From Lutheranism to its depths to Lutheranism in its shallows. . .
The BBC, of all media, has a feature on the influence of Luther and Lutheranism on Germany’s reactions to the current economic crisis in Europe. This is at best a cultural influence, to be sure, not a theological one, but it’s worth noting, especially for a nation whose word for “job” is “calling” (Beruf), a legacy of the doctrine of vocation:
Exactly 500 years ago, one of Europe’s greatest thinkers was getting increasingly worried that good German money was being wasted.
Cash was heading to the Mediterranean, subsidising a bunch of badly behaved foreigners.
The 16th Century German thinker was Martin Luther and he was desperate to stay part of that great European project known as the Roman Catholic Church, but equally desperate not to support those who were ripping off German believers to pay to build St Peter’s in Rome.
The unfairness of the abuses fed popular resentment until German patience finally snapped. Luther broke away from his beloved Catholic Church, “protesting” in that great rebellion we know as the creation of Protestant-ism, the Reformation.
Nowadays, Germans – even those who are Catholic or non-Christian – cannot escape the Lutheran past.
It’s also the Lutheran present. The most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, is a Lutheran believer, the daughter of a pastor. The new German president, Joachim Gauck, is a former Lutheran pastor.
And that cliche of “the Protestant work ethic” – hardworking German taxpayers, even if they are not actually Protestant, continue to bail out the euro while being caught in a squeeze as acute as Luther in the 16th Century.
In their hearts, from Merkel to the car worker on the Volkswagen assembly line, the German people are desperate to be good Europeans, just as Luther was desperate to be a good Catholic.
But in their heads, most Germans suspect there may be something wrong – something morally wrong as well as economically dangerous – about giving money to those who, in the German view, have been at best reckless and at worst dishonest. . . .
[After describing an interview with Chancellor Merkel.] I was struck by Mrs Merkel’s political genius – quiet, cautious, the Hausfrau of her nation, so unlike the noisier, catastrophic male German leaders of the first half of the 20th Century.
The puzzle now is when her political decision to be a good European collides with her Lutheran conscience not to reward bad behaviour or be reckless with money.
I wondered whether for Frau Merkel, like Martin Luther, another reformation in Europe might be on the cards – not tomorrow, perhaps, but one day.
And yet, the reason Luther started the Reformation was NOT economic, though arguably the economic issues made people more receptive to the Reformation. And wouldn’t Germans be tight with their money even if they aren’t Lutheran? Don’t Catholic Germans feel the same way? Or Reformed or “Evangelical and Reformed” members of the state church? And does ANY European country really want to bail out the irresponsible Greeks?