THE GREAT HYPOCRISY OF OFFICE
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
As it is in man, so shall it be in his offices
It is certainly enlightening on Sundays to read Martin Luther’s letters. I treasure this excerpt from his ‘Warning to the Dear German People’:
“Furthermore, if war breaks out – which God forbid – I will not reprove those who defend themselves against the murderous and bloodthirsty papists, nor let anyone rebuke them as being seditious, but I will accept their action and let it pass as self-defense. I will direct them in this matter to the law and to the jurists. For in such an instance, when the murderers and bloodhounds wish to wage war and to murder, it is in truth no insurrection to rise against them and defend oneself. Not that I wish to incite and spur anyone on to such self-defense, or to justify it, for that is not my OFFICE…”
This ‘Letter’ was written in 1530, well after the Peasant insurrection of 1525, which he had condemned in no uncertain terms. But in this case he would let the lawyers wrangle while he, God’s minister, would be a perfect hypocrite and not “rebuke” those who violated the very principle he had otherwise set forth, that no rebellion against authority is justified in any case. In this case, he was implicitly justifying a rebellion by the newly named “Protestants” against Emperor Charles V. After the 1530 Diet of Augsburg was concluded, the Emperor proclaimed his ‘Recess’ setting forth the errors of the Protestants, giving them six months to accept the Catholic position or else. Luther supposed the “or else”: he assumed the Emperor would use force; therefore Luther condoned in advance the rebellion of his Dear People, although it was not his “OFFICE” to advocate same.
The term ‘condone’ is appropriate here, in the sense of overlooking a wrong. Luther had, in his treatise on Just War, clearly stated that a war of inferiors against their superiors is wrong. That general position on Just War was amply supported by scriptural interpretation and accorded with feudal law. And he applied his general prohibition against insurrection to the particular case of rebellious peasants in his ‘Against the Thieving and Murderous Peasant Hordes’. We recall that nearly 100,000 of the rebels, who had been his fervent supporters because of his anti-clerical stance, were ruthlessly slaughtered by professional soldiers in the Peasant War.
Luther stated, in his letter to Elector John of Saxony dated March 6, 1530, that “According to Scripture, it is in no way proper for anyone who would be a Christian to set himself against his government, whether it acts justly or unjustly. Rather a Christian ought to suffer oppression and injustice by his government.”
Therefore, at least according to the Great Hypocrisy of Office, it appears that, despite Luther’s general prohibition of a war of inferiors against superiors, Protestant rebellion against papist authorities is quite just; but a peasant rebellion against any superior authority at all is not just at all; it is only just against the papal authority.
While Thomas Muntzer, the foremost peasant leader, spoke of Equality and the Brotherhood of Man, of a Kingdom of God on Earth here and now, Luther divorced religion and politics, placing gospel in heaven and law on Earth:
“In civil policy and obedience to law… nothing must be known concerning the conscience, the gospel, grace, remissions of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ himself.”
Thus did Luther propound the defeatist ethic which, imitating Augustine, hands over the sword of Christ to the political authorities as long as they defend the few selected by the grace of god to support them. Thereby a convenient division of labor is realized, or rather a division between labor and non-labor, works and faith.
No doubt the dualism of different standards for church and state is conducive to political tyranny over the world at large regardless of faith. The only legitimate business of the protesting faction is irrational faith, not political works. As for the peasants whom Luther advised the authorities to “stab and kill,” they found out the hard way, under their Rainbow banner, that works according to the communal precepts of Jesus are in direct conflict with the political authorities. However, if only the protestant church would mind its spiritual business, leaving the sword in the hands of legitimate real princes, then it should be entitled to state protection.
That is, the state should defend the protestant church as long as it does not support illegitimate ministers, defined as those who insist that attacks on the state in defense of the true gospel would not only be just but warranted by God.
The key word used by Luther in his subtle condonation of a just rebellion against the papists was “OFFICE.” Luther knew very well the distinction between the office of a preacher of the gospel and the office of a warrior and politician. The Great Reformation has rightfully been called The Great Hypocrisy because it casts a brighter light on the underlying crisis (hypocrisy) we all share, the failure to live up to our ideals so that our acts suit our words. Today, we are so inured to glaring hypocrisy that we scarcely notice it, or just ignore it as unavoidable.
For instance, during the presidential campaign, born-again Christian candidate George W. Bush said Jesus was his hero, yet he frankly said, during a discussion of the execution of a born-again condemned murderer, that the death penalty is a political affair and that Christian principles do not apply to the fulfillment of political office. Wherefore he would not give her another thirty days of life, which is all he could have done under the law of his state.
All one has to do is to take off one’s protestant hat and put on the political hat to make every violation of religious principle justifiable. Before President Bush’s nominees were sworn in, several of them had to assure Congress they would leave their religious and political ideology behind in ideological heaven with their abstract god in order to obey the will of the people, their concrete political god.
Hypocrisy, indeed! In view of the aim of Machiavellian politics, to achieve “peace” or “union” by any convenient means whatsoever, including outright deception and total war, every politician is bound take the Hypocritical Oath before taking high office.
But it is unfair to disparage ignoble politics and unholy religion without considering the alternative to hypocrisy. Therefore we should ask ourselves: Do we really want a theocracy ruled by a Falwell, a Robertson, a bin Laden, a Jackson or Sharpton?
Pick any by-god swearer (bigot) or moral majority red-neck or fanatic ideologist you do not like. Behold the age-old dilemma, the predicament of a Luther and a Bush when he assumes the role he had better assume when he take his respective office, even though his role must contradict his principles if he has sufficient intelligence to realize it.
No, Luther would not “reprove” insurrection, but it is not his OFFICE to justify it, a least not expressly: deceitful expressions, allusions, subliminal suggestions and so forth must be resorted to.
Yes, Luther’s letters are certainly an enlightening read on Sundays. And what a predicament Luther found himself in: he wanted to reform the Church and wound up with revolution. Confronted with the problem of OFFICE, he helped provide the world with another excuse to do whatever it wanted to do, protest the old authority, a protest now called Protestantism. But under that faithful form, “God” is nowhere to be found in politics, so we might wonder if the old Catholic slur is true in part, that Protestantism is really a form of feel-good atheism.
David Arthur Walters