The New York Times, no less, has published a piece by Harvard Luther scholar Steven Ozment (author of that new book on Cranach that I intend to blog about at some point) on the Lutheran elements in today’s German economic policy towards the Eurozone:
Even today Germany, though religiously diverse and politically secular, defines itself and its mission through the writings and actions of the 16th century reformer, who left a succinct definition of Lutheran society in his treatise “The Freedom of a Christian,” which he summarized in two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”
Consider Luther’s view on charity and the poor. He made the care of the poor an organized, civic obligation by proposing that a common chest be put in every German town; rather than skimp along with the traditional practice of almsgiving to the needy and deserving native poor, Luther proposed that they receive grants, or loans, from the chest. Each recipient would pledge to repay the borrowed amount after a timely recovery and return to self-sufficiency, thereby taking responsibility for both his neighbors and himself. This was love of one’s neighbor through shared civic responsibility, what the Lutherans still call “faith begetting charity.”
How little has changed in 500 years. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a born-and-baptized daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor, clearly believes the age-old moral virtues and remedies are the best medicine for the euro crisis. She has no desire to press a secular ideology, let alone an institutional religious faith, on her country, but her politics draws unmistakably from an austere and self-sacrificing, yet charitable and fair, Protestantism.
If Ms. Merkel refuses to support so-called euro bonds, it is not because it would be like giving free money to the undeserving poor but because it would not help the redeemed poor take responsibility for their own houses and grow strong for both themselves and their needy neighbors. He who receives, recovers and profits from society in a time of need has a moral responsibility to pay society back by acting in turn as a strong citizen who can help fill the common chests and sacrifice for his now needy neighbors, who had once helped him. Such is the sacrificial Lutheran society.
For this point of view Ms. Merkel has been derided as the “austerity queen,” and worse. But she is undeterred. She admits that austerity is the toughest road home but hastens to add that it is also the surest and quickest way to recover the economy and gain full emancipation from the crisis. Luther would agree.
According to polls, so do Ms. Merkel’s fellow Germans. They hold tight to their belief, born of staunch Lutheran teachings, that human life cannot thrive in deadbeat towns and profligate lands. They know that money is a scarce commodity that has to be systematically processed, recorded and safeguarded before being put out to new borrowers and petitioners.
And they take comfort in the fact that, unlike what they consider the disenchanted, spendthrift countries of Greece and Italy, those living in model German lands have obeyed the chancellor’s austerity laws and other survival programs designed for a fair, shared recovery.
But if their Lutheran heritage of sacrificing for their neighbors makes Germans choose austerity, it also leads them to social engagement. In classic Lutheran teaching, the salvation of the believer “by faith alone” does not curtail the need for constant charitable good works, as ill-informed critics allege. Faith, rather, empowers the believer to act in the world by taking the worry out of his present and future religious life.
We often complain on this blog that the Lutheran influence via the state churches of Germany and Scandinavia is “only cultural.” And of course, cultural influence means little without saving faith. Still, at a time when Christianity and churches seem to be losing their influence to the detriment of society and at a time when Christians are trying to figure out how to be influential once again. it’s worth contemplating how churches have, in fact, both in the past and continuing into the present, influenced their cultures.
If Lutheranism influenced and is still an influence in those increasingly secular European states, it must, somehow, be a presence and it must, somehow, be influential. How does this happen?
Can any of you speak about some other specific cultural influences of Lutheranism in, say, Scandinavia, or that of other theological traditions in other countries?
For example, Scandinavians are often portrayed culturally as BOTH guilt-ridden AND morally permissive. Is this a twisted, secularist remnant of Law and Gospel?