Berkley Forum

Remembering and Forgetting about Christianity and Freedom on Luther’s Anniversary

Responding to Conscience, Reformation, and Religious Freedom Across the Centuries

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolutionary act of protest in the form of radical demands for reform in the Roman Catholic Church—celebrated in the story of the fearless German theologian pounding his Ninety-Five Theses into the wooden doors of Wittenburg’s Castle Church, an event whose veracity is dubious but which colorfully captures the disruptive spirit of what came to be the Protestant Reformation—offers an occasion to reflect on remembrance and forgetting around the theme of Christianity and freedom.

There is a unifying trope to the diverse commemorations of Luther’s anniversary event which has appeared in religious convocations, academic seminars, or media reportage.

With remarkable consistency, the stylized narrative of Luther’s actions centers first on the actions’ division within Western Christianity, as Roman Catholicism found itself at loggerheads with the newly-birthed Protestantism. Second, the narrative centers on emphasizing the determinant impact of Luther’s thought on the Christian contributions to modern international architectures of universal human rights embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed, most such reflections consider Luther’s moment as the crucial tipping point for theological disputations whose results were what are conventionally treated as the Christian underpinnings of universal rights concepts of human freedom, dignity, and toleration.

Is it possible to deconstruct the exercise of remembering Luther and the Protestant Reformation, both for what we remember and forget when it comes to Christianity and freedom? I suggest the value of an affirmative answer on two basic counts.

First, the indisputably significant impact of Luther’s project on Christian thinking—which demanded fearless critique of wooden dogmatism, rigid language, and institutional insularity, in order to generate theological change and development around the meaning of individual and collective freedom—is remembered as a project of Western Christianity.

However, the reduction of the origins, evolution, and innovations of Christian ideas, teachings, and practices on freedom to the history of the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholic responses to Luther’s challenges has meant the forgetting of Orthodox Christianity in both its Eastern and Oriental forms. The Westernist, truncated history of Christianity overlooks the remarkable grammar of freedom that was developed in the Christian East, that is, in the teachings identified with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Christian grammar of freedom is available in the Greek and Syrian patristic sources of the early church, and was codified in the decisions of the seven pre-ecumenical councils, all held in what was the Byzantine East. Eastern Christianity’s creation theology, anthropology of personhood, soteriology of theosis, or divine-human communion, as well as the associated ecclesiastical structures of Orthodoxy were articulated by innovative, agile, radical religious leaders, monastics, and public intellectuals such as Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasios, and Gregory Palamas. The ancient Orthodox rubrics of freedom have informed modern Orthodox exemplars, from Bulgakov to Florovsky and Romanides, to Yannoulatos and McGuckin and, eventually, Pelikan.

Reflecting on Luther’s legacy after half a millennium is an opportunity to remember, rather than forget about, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy’s grammar of freedom, especially at a time of urgent need for activism, advocacy, courage, and compassion in meeting comprehensive violations and denials of freedom and dignity for so many human beings worldwide.

Second, there is immeasurable value in using the half-millennium anniversary of Luther’s protest to remember actively, rather to forget lazily and cavalierly, the suffering of Christians in the lands where Christianity was born. Indeed, there is something very unsettling about celebrating the energy of the 1517 landmark and holding forgiveness ceremonies for Western Christianity’s fratricidal wars, all while Christians of and in the East are struggling to avoid extinction.

The luxury of remembering the 1517 landmark demands that we not forget that the past 15 years—and more broadly, the past century—has been a landmark period for the eradication of living Christianity in the geographical origins of the faith. It is also a period in which freedom—or most accurately, the absence and violations of freedom at the core—is being erased for Christians in the Middle East, most, but not all, of whom are/were Orthodox.

Western/Eurocentric remembrances of Luther’s impact on Christianity and especially on the development of universal norms and laws protecting human dignity, rights, equality, and freedom miss the mark if they forget that Christianity’s origins are in the Middle East and West Asia, and that the violence, persecution, and discrimination suffered by Christians in their historical heartland is caused by the conditions of unfreedom that they endure.

There is no doubt that Luther’s provocative meditations, disputations, and protestations changed the face of Christianity and had lasting effects on how the world thinks about, protects, and regulates freedom. For this, 1517 deserves remembrance. But the nature of such remembering should be to stop forgetting about Christians of the East, so that rather than an ecumenism of blood, it may become possible to celebrate an ecumenism of healing and reconciliation. The consequences from that sort of remembering will change the reality of freedom for all humankind.

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