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.