There are two common misunderstandings of Luther’s theology. If I can correct both here, I’ll have accomplished my task. Basically, I would like to convince you that socialism is the outcome of Lutheran (and therefore Protestant) theology, and that we are now all monastics. If in addition I can convince you that Luther was (anachronistically) a Marxist, all the better. So here we go.
Misunderstanding #1: Luther taught a priesthood of all believers
Yes, he did teach this, or something like it. But it’s not quite what everyone thinks it means. It’s not anti-clericalism (though some later Protestant movements went that direction). It’s not an emptying of the space previously inhabited by the priestly. Rather, it is what Karl Marx noticed:
“Luther changed priests into laypeople because he changed laypeople into priests.” (Karl Marx)
When Luther raised the vocation of the whole people of God to the level of monks and priests and other special classes of religious, he didn’t bring religious vocations down to the level of ordinary life. Rather, he understood that the vocations of each are holy. He famously wrote about mothers changing diapers and other holy vocations. But central to all of it is an elevation of lay so there is no lay, and all are priests. All are holy.
A friend reminded me of that line from West Side Story, “Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!” Clerics with an elevated view of the religious life and a concomitant disdain for the laity quickly shift into a lazy false equivalency, assuming those who have not been called (and so are deprived) are morally less (and so are depraved). Even the laity begin to believe this about themselves, and about clerics, which is why so many faith communities expect more out of the clergy than is humanly possible, and similarly denigrate the the place of laity in the community of faith, and so do not live into their vocations.
One could see this in the religious life of Luther’s era, when the laity were not allowed to handle the Eucharist, or the sacred texts, and lay complicity with these rules.
We can see here how many of the innovations of Luther were tied together and of a piece. If all laypeople are priests, then they all have access to the Eucharist, and all should read the Scriptures in their own language.
Misunderstanding #2: That faith in Christ is freely chosen, and stands alone
Luther’s insight, though centered in faith, was not exclusively about faith. It was a double insight… We live in Christ by faith and in the neighbor by love.
Where much of American evangelicalism falls away from the Lutheran insight is at the second half of this sentence. There is a heavy focus on faith alone, and then a detachment from neighbor-love. In the place of neighbor-love, we see an obsequious beholdenness to power and corporate interests (thus why the White House was full to the brim of evangelicals last Monday). And the reason why evangelicalism is so uncritical of and subservient to these power interests is precisely because it believes, defends and champions individual freedom detached from a robust form of neighbor love.
One could say where Luther was focused on neighbor love, modern evangelicalism is focused on love of free markets, love of power, and love of white nationalism.
Oswald Bayer, one of our great modern interpreters of Luther, wrote: “This is how Christians change the world: their own unredeemed body and the need of the neighbor–“considering nothing except the need and the benefit of the neighbor”” (Bayer, 189)
Evangelicals, instead, have bought hook, line, and sinker into the view touted by right-wingers and embodied in our president and his epigones. “The inflation of free will by evangelicals puts to flight the idea that our wills are conditioned, blinds us to structural determination of life, and the continuing importance of material needs that enable or suppress other human achievements” (Gregory Walter).
From each according to their ability, to each according to their need
Modern libertarianism, and related to it much of modern day conservatism, lives by a radically different mantra than the slogan popularized by Marx. Something like “everyone will benefit from a free market unregulated by the state.”
Here we see how much closer Marx is to Luther, or Luther to Marx. Luther was instrumental in creating a common chest in the city of Wittenberg, funds coming into it from those with extra wealth, then going out to those in need. Our responsibility to our neighbor and their need supersedes our responsibility to protect some abstraction like “the market.”
That last line of Luther quoted in Bayer is worth stating again: “Considering nothing except the need and benefit of the neighbor.” Nothing. Modern day capitalism, free will economics, free will faith, all these consider something else as a supposed benevolent intermediary between ourselves and the neighbor–the market. Admittedly, all those committed to a more socialist position should consider the extent to which certain approaches to a free market may in fact benefit their neighbor (like arguments for the benefits of a mixed economy).
I think it’s time for an infusion of socialism to repair evangelicalism’s collusion with empire, and clearly an infusion of Luther to repair what’s broken in Protestantism.
Friedrich Naumann in his Letters on Religion remarked on the difficulty of this inherent contradiction in Christianity (the contradiction that ever and again requires reform): “In practice many are traders [capitalists] with their right hand and benefactors of the poor with their left… All the biddings of the Gospel merely hover like distant, white clouds of aspiration over the real conduct of our time.” (61) The struggle between capitalism and neighbor love is constant, and affects all of us. It’s simply that evangelicals have by and large simply capitulated to it and no longer even heed the biddings of the Gospel.
And finally, that other point in Bayer. “Our own unredeemed bodies.” Far too much of what passes for evangelicalism and conservatism these days sees itself as pure and protecting white nationalist interests, and sees all the neighbors in their need as the unredeemed and depraved. Luther turns this around, and see ourselves, our bodies, as that which is in need of redemption. And then through faith in Christ, it is us, the unredeemed and previously depraved, who live life fully in our neighbors through love.