing our culture seems to agree upon these days, and so it is no surprise we would love to imagine a great moment of history so rich with it. Were Luther posting his theses today, we might expect him to use Twitter, or at least for the theses to quickly go viral. Social media has proven to be a prime venue for righteous indignation, surely better even than a church door was for Luther’s day. It’s not hard to find stories of people being fired because of Twitter controversies they started or which were started about them, stories of righteous indignation which can turn so easily to mob justice. As politics becomes more and more polarized, it’s hard to imagine an end in sight for the torch-and-pitchfork approach to social media or for the indignation both producing and produced by it.
And no wonder: Righteous indignation is a cheap high, and it seems to be one of the drugs of choice today, across generations. How satisfying is it to feel entirely right and just in one’s positions and to look down at the fool who just doesn’t get it, who is too blind or misguided or out of touch with reality to see how wrong they are? And righteous indignation allows you to look down on a person no matter how high up they are: I’ve seen it in different friends and family for the last four Presidents—and felt it myself towards all four, if I’m honest.
Yet before we are too quick to make Martin Luther the patron saint of righteous indignation, we might take a second look at that October morning. Whenever this event comes up in conversation, I love to ask people if they have read the ninety-five theses. In my experience, many have not, and I think often people would be disappointed if they did. Because of how much we lionize the moment, I think we expect searing critiques, direct assaults on the Pope and hierarchy, and a call for a whole new way of doing things (perhaps we can even imagine cries for democracy in the Church).
Here are just a few of the theses chosen at random:
“9. Accordingly, the Holy Spirit, acting in the person of the pope, manifests grace to us, by the fact that the papal regulations always cease to apply at death, or in any hard case.
22. Indeed, [the Pope] cannot remit to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be suffered in the present life.
87. Again: What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect penitence, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?
94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.”
Not exactly sick Twitter burns.
Nor are they particularly savage attacks on the hierarchy or the majority of Catholic practices. In fact, these propositions seem far more like sentences you would find in an academic or even committee document within a university or policy-making body. And here we find the balloon-popping truth about the ninety-five theses: their posting may not have been such a rich moment of righteous indignation and revolution. In Luther’s day, a theologian could do as he did to start a conversation—a disputation—over aspects of Church teaching and practices; it may have made him enemies, but it was not a rare occurrence.
Would Luther have felt some righteous indignation in his posting? I think it likely. Does this seem to be the driving force or the tone of his thoughts? Not at this point. That would come later. We seem to be premature in our celebration of the 500 th anniversary of the Reformation: it was not Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, but his refusal to submit to papal authority and his burning of the papal bull in 1520 that made his break with the Church official. Until that point, he was in a theological disputation within the Church of which he was an active member—something for which the Church always has room.
So why do we continue to remember Luther at the church door as the pivotal moment, and why do we build it up so much? For many reasons, I’m sure, but I’d guess at three worth reflection. First, because we love to lionize single dramatic moments of conflict and I think we Americans especially love criticisms of authority—and this moment is easily turned into that. This brings me to my second thought: we tend to simplify history, and to let later events reshape our understanding of earlier ones. We see Luther in 1517 through the lens of the whole Reformation which followed. Finally, I think it’s easier to latch on to this moment because Luther’s target hasn’t responded yet. By the time we get to 1520, it’s messy; both Luther and the churchmen who opposed him have had opportunities to mess up, go wrong, and hurt people. Righteous indignation is much easier before you have to see the face and recognize the humanity of your
target—and before you have a chance to say or do something stupid yourself.
By the end of his life, anger had come to be a hallmark of Luther, and to his own detriment. Yet perhaps when we remember the ninety-five theses today, we can remember them not as a moment of righteous indignation and self-satisfied criticism of authority. Maybe we can remember them as a call for dialogue and as a warning to the lasting harm that is caused when either side moves too quickly to righteous indignation.
Reform in the Western Christian tradition is two-fold: we look back to special moments of divine grace, but we also look forward to what God will continue to do. True reform also demands more than just a grievance or criticism. It requires a positive vision, an idea of what our Church or society ought to be. But most of all, as we consider our history today, let us remember that all Christian reform starts less with righteous indignation than with our own conversion, our own need for reform. If we remember that, perhaps we can learn to have the kind of substantive dialogue that Luther tried to start five centuries ago.