The is the third and final installment of a three-part blog series on Religious Freedom, the topic of NT-NL’s Fall Leadership Convocation. The first entry focused on the current debate regarding religious liberty and stay-at-home orders that limit in-person worship. This second installment explored how rights, including religious liberty, are best employed to protect the existence of the weak rather than the prerogatives of the powerful. This third version, different than originally envisioned, seeks Martin Luther’s own guidance on how Christian freedom can be put into action in the midst of today’s world.
Several weeks ago, I began the process of reflecting on religious liberty. At the time, we had just seen images of armed people—almost all white—marching in the streets and storming state houses, demanding that the country be reopened.
With support of the US Justice Department, church leaders throughout the United States appealed to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Their claim was that stay-at-home orders that limited in-person worship directly violated the Amendment’s barring of any law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.
My plan was to walk slowly through questions related to religious freedom and conclude with a close reading of Martin Luther’s “The Freedom of a Christian,” a treatise published in 1520. It seemed like an opportunity to reacquaint Lutherans with our theological foundations, giving us a lens through which to critique the present.
That seems like a lifetime ago.
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, died while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers. One of the officers, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. He has been charged with second-degree murder. The other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.
This gross abuse of power by the police has brought other police-related killings—including the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—to the fore of public consciousness. A nation-wide (and global) series of protests and demonstrations has transpired since then, with no end in sight. What can a Sixteenth-Century theological essay have to say about today?
We appear to be in the midst of a shift in global consciousness regarding anti-Black racism. The murder of George Floyd and the resistance to the systems and structures it has exposed demands and deserves our response as Americans and, specifically, as Christians who are part of the (demographically) whitest religious group in the United States, ELCA Lutherans.
But what should our response be? This is no easy question. Street protests have their place, and the people must raise their voice. Indeed, the First Amendment also states that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” In a time when many Constitutional freedoms are threatened, effective praxis must be informed by contemplation and reflection.
Since I said I would do it, I endeavored to write a reflection on Luther’s “The Freedom of a Christian.” To my surprise (it’s been a while since I read through it), I found a resource there that speaks to us across 500 years. Specifically, it speaks to the original questions of “freedom” I sought to engage and the question of how an overwhelmingly white church can effectively position itself to respond to our present national awakening on the questions of policing, systematic racism, white privilege, and state authority.
By November 1520, Luther (1483–1546) had spent three years in his new vocation as a Reformer of the church. In these early years, his theological reflections were bright and expansive, a young professor still filled with optimism. While a more conflicted (and eventually) embittered Luther would emerge, “The Freedom of a Christian” is Luther in his productive and conciliatory prime.
“The Freedom of a Christian” begins with two statements, a thesis and antithesis (following Latin rhetorical style):
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
A Christian, in other words, is fully liberated and fully bound. Part of the problem I identified with recent expressions of American “religious freedom” was the supposition around freedom itself. Freedom, in the American “Don’t Tread on Me” vein, is individualist, encouraging Americans to protect you and yours alone. A “bound” freedom in which one is at the same time “subject to all” doesn’t square with that selfish individualism and provides a countercultural counterweight. So this thesis/antithesis structure is already causing problems.
As Luther works through the first thesis in his opening statement, he makes clear that he is talking about Christian freedom as the freedom of the soul, the inner person, where “only one thing … the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ … is necessary for Christian life.” Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are given the gift of faith in Christ Jesus.
Using an idealized view of marriage as his analogy, Luther illustrates the benefit of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus through the image of spouses sharing everything in common. In this “most perfect of all marriages … the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own.” Through this exchange, God takes on sin and death while the beloved is given the gift of “grace, life, and salvation.”
All of this becomes important later when Luther describes how we are to be in relationship with our neighbor. And that helps Lutheran Christians discern how they might think and act in this time of deep public concern as we confront a spreading global pandemic and the realities of systemic racism and white supremacy.
The theological debate Luther was most concerned about at the time was whether or not one’s “works” (good acts) could contribute toward one’s salvation. Luther’s position was clear: “works … cannot glorify God, although they can, if faith is present, be done to the glory of God.” As he says, “anyone can clearly see how a Christian is free from all things and over all things so that [they need] no works to make [them] righteous and save [them], since faith alone abundantly confers all these things.” In this way, a Christian is perfectly free and above all earthly constraints, including the law.
Those earthly constraints are due primarily to our relationships with our neighbors, near and far. Luther makes a clear distinction between “the works which a Christian does for [themselves]” which lead to confusion about the nature of God’s love and what the Christian does for the neighbor. The neighbor, in fact, is the entire focus of the Christian life.
Precisely because our good works are not needed for “righteousness and salvation,” the Christian “may serve and benefit others in all that [they do], considering nothing except the need and the advantage of [their] neighbor.” In this way, “the strong member may serve the weaker, and we may be [children] of God, each eating for and working for the other, bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ.”
Think about these sentences from Luther in the context of our public health crisis and some people’s insistence on not wearing masks as an expression of their freedom. When one is oriented toward the neighbor, one’s thoughts can be fully with those who are immunocompromised or otherwise more susceptible to the deadly effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Think about these sentences in terms of the power and privilege enjoyed by people and communities that are white. How might persons with racial privilege serve neighbors weighed down by the burdens of structural and systemic racism?
Who is our neighbor? Say their names:
What does it mean for an overwhelmingly white denomination to orient itself, as a system, toward bearing the burdens of neighbors who are weaker as a result of conditions from which we benefit? What other neighbors can be approached and served in precisely these ways?
Christian liberty translates into acts of love for the sake of the neighbor alone. “From faith,” Luther says, “flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.” For we do not serve to create a debt of gratitude and do “not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness.”
As many people are considering joining public demonstrations for the first time, they might imagine that people in marginalized communities might be grateful for their presence. This is not likely to be the case. White people showing up for the first time might be greeted with suspicion or the sense that you are roughly 400 years too late. But you are not there to solicit gratitude. You are there to be displaced and decentered so the process of decolonization can continue.
If “The Freedom of a Christian” is understood as the foundation of Lutheran “neighbor ethics,” the implications for white privilege and power are clear. As he writes, “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.”
This is where the marriage image Luther used before comes into practice. In our context of white privilege and power, being “a Christ to my neighbor” does not mean offering charity. It means giving one’s full self, with all of the power and privilege one holds. And it means accepting the stigma, suffering, and pain of the neighbor who—both as an individual and as a community, both now and through history—has experienced brutality, injustice, dehumanization, and trauma. The exchange goes both ways. It means that your reputation is on the line and you commit to putting some skin in the struggle. It means that you risk being rejected as a “race traitor” unwilling to reinvest in white power. If the gift is truly and freely given, it comes at great cost.
Lutherans who are white are indicted by Luther’s understanding of the Christian obligation to serve the neighbor fully, without reservation. ELCA Lutherans have a beautiful opportunity to reclaim the foundations of their tradition while responding effectively to the crisis of our time. In some places, it means being accosted and ridiculed for wearing a face covering. It means standing up to large men brandishing impotent weapons. And it means standing on the front lines as tear gas, pepper balls, nightsticks, rubber bullets—and far worse—fly.
The present moment provides an opportunity to live out the core of the Christian faith: “Just as our neighbor is in need and lacks that in which we abound, so we were in need before God and lacked his mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other that we may be Christs to one another and Christ may be the same in all, that is, that we may be truly Christians.” But how many Christians actually do this with their lives?
Luther knew that his vision was lofty and idealistic: “But alas in our day this life is unknown throughout the world; it is neither preached about nor sought after; we are altogether ignorant of our own name and do not know why we are Christians or bear the name of Christians.” Without ideals, without a telos toward which we can aim, we have no path to follow. Do we know why we are Christians? Do Lutherans comprehend what is distinctive and special about our tradition? Have we sufficiently grasped our freedom in Christ that we are willing to subject ourselves in active, sacrificing love toward our neighbor who is impoverished and oppressed?
Luther’s conclusion in “The Freedom of a Christian” is that a “Christian lives not in [themselves], but in Christ and in [their] neighbor.” This is the core ethical teaching of the Lutheran tradition, which Lutherans accept as a trustworthy and true interpretation of Christian faith as a whole. As such, it is diametrically opposed to the selfish, egocentric libertarian version of freedom that has flourished in the United States.
In this context, being a Christian focused not on self but on the neighbor is countercultural and revolutionary. It is compatible with the movement we are presently seeing on the streets. Let us go there, not to convince our neighbors of our version of the Gospel, but to serve them through it.
The Rev. Robert O. Smtih, PhD, directs Briarwood Leadership Center (Argyle, Tex.).