Two clergymen who helped free humanity

2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolutionary act – and the 50th of Martin Luther King Jr.’s expanded mission.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters/File
A worker installs a statuette of 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, part of 'Martin Luther - I'm standing here,' by German artist Ottmar Hoerl, in the main square of Wittenberg, Germany, in 2010. The temporary art installation consisted of 800 figurines based on a statue of Martin Luther on the town square.

This year will see the 500th anniversary of a great step in freeing human thinking.

Whether rebellious Roman Catholic monk Martin Luther actually nailed 95 “theses,” or questions, to the door of a church in Wittenberg, now part of Germany, in October of 1517 is lost to history. But the effects of Luther’s open questioning of his church were monumental.

It produced a reformation in Christian thought, championing the idea that the Scriptures should be available to be read and studied not just by clergy but by anyone – and not only in the scholarly languages of Latin or Greek but in the local tongue.

Even more broadly, using the revolutionary technology of his day, the printing press, Luther helped bring about the idea that people should be free to think for themselves, to challenge orthodoxies, whether political, social, artistic, or religious. In the context of 2017, Luther can be seen as an “angry citizen” demanding reforms.

This month the United States also honors Martin Luther King Jr., so named because his father, a Baptist minister in Atlanta, had become a fan of the German reformer while on a visit to Europe.

Fifty years ago, in 1967, King was also on a mission that would expand human freedom. Though the US Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, he knew they had only laid the groundwork for a full expression of human rights. In 1967 he was to expand his vision of civil rights to include those of all races trapped in poverty. The need was for better jobs at better wages, adequate housing, and an opportunity to get a decent education.

In his book “Where Do We Go From Here?” published that year, he argued that progress for blacks would stall “unless the whole of American society takes a new turn toward greater economic justice.”

At the same time King also cautioned African-Americans that their growing interest in “black power” must not lead their movement away from its biblical roots in nonviolence, or from its emphasis on racial harmony and working for change through the ballot box not through brute force.

Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his radical views. But last fall Pope Francis made clear how much attitudes have changed, praising the Protestant reformer for helping to put a greater focus on the Scriptures and for exposing abuses and corruption within the church at that time.

In the US, the state of Minnesota – home to some 2,000 Lutheran churches – has become the epicenter of this year’s remembrances of Luther.

“I don’t think the average person [today] knows how big of a deal Luther was,” Nancy Monke, pastor at a Lutheran Church in Underwood, Minn., told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “The whole idea of individual freedom, that you can protest the church or any authority, really took off from him.”

Fifty years ago, an American clergyman was making his own impression on human thought.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” King was telling the world. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

He would “stick to love,” King said, because hate “is too great a burden to bear.”

As we look back from 2017 both Luther and the African-American who took his name still speak powerfully to the world.

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