Reformation Day: Luther and Assange

Reformation Day (31 October) honours Martin Luther’s objection to the Bishop of Mainz about the selling of indulgences. The anniversary is observed by societies of various stripes. Chile and Slovenia, for example, celebrate Reformation Day as a national holiday, even though both countries have Catholic majorities. Others, especially Reformed Churches in the United States, move commemorations to the Sunday before, calling it Reformation Sunday. Luther’s objection cascaded into a central episode of the Reformation, the Diet of Worms (Jan 28–May 25, 1521).

Now, in those days a Diet was less about losing weight and more about weighty judgments. Or to be more exact, a Diet was “the general assembly of the estates of the former Holy Roman Empire”. The Diet of Worms accused Luther of heresy. After the debates, Luther was ordered to recant. However, after spending the last night of the Diet praying and consulting with his friends, he did not withdraw.

Instead, according to witnesses, he said:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Now, to be fair, Johann Eck, who spoke for the Holy Roman Empire, had a superb reply:

‘Martin,’ said he, ‘there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretation of the Scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal whence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments. It was with Biblical texts that Pelagius and Arius maintained their doctrines. Arius, for instance, found the negation of the eternity of the Word—an eternity which you admit, in this verse of the New Testament—Joseph knew not his wife till she had brought forth her first-born son; and he said, in the same way that you say, that this passage enchained him. When the fathers of the council of Constance condemned this proposition of John Huss—The church of Jesus Christ is only the community of the elect, they condemned an error; for the church, like a good mother, embraces within her arms all who bear the name of Christian, all who are called to enjoy the celestial beatitude.’

Eck’s primary position is how can one person decide what is correct for everybody. For Eck, Luther is confounding the truth with an opinion. One discovers truth by wrestling with and improving upon the accepted assemblage of political reality. If every individual’s conscience carried equal value, what would become of society as they knew it? Remember Hobbes, Kant, Bentham and Mill, and Nietzsche had not yet imagined new political possibilities. Luther’s declaration was historic.

Yet, as Eck mentioned, others before Luther had claimed conscience as their shepherd. How, then, was Luther distinct? Eck’s examples didn’t live through a technological refiguring. Technological change always stays abreast of culture integration, but sometimes technology utterly outruns culture. In such moments, those who can leverage new technics have a definite advantage. Often such technological savvy groups begin as peripheral, but in time reveals the contaminated quality of the centre.

Luther’s day saw the printing press. Printing made ideas spread faster, further, and cheaper. By leveraging the potential of print, Luther challenged and changed the Church, if not the world. He uncovered incongruities in the societal consensus. He, in effect, warped collective memory refiguring a perceived unity.

Yet, warping the social imaginary always occurs at a price. Luther was a fool in the sense that he was unaware of the turmoil his test would unleash even during his own lifetime. Today, most look back to Luther with reverence, but during his lifetime, and generations after that, however, he remained a questionable character.

Today, we once again find ourselves in an epoch where information comes quicker, cheaper, and goes further. Technological epochal change brings the prospect of warping collective consciousness. It is, therefore, unavoidable that alternative means of organising knowledge gain traction. Enter Julian Assange.

One could sketch Assange as a Luther of our refiguring — his sojourn in the Ecuadorian Embassy even echoes Luther’s stay in Wartburg Castle. Now, we could list groups and people who hold the prevailing political arrangement accountable. Think, for example, of human rights watchdogs and investigative reporters. Assange’s refiguring, however, is a direct challenge to the present political consensus’ inconsistencies.

Now, during the Reformation, as now, a particular élite accepted incongruities as part the political accord. No politics is foolproof. Or as Churchill famously said about democracy:

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Still, what Assange through Wikileaks is essentially saying is:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the transcripts or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the presidents or in governments alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the truth I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the truth.

Both in Luther and Assange doesn’t care for symbolic distance. They disregard the minimal symbolic negotiation needed for any political system to work.

Assange too is a fool who cannot predict his activity’s effects. On Reformation Day we should not forget how one life’s stand can cut history. We should remain mindful of how a particular political truth is assailed when collective memory is warped. If Assange is a Luther then what will be our Diet of Worms?  Is this Assange’s Reformation?

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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