Putting the Protest Back in Protestant

This weekend, as many celebrate Halloween, some Christians will remember another holiday—one that marks the Protestant Reformation.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of salvation and sacraments, thus initiating the religious movement that became known as Protestantism.  On the Sunday before October 31, Lutherans (and some Presbyterians and Congregationalists) recall these events in worship.

Although the United States was a solid majority Protestant nation for most of its history, Protestantism has fallen on hard times of late.  The once commanding 2/3 Protestant majority has slipped to a bare 50% of the population, with many who are part of Protestant churches unsure of the meaning of the word, the origin of their traditions, or the basic insights of Protestant theology.  Many people eschew the term itself, favoring more generic religious language to describe their faith, wondering if a 500-year old argument about Catholic theology and the Bible has anything to do with today’s world.

It strikes me as interesting that those who followed the teaching of the new reform movement did not come to be known as “Reformists,” rather the moniker that stuck was “Protestant.”  Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression.  These religious protesters accused the church of their day of being too rich, too political, in thrall to kings and princes, having sold its soul to the powerful.  The original Protestants preached, taught, and argued for freedom—spiritual, economic, and political—and for God’s justice to be embodied in the church and the world.

It is time to put the protest back in Protestantism.

The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually.  The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.  Protestants were not content with the status quo.  They felt a deep discomfort within.  They knew things were not right.  And they set out to change the world.

In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion.  After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest?  Yourself?  Protestant success in the United States has always been a bit at odds with the primary impulse of the faith to resist convention in favor of challenging injustice.

Now, however, as part of a religious plurality and no longer the majority faith, Protestants can rediscover the courageous part of their identity too long hidden under a veneer of cultural success.

On this Reformation Day, Protestant churches would benefit by starting a church-based protest movement to challenge two things:  bad government and cruel capitalism.

First, for far too long, the secular argument about government has been “small” government versus “big” government.  Protestant theology, however, offers a completely different insight.  It isn’t the size of government that is problematic—the issue is whether government is good or bad.  Good government reflects the principles of neighborliness, creates a sense of common benefit, serves and listens to all of its people.  Bad government serves only itself or an elite, cut off from any idea of a common good, and works to maintain its interests instead of an ethical vision for society.  Protestants would do well to protest against bad government, and not simply take sides in a false argument between small and big government.  We need to protest for good government.

Second, we need to protest cruel capitalism—the sort of capitalism that is based on share-holder profits alone, the sort of capitalism that has flourished unchecked and unregulated in the last thirty years in the west, a deeply a-moral economic system that has destroyed untold lives in the process.  But, at the very same time, we can protest for a different sort of capitalism—a nurturing capitalism—a capitalism that recognizes the diversity of environmental, spiritual, social, communal, and intellectual capital as part of a universal economy of human flourishing.  What would it mean if financial capital were merely a small part of an interconnected web of capital that nurtured life for all instead of amassing resources for a few?  Protestants need to be protesting cruel capitalism while envisioning and working toward a deeper, more embracing vision of nurturing capitalism.

So, Protestant friends: the world needs you.  You are not only a quaint Lutheran church, quietly observing convention on the Great Plains.  You are the heirs of those who once took to the streets to bring about God’s reign here on earth.  You resisted oppression.  You stood for justice.   Do that again.  Please.  The world needs protesters.  Not just in Zuccoti Park.  But we need to hear the howls of protests against bad government and cruel capitalism from the pulpits and pews of every mainline church in this nation.  We need to hear you proclaim God’s dream of good government and a nurturing economy for all.  Go for it.  Make your ancestors proud.

  • Bonnie Boyce

    Excellent article!! I plan to use some of these insights for our Sunday morning Reformation service.


  • G Lake Dylan

    wonderful thoughts, spot on throughout!

  • http://www.prayingthegospels.com Paul W Meier

    Martin Luther’s Church Postil has some eye-opening quotations that we rarely hear from church hierarchy or scholars. It’s time to break them out. I’ve got some important ones listed on my website, http://www.prayingthegospels.com.

  • http://PoveyPrattle J. Michael Povey

    Thanks Diana

    This is good stuff. My (our?) Episcopal Church has been so obsessed with the dream of being Catholic that it has forgotten the need to be Protestant.

  • D. Redfield

    Amen sister! Thanks. I know the book will be great

  • J Ross “Dock” Hester, PA-CH

    The concept of recognizing and rewarding all types of “human capital” is interesting. The best of all possible worlds might find each individual’s unique talents and find for them occupations where they can be rewarded for doing what they do best. However, even this utopian scenario is likely to neglect the whims of desire and individuality [what you WANT] in favor of a Borg-like collectivization or “assimilation.” What if what you do best and most enjoy is trading shares of stock, pork belly futures, or gold coins. What if protesting against the established order [whatever it might be] is how you most enjoy spending your time? The beauty of a capitalist system that rewards various “human capital” traits by offering cash for value [whether your talent is singing, sewing, or shooting hoops] is that it gives each individual the ability to prepare themselves for and find occupations that they both enjoy and which are recognized and reimbursed as valuable to Society. By definition, you are thus also free to fail.

    Despite my having accomplished more of the latter myself, recently, I would not surrender that right for the sake of having a Nanny. One cannot know the true joy of victory without the possibility of the agony of defeat. On the other hand, collective systems imposed by many socialist governments often degenerate into their own form of cronyism where, as Orwell said, “All animals are created equal -but some are more equal than others”

  • Bruce Harold

    “Dock,” did the post mention the words Nanny, collectivism or utopian, or endorse these ideas?

    The question is, is the current system fair? Is money the equivalent of speech? Are corporations people? Should Warren Buffet pay a lower federal tax rate than his secretary? Should GE pay zero federal income tax? Should we fire teachers, police officers and fire fighters so that the Koch brothers can pay less in taxes? Should we imprison more people than any nation on earth? Do we intend to become a theocratic empire, rather than a democracy and a moral example to the world? Endorsing the ideas of liberty and justice for all (not just the wealthy and privileged), good government, and fair capitalism, and protesting the policies that subvert these ideas is what this post is about.

  • Wolfgang Stahlberg

    Very good Diana, I agree totally with the conclusions. Historically I think that Luther himself was on the wrong side in the war against the peasants, but fortunately there was Thomas Muentzer who got it.
    Can hardly wait to hear your sermon on Reformation Sunday!
    Anybody wants to come? Messiah Community Church ELCA in Denver, CO Sunday at 9:30

    • Robert White

      Wolf Stahlberg is correct that Luther wound up on the wrong side in the 16th century Peasant Rebellions in his “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” However, it’s worth looking at some of his earlier responses, particularly to “The 12 Articles of the Peasants in Swabia,” “Admonition to Peace . . . ”

      (for those who have access to the American Edition of Luther’s Works see vol. 46) in which Luther is sympathetic to the aims of the peasants, but questions some of the theological claims underlying their 12 articles.

      For a reasonably nuanced overview see: http://www.godrules.net/library/luther/NEW1luther_d15.htm

      Some historians (see Diarmaid MacCullough, The Reformation) suggest that Luther’s harshness against the peasants nearly scuttled his attempted reforms. I suspect that some of the tensions in those early years of Luther’s work may have been the source of some of the “Lutheran Quietism” unfortunately characteristic of some us who continue to be heirs of the Lutheran Reformation.

  • Hart Edmonds

    Just an awesome post on what it means to be a “Protestant” in our day. We do have something in common with the “Occupy” movement. We are part of God’s plan to occupy the world with love and justice and a hope that does not disappoint. Thanks Diana for retrieving a dynamic Protestant vision that invites partnership with all people who stake their lives on God’s abundant generosity and love.

  • Kaylan

    While I agree that Christians need to get involved in political matters (for moral sake), just as Christians need to support pro-life endeavors to help the unborn and elderly from our anti-life culture, it is important to note that Protestantism didn’t do a good thing. In fact, most of the protestant churches that developed over the years (even in the years right after the Reformation) were created by men following their OWN ideals. Luther wanted to follow his OWN ideas of how the church should be run. Basically people were following a man’s idea of church. The same happened when another gentleman broke away and formed the Methodist church, the same with the Anglican church (those protestants wanted to follow King Henry the 8th because the Roman Catholic Church refused to give him yet another divorce), etc. Each protestant church is founded on the idea of someone’s interpretation of the Bible. Their OWN idea, not God’s. True, the basic principles in many protestant churches still adhere to some of the Truth (which is a blessed thing) but many also have strayed away from the Truth (such as those that allow female pastors and/or allow gay unions and other pro-gay events). Those churches are truly not Christian anymore and have strayed far from the early Church and the teachings from Christ.

    • Bill Dunphy

      If God had only been more specific about the church He wanted established, we’d would not need this kind of discussion. He was somewhat more specific about the ideals of the church, and the standards for its leaders, but that seems to be about extent of it.

  • Penny Hammack

    My son asked me who were the people in OWS. I replied, aging hippies, out of work people, street people and some people who would just protest anything. I left out church people because there doesn’t seem to be many, if any out of the church. In the UK two ministers have resigned in protest of the treatment of the protesters but other than that there’s “nobody home”. I agree with both your assessment of the church and the government.

  • Peter Beacham

    Protest is strident, divisive and negative. Have you considered that “protestantism” is losing ground because of its negatively and lack of application to the lives of peace-loving people who practice inclusion not exclusion.

    Luther was an admitted failed monk who was also so libidinous and covetous of religious prestige and power that he started his own “religion” to accommodate his hungers and overlook his weaknesses. Yes, some of the Catholic clergy were selling indulgences but didn’t then and doesn’t now invalidate the heart of Catholism.

  • http://pathos Beverly Johnson-Miller

    So well said, Diana! Thank you!!

  • Andrew Love

    While I appreciate Diana’s concern for social justice and equitable economic systems, I would encourage her to not romanticize the Protestant Reformation. The very word Protestant comes from a “protestatio” that nine German princes signed in 1529 to protest the edicts from Charles V. While the Diet of Speyer (protestatio) used high God-talk to justify their positions, it was really about a minority of wealthy princes who wanted more power. The “99%” were not that well represented or respected.

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    Mainline Protestant keeps trying new gimmicks in a pitiful and futile attempt that it will somehow revive. You have delusions of relevance. With a median age of about 55-and rising-your chances of massive uprisings are small to say the least.

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  • tanyam

    This is just a bit too rosy of a picture of the Reformers. They could also be narrow, divisive and shockingly unaware of their own shadow sides. (google Luther and the Jews, Calvin and Servetus, Luther and the Anabaptists, for starters.) Not to mention their own enmeshment with their government benefactors, as noted by a previous commenter.
    Also a lesson for today?

    • Nanaherself

      What you say is true enough. But what is the bearing on the article?

    • Chad Dempsey Carver

      Of course it is. But I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find multi-culturalists and advocates of religious and cultural tolerance within a 15th century context. Yet I must assert that the Reformation movement played a pivotal role in the recognition of the rights of the individual. Martin Luther, for all of his flaws, stood up to the bloated conglomerate of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed he was protected by German rulers, however from the history of potential reformers before him ( Jan Hus and John Wycliffe-Hus was murdered after receiving a safe conduct from the Catholic church and Wycliffe’s bones were exhumed and burned) can you blame him for wanting some protection? At the Diet of Worms, Luther’s proclamation and defiance against the Catholic church is a great testimony to the spirit of humanism and to the precedence of the individual’s conscience over the group-think of a morally bankrupt and soul-crushing institution.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    The positions you recommend that Protestants should espouse sound identical to those that Pope Francis is advocating for Catholics (like me). I totally agree with you, but how is this ” Protestant” rather than simply “Christian?”

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