Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr.
Just short of half a millennium and thousands of miles apart: Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. share many similarities, besides their name. Both men grew up devout Christians and had a strong faith in God. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister in a Baptist church, one of the denominations accredited to Martin Luther. Linking the two not only is their religion, but also a sense of courage and the freedom to defy authority. Luther defied corrupt religious authority, while King defied cultural and political authorities. The readiness of Martin Luther to stand before the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman emperor served as an inspiration for future civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. Future activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr., were inspired by Martin Luther to stand against centuries of unjust treatment and corrupt politicians in order to proclaim not only what they thought was right, but also the true Word of God.
A Roman Catholic world, permeated by one religion, was disassembled in the face of the Renaissance. The Renaissance possessed many thinkers, one of them being Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk. Luther argued against the sale of indulgences: the monetary transaction for getting into heaven. Luther combated people like Johann Tetzel who advocated for the Roman Catholic church by saying, “Won’t you part with even a farthing to buy this letter? It wont bring you money but rather a divine and immortal soul, whole and secure in the kingdom of heaven” (MacCulloch, 79). Martin Luther perceived the church to be a corrupt institution that seemed to be more concerned with worldly issues than with the salvation of souls. Indulgences were quite expensive; thus the rich were the only people that could afford them. The purchasing of indulgences by the wealthy class further divided the socioeconomic rift leading to a clear class distinction in Europe. The class distinction contributed to the power of the Holy Roman Catholic church because the rich all supported their own success rather than focusing on those in need. The economy was largely structured around the Roman Church. Luther could no longer stay silent about the corruption and wealth of the Roman Catholic church. “The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (On Chris. Lib. 2017). In 1520, after the Luther exposed the Roman Catholic, Pope Leo X issued a papal letter which gave Martin Luther 60 days to take back his teachings or else he would be excommunicated. Consequently, the continuation of Luther’s “heretic” preaching brought him into conflict with the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor leading to conflict that stunned all of Europe. This courageous protest sparked a century of conflict which spiraled into a war between ideals changing Christianity forever and contributing to the birth of the modern world.
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Martin Luther found solitude in the apostle Paul’s word, “the just shall live by faith,” meaning salvation comes through faith, not through good works nor through prayer, fasting, or indulgences (ESV Student Study Bible, Rom. 1.17). Martin Luther’s teachings of salvation through faith alone erupted when Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg selling indulgences. An indulgence is a “donation” to the church that comes with a promise that a sinner’s time in purgatory will be reduced. Upon the purchase of an indulgence Tetzel would state, “I replace thee in the state of innocence and purity in which thou wert at at thy hour of thy baptism” (qtd. in Piper, 1996). However, Luther believed that humans can never be good enough to merit salvation through actions. Martin Luther adapted the phrase “sola fide” meaning there can only be faith in one’s salvation. In response, Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses combating indulgences and the power of the Church. Luther denied that the Church and its officers had any spiritual powers which sent Europe into an uproar. Luther was relentless in his accusations against the Church when he writes in his 54th Theses, “The word of God suffers injury if, in the same sermon, an equal or longer time is devoted to indulgences than to that word” (Luther, 1997). Luther was the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation allowing for the rebuke of authority and ideals of the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation can be encompassed by two words: protest and reform. In recent centuries the concept of protest and reform is very abundant and applicable. Protest and reform are key aspects of long lasting change which inadvertently inspire protests that manifest themselves into more contemporary movements such as the civil rights movement led by activist Martin Luther King Jr.
Efforts to organize the civil rights movement were around long before Martin Luther King Jr. was even born. However, the 1950’s was the prime opportunity for King to assume leadership of the civil rights movement and be a real catalyst for the reformation of society. The 1950’s was referred to as the consensus era. Consensus culture was caused by the Cold War. People were hesitant to question society due to the fear of being branded a communist; thus everyone conformed to authority. This fear lead to the suppression of antagonistic thoughts from the oppressed. While the 1950’s were a golden age for blue and white collar workers, it was not a period of expanding opportunities for African-Americans. Segregation was the law throughout the country. In the South, public accommodations were segregated by law. Like Luther, King saw his parishioners struggling in the face of a corrupt system. Shortly after forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King was arrested for a minor traffic violation. During his jailing, King wrote his famous letter, “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which expressed King’s feelings towards the unjust events that were occurring in the South. In this letter, King quoted Martin Luther’s 95 Theses when he wrote, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen” (King, 1963). Martin Luther and Martin Luther King’s defiant determination to stand with God’s true Word demonstrates their dedication to protest and their hopefulness of reformation in the face of corrupt societies.
When he began translating the bible into German, Martin Luther was a fugitive hiding from Pope Leo the 10th because Luther was excommunicated after the publishing of his 95 Theses. Much of the population in the 15th and 16th century was illiterate: meaning citizens could not read and analyze the Bible for themselves. The people depended on the Pope and the Church to interpret the Word of God. This was a means by the Church to essentially control and manipulate the Word of God. Over the course of 11 weeks, Luther began translating the New Testament into German. This translation was entitled the Das Newe Testament. Utilizing a printing press, the Das Newe Testament was able to reach all classes of people that were present throughout the Renaissance including: the rich, poor, educated, uneducated, nobles, and workers. The improvement of communication of the Word of God to common man was the most important factor of the Reformation’s triumphs. The printing press made it possible for every man to know the uncorrupted and unadulterated truth of the Word of the Lord and it highlighted the lies and exaggerations of the Roman Catholic Church. The translation of the Bible allowed for people of all socioeconomic classes of Europe to read or even own the Bible. The elitist class of priests were no longer the only ones in possession of the true Word of God.
The ability to communicate a powerful message and persuade an audience was something that both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. were acclaimed. Not only did Luther write the 95 Theses protesting the actions of the Roman Catholic church, but he also wrote the Small and Large Catechisms as the foundation for the new Christian denomination, Protestantism. In addition to those three works framing the new foundation for Protestant Christianity, Luther also and helped make the Bible a household item by translating it into German, making it more available for the common man. Similarly, King wrote a large array of works outlining his views on the corruption of society and the necessity for change. King’s works include the book Why We Can’t Wait which attempted to combat social injustices through nonviolent efforts. Why We Can’t Wait allowed for the minority to “find a voice in the whisper” meaning even though the efforts seem pointless, the ends will justify the means (King, 2018). The written works and speeches of both Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. allowed for the empowerment of standard civilians that previously felt their beliefs were insignificant. The concept of the oppressed minority becoming empowered is prevalent in the civil rights movement led by King. The exposure that the writings and speeches of both Luther and King gained allowed for imminent social change.
Amidst the height of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham Alabama, where he spent eleven days in jail. Imprisoned, King wrote his “Letter to Birmingham,” in which he communicates the strategy of nonviolence resistance to racism. As a theologian, King practiced nonviolent protesting. This notion of nonviolence consisted of six key principles outlined in his memoir Stride Toward Freedom. The first notion highlights that one can resist evil without resorting to violence. This concept of nonviolence stems from Martin Luther
Kings interpretations of Luther’s work that condemn the violence as the devil’s work. Luther believed that prayer was a way to peacefully combat evil: a type of spiritual warfare. Luther emphasizes that “there is nothing for us to do on earth but to pray without ceasing against this archenemy (Satan). For if God did not support us, we would not be safe from him for a single hour” (Luther, 2013). Luther and King believed that in choosing violence over peace, people are ignoring God’s wish for humanity. The similarities between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. are highlighted in their silent protests. The writings of both men sparked an outburst among two very powerful nations, there was no necessity for violence. Simply combatting the corruption with written words was enough to spark a rebellion in each scenario.
The continuation of the reformation and the civil rights movement long outlasted Luther and King’s eras. Luther’s demand for the reform of the strict doctrines of the Roman Catholic church lived on after his death. Within months of the publishing of Luther’s 95 Theses, European nobility and peasantry advocated for Luther’s work justifying what would become a revolution. While Luther organized his beliefs into the reformation of the church, or Protestantism, his reform carried on through the acts of religious leaders and monarchs. Contrastingly, King’s nonviolent techniques grew increasingly unpopular in the midst of the 1960’s. Despite the inevitable turn from nonviolent to violent manners, the radical voice of Malcolm X still focused on reforming the same aspects of society as King. The notion of change and a promise of a better future for the minority is what allowed for the continuation of both Luther and King’s efforts.
Five hundred years later, 2018 marked the anniversary of Martin Luther publishing his 95 Theses. The Reformation marked the beginning of the very first revision of the Church. Luther disputed the corruption of the Church by saying that salvation comes from faith alone. Luther’s approach to reform aimed to reconstruct religious beliefs. Once pointing out the faults of the Roman Catholic church, there was no possibility for reconciliation. Almost immediately after Luther’s uprising, other reformists gained the courage to turn against the Church as well. Luther can be seen as an advocate for human dignity who defied the strong force of the Roman Catholic church and reshaped political ideas of Europe. The Reformation created an entirely new mold for Europe and survived to breed other reforms centuries later. The transformations that Luther set in motion inspired future reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. to advocate for the minorities beliefs. The reformation gave rise to several denominations such as Lutheranism, Methodism, and Calvinism. The development of new denominations of Christianity illustrates the freedom of conscious. A result of the Reformation is the freedom for individuals to worship and believe what they want. The advancements in theology as a result of Martin Luther’s effort perfectly parallel Martin Luther King’s efforts in the fights for advancements in the civil rights movement. King took on many roles as a pastor, humanitarian, and protestor much like Luther. King, with a mentor like Luther, has impacted activism nearly 50 years later.
Though the Protestant Reformation saw many great teachers contribute to one of the most significant events in theological history, it is clear that Martin Luther left the greatest legacy of all. Nearly five hundred years later, Luther and his involvement in both society and religion is still relevant. Even though Luther is no longer here, his work lives on and his ideas continue to find new adherents every day as well as instill his rebellious beliefs in future reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. The Reformation inspired a mood of anti-authoritarianism, which led to revolutions against the outdated feudal system and led to the democratic movement around the world. In the centuries following the Reformation, movements like women’s suffrage and the abolition of segregation traced their roots back to Reformation-era principles. The Reformation, spurred on by men like Luther, led to the formation of new approaches to society to stand against centuries of unjust treatment and corrupt politicians in order to proclaim not only what they thought was right, but also the Word of God.