Luther and Liberation


I got a copy of this book years ago at the Lutheran World Federation HQ, and I scanned through it here and there.  But last week was when I got to dig into some gems.  Sometimes when it comes to books the relevance of it comes more because we are at a different stage of life and thought, and also the fact that the context we are living in has changed tremendously and thus we see some light.

For those who prefer a regular book review go here. Below is an excerpt:

“For Altmann "liberation" provides the same key to understanding Luther’s doctrine of grace as has "acceptance" for so many North Atlantic Christians under the influence of Paul Tillich. He lays out the various approaches to Luther in modern scholarship and critically focuses on their usefulness and limitations. While Luther’s approach to society is not without its difficulties and ambiguities, it also challenges the passivity of Latin American Lutherans and the narrowness of all churches.”

Granted Malaysia and Asia has a different context with Brazil and Latin America, but in relation to North America and Europe I’ve found interacting with them refreshing.

“Throughout Latin American History, the church has been predominantly an instrument of domination.  In this historic hour, can we be an instrument of liberation? . when the church is willing to enter into its prophetic mission, to engage in transformative action, it is drawn into the conflicts that characterize our present situation  both outside and within the churches.” (p. 69)

I wonder whether in our Malaysian context the temptation is more on the church has been predominantly an instrument of being dominated or allowing domination by certain powers out of our fear of being drawn into conflicts.  Especially since we may see ourselves as a minority within a minority without power and limited influence.

Often, we are forced to speak out when we are pushed into a corner due to questions of basic religious freedom and practices. But in the wider scheme of things, there might be a sense of powerlessness or we say our hands are tied. Now, I feel it’s only fair to say I’m speaking out of the experience of the Protestant churches and our Roman Catholic friends have a different track record on voicing their concerns and playing a more prophetic role.

But the ground is moving, and to be fair there is an increasing openness both in clergy and laity to engage the issues.  The overall socio-political climate has changed especially maybe to the surprise of many that the power of the ballot evident in the recent March 8th General elections set into motion changes which we are still monitoring from politicians to the public.

We have a mix of newer church leaders especially in higher positions whom would have a more critical stance when viewing how the church can and should respond.  Of course, many church members have already taken the plunge in terms on personal involvement. But we are still working through a more integrated posture of how each of us in our different spheres of influence may play our role.

“Luther never meant to make the church and the state autonomous entities. It was the responsibility of the political authorities to achieve economic, political, and social reforms that would also affect the church; and it was the task of the church to confront political authorities with God’s will.  The so-called two kingdoms can be distinguished regarding their tasks and their means, but they overlap in time and space.  Furthermore, they have a common foundation – God is the Lord of both – and a common goal – human well being.

Church and state limit and bind each other reciprocally.  The state limits and regulates the church as a social institution (for example, in matters of property); the church proclaims God’s will to the state (for example, criticizing it’s arbitrariness or calling on it to work for social, political, and economic transformation).  Luther himself felt compelled to address the political authorities often.  Whether his economic, political, and social demands that fell into each category – the reformer could never be accused of, and never sought, political neutrality or abstention.” (p. 71)

While this has immediate relevance even for us in Malaysia, the additional challenge is more on the role of other religious communities.  And in our case the role of Islamic Institutions both government linked and non-government organizations. 

From the perspective of the church, we can and must voice out our perspectives whether through the widest body of representation like Christian Federation of Malaysia or even a local church (and everything in between) depending on issues.  I noticed in the case of the recent ISA detentions even different Muslim groups voiced out their positions . While having a unified voice is an ideal, but at times our silence maybe too loud.  The MCCBCHST CALLS FOR THE REPEAL OF THE ISA was sorely need to at least make some needed noise!

It would be good at some point where all religious communities can have the space to provide input in their views on “What God’s will is” proclaimed to the state.  It’s one vision we need to work harder on. But this would require and demand much from each faith community internally and our relations externally with “others.”

But as we work on that, the ruling government and the loyal opposition needs to be kept in check less they use religion for their own political mileage.  I’m not naive to think that this temptation is not ever present.  But it’s one reality we will need to face as we cross different bridges coming our way.

Altmann highlights an interesting point clarifying that Luther was no doormat theologian.  This is shown in Luther’s 1530 interpretation of Psalm 82.

“According to Luther, this is a political psalm.  This first verse describes God as “standing up",” that is, as a judge in the midst of the congregation, to judge the "gods",” that is the political authorities, the princes.  The judgment of them takes place from within the congregation; that is, the church transmits the judgment of the Word of God concerning political authorities.” (p. 79)

There are moments where one does get the impression politicians in power do operate in a “god-like” manner.  Notice, I didn’t say “godly” manner! There seems to be an air about them in the decisions they make, and no matter how much noise is shouted from the ground, they do not appear to be listening.  In fact, more than once ordinary folk and even informed citizens are talked down upon as mere pawns in the political game.

Perhaps in Luther’s time, the Church even in it’s early days of reformation wasn’t as marginalized as today whether by secularism or in our case in Malaysia as a minority faith community.  But then I wonder is there a place for the Church is “transmit the judgment of the Word of God” and what would it sound like and look like?

“Luther understands 82:2-4 as a description of the political office.  Each ruler should have these verses written “in his room, over his bed, at his desk, and also on his clothes.” Luther distinguishes three tasks of a ruler: (1) to guarantee the free, critical, and prophetic preaching of the gospel; (2) to defend justice and the rights of the weak and abandoned; and (3) to guarantee the order, peace, and protection of the poor.” (p. 79)

All three areas highlighted above draws us to consider the role of the government in terms of religious freedom, the judiciary, good governance and welfare of all (especially the poor).  These are the hot topics we face daily depending on which hot button is pushed by any particular episode.

In our 21st century post-colonial developing country sophistication, and after 50years of Independence we are still caught in the whirlpool of these issues in Malaysia.  In parliament yesterday, a “I’m a Muslim first, a Malaysian second” member of parliament showed how much work we need to do in the mindsets of even the so called “educated.” Questions still abound in the recent appointment of the Chief Justice of Malaysia and many are wondering what has happened to the so called “Judicial reforms” promised. The use of the Internal security act on powerless individuals and the arrest of a child sows seeds of doubt “the guarantee of order, peace and protection of the poor”.

It’s strange how words written hundreds of years ago by a German Augustinian monk turned reformer of the church and I would add ripples which reformed even society has so much relevance in a south east Asian young postcolonial nation. I admit, there is a certain simplistic connection I’m drawing but then again this is an exercise in creative critical thinking :-).

“Luther sets the true preacher, who does not defend his own interests and who does not compromise himself for fear of personal consequences or the persecution he may have to suffer, “So then, this first verse, ” Luther writes,

. teaches us that to rebuke rulers is not seditious, provided it is done in the way here described: namely, by the office to which God has committed that duty, and through God’s Word, spoken publically, boldly, and honestly.  To rebuke rulers in this way is, on the contrary, a praiseworthy, noble, and rare virtue, and a particularly great service to God, as the Psalm here proves.” (p. 80)

Of course, Luther during his time has not come across the various laws and acts which deals with defamation and sedition in Malaysia!!! But that does not wipe out the deeper challenge he brings with his exposition of Psalm 82, and once again reminds the Church and her leaders the public nature of our faith and message.  In a climate of much fear and distrust, we are confronted with what are we going to do?  How shall we stand up and speak up?  Not just for ourselves and our interests but for the interests of others . Easier said than done? Sure, but if that’s the excuse for being indifferent and apathetic then we seriously need to pause and reexamine ourselves.

After the pause, may we draw courage from Luther’s example in life and his radical attempts to work things through in his time, to act rightly and be empowered as a faith community to think and work together to play our part in inviting others to have a foretaste of the “Shalom” promised to us from the future. We won’t get the full course yet, but a preview tasting is most welcome.

About Sivin Kit

man of one wife, father of four kids
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