This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses. In Wittenberg, Germany, there is a National Special Exhibit on “Luther! 95 People—95 Treasures” from May to November 2017. Organized by the Luther Heritage Sites Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, the exhibit seeks to follow “the young Luther on his path to the Reformation and highlights the significance of his impact on people from the 16th century to the present day.”
Among the 95 people are Johann Sabastian Bach and Martin Luther King, Jr. The national exhibit received 4 million euros in funding from local and state sources.
How did I end up in this exhibit as I am not Lutheran and have never published anything on Luther or the 95 theses?
Thus, I was surprised when I received an email in April 2016 from Dr. Benjamin Hasselhorn, curator of the national exhibit, saying that he wanted to include me in the exhibit. He was interested in my work on the Occupy Movement, a movement which he regarded as “bringing together. . .the central tenets of Christian belief and the call for a more equitable and humane society.”
“What is the relationship between the Occupy Movement and Luther?” one may ask. Hasselhorn explained, the Occupy Movement was “the embodiment and representation of an idea that was similarly of great importance to Luther: that charity and love should stand firmly at the core of religion as opposed to an institution or the protection thereof.”
I still had doubts, for the Occupy Movement was a leaderless movement and no one single individual could represent the grassroots effort. Time magazine named “the protester” as Person of the Year in 2011, instead of choosing a particular individual.
But Dr. Hasselhorn explained that the exhibit wants to explore Luther’s legacy in a personal approach and it would be difficult to include the Occupy Movement as a whole as people participated in it had different orientations and faith traditions. He was interested in my approach to the Occupy Movement from a theological perspective.
With Joerg Rieger, I have written Occupy Religion: A Theology of the Multitude—the first theological reflection on the movement. I also provided comments and feedback for the editors of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, a continuation of the Occupy Central Movement 佔領中環in the fall of 2014. I am a pioneer of postcolonial theology and my theological reflection on the Occupy Movement is part of my overall work.
Dr. Hasselhorn asked me for an artefact to represent the Occupy Movement. I thought of a yellow umbrella that a friend from Hong Kong gave me as a gift. Protestors used umbrellas to protect themselves against the police’s use of teargas and pepper spray. When I sent Dr. Hasselhorn pictures of the umbrella, he said it would be perfect for the exhibit. It has the words: “A dreamer, but I’m not the only one” on it!
Since I was included in the exhibit, I began to think more about the legacy of Luther and Reformation. So when the editor of the Ecumenical Review invited me to contribute an essay to a special issue that marks the 500th anniversary, I said yes. My essay “Reformation Unfinished: Economy, Inclusivity, and Authority” will appear later this year.
Martin Luther lived during the emergence of early capitalism in Europe. Max Weber has written about the relationship between Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism. During the peasants’ revolt, Luther did not support the protesters and called upon the German nobility to suppress them. In our time, Luther possibly would not stay in the Occupy campsites and I don’t know if he would support the Occupiers. But he did support charity and provision for the poor. This is what the Lutherans call faith begetting charity.
Luther’s idea of priesthood of all believers was really radical in his time. He argued that the clergy and laity did not belong to two different estates. He surmised that there is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, except that of office and work. He wrote, “We are all priests, as many of us as are Christians.”
But full inclusivity in the church still has a long road to go. Some denominations still do not allow the ordination of women and GLBTQ persons. The feminist movement has challenged the church to accept full equality and ministry of women. The full acceptance of GLBTQ persons has been a painful and tortuous journey, leading to separation and division in some denominations. As the mainline churches experience decline in membership, the emergent church movement has called for greater participation and leadership of lay people.
Luther emphasized the authority of the Bible over against the authority of the pope and the traditions. While the Bible has been used to support liberation movements, it has also been misused as a symbol of cultural superiority. A literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible has reinforced conservative attitudes toward women and GLBTQ people.
Christian communities have to live out the vision of priesthood of all believers and develop models of interpreting scriptures and authority in participatory ways. The church needs to find new ways of being church. Do we need a new reformation?