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Martin Luther king

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It is difficult to follow, in almost any case, the direct not less than the indirect influence of a new truth or of a great principle; but, once deeply stirred by a great conception of truth, of opportunity, or of duty, a people is never again the same. In speaking of the Reformation, Carlyle invites attention to this thought. “Once risen into this divine white heat of temper,” he says, “were it only for a season and not again, it is henceforth considerable through all its remaining history. Nations are benefited for ages by being thrown once into divine white heat in this manner, and no nation that has not had such divine paroxysms at any time is apt to come to much.” (Bitzer, 1971)

An idea, a concept, a truth, does not originate with the mass, but with the individual. Every invention, every discovery, every truth, every principle, comes, in the first instance, not from the many nor from the few, but from the one.

“The moving force in society,” says Mr. Taylor, “is personality. No movement, however great, but had its source in a single mind; it may change the map of a continent, decide the fate of empires and races; it may divide the world like the Reformation; but its beginning, if it could only be traced to its fountain head, would be found in the thought of a single person, a person in all probability entirely ignorant of the power and purpose of that germ idea. Such an idea spreads to other and yet other minds, becoming mixed with other ideas, undergoing strange transformations in the process, but ever growing in clearness and force as time passes on, develops at last into that mighty thing, a public opinion.”

In a given case it may be possible to locate the fountain source. In the case of the great reformer of the sixteenth century it is possible to trace his words, his works, and his influence, not only on his own race and age, but on many other peoples from that day to this. “He became the mouthpiece, the prophet of all those who were sighing under the yoke of foreign tyranny and yearning for national and social liberty.”

“That the Reformation was able to establish itself in the shape which it assumed,” we are told by a great historian, “was due to the one fact that there existed at the crisis a single person of commanding mind as the incarnation of the purest wisdom which then existed in Germany, in whose words the bravest, truest, and most honest men saw their own thoughts represented; and because they recognised this man as the wisest among them, he was allowed to impress on the Reformation his own individuality. The traces of that one mind are to be seen to-day in the mind of the modern world. Had there been no Luther, the English, American, and German peoples would be thinking differently, would be acting differently, would be altogether different men and women from what they are at this moment.” (Bitzer, 1971)

Any brave man who fears nothing on the earth or under it, who is willing to declare himself faithful to his conscience and to the word of God, in the presence of an imperial and ecclesiastical hostility that suggests the stake, and who hurls defiance at Satan and all his hosts, commands our attention and merits our consideration. It is not the purpose or province of this study to refer to Luther’s faith, work, and influence as a religious reformer, or in any way to his ecclesiastical attitude or activities.

It is the sole function of this work to direct attention to his views, his writings, and his influence on matters pertaining to the theory of the state. It is true that it was in the course of his religious reform that he was led almost inevitably to suggestions of political reform. The doctrine of the Middle Ages was that the church was supreme over the state; the clergy were held to be morally superior to the laity. They were held as exempt, even as to all civil affairs, from the temporal authorities and the laws of the land. By baptism a man entered the fold of the church and the rights of citizenship. By excommunication he lost his standing in church and state. The state, indeed, was viewed as an arm of the church to carry out its will. It was the emperor’s duty to place under the ban the heretic and the excommunicate. Failing to do so, he incurred the penalty of the interdict on land and people. The schismatic and the heretic had no rights before the law. This principle was rarely denied till the Reformation. Admitted by Roman Catholic princes, and founded on the Code of Justinian, it was the basis of the popes’ claim of the right to depose sovereigns.

Luther denied to the church any authority over the state. He declared that the ecclesiastical officer has no coercive authority. The state alone possesses this power. The spheres of church and state are absolutely separate and distinct.

Thus the ecclesiastical Reformation led to a political one. The sphere of the state was extended to include every one within its borders and to include temporal affairs of every kind. On the whole,” says a recent writer, “. . . the supremacy of the common law of the land upon every one within its borders, including the clergy, triumphed universally with the Reformation.” The Reformation, therefore, was not only a religious and an intellectual, but a political revolt, as it was also a revolt of the individual against class or caste. “This great revival was set in a picturesque framework of human impulses, political, intellectual, moral, social, and economic, such as the world has seldom seen before or since.” (Ansbro, 1982) It is a great mistake, a grievous error, to regard the movement of which Luther was the source and the centre as purely religious. “However much Luther might seek to narrow the reform movement within the limit of his own spiritual experience, it was not possible to shake himself free from these political, intellectual, social influences of the time, and he in turn contributed by his reforming teaching and fervour to quicken these influences. He was or became, willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly, the instrument, not merely of a religious reformation but of a many-sided revolution.” The practical application of the theological, ecclesiastical, and ethical elements of the Reformation involved questions of most far-reaching political and social import. Although these political consequences of the Reformation did not manifest themselves all at once, “the results of this movement upon the enfranchisement of the individual could not but show themselves sooner or later.” “The habits of centuries were not to be unlearnt in a few years, and it was natural that ideas struggling into existence and activity should work erringly and imperfectly for a time.” (Bitzer, 1971)

Luther demanded the right to think for himself. The mind of man may not be, cannot be, formed or changed by mere physical force or fiat of human government, whether ecclesiastical or civil. Once asserting and maintaining the freedom of the individual conscience, it must inevitably include the political as well as the religious field of thought.

Luther was thus the liberator of modern thought. External force cannot control thought, the mind, the conscience. Secular government has no authority over matters of belief. Human government cannot claim the right to rule except in that realm where it can see, know, recognise, and judge. To assert that it has such right or such power is as absurd as to declare that it has authority to command the sun or moon to shine or the earth to revolve. A new era began with Martin Luther’s firm stand so forcibly stated in his great treatises of 1520, so vividly shown in his burning of the papal bull of excommunication in the presence of a large concourse of people, and yet again so fearlessly and so publicly taken at the Diet of Worms, in the presence of the highest and most powerful ecclesiastical and imperial authority of the age. This last scene,–which has been termed one of the finest, perhaps the very finest, scene in human history–is unquestionably a landmark in the development of the modern political world. In spite of excommunication from the church, in spite of the ban of the empire, the world had changed in so far that, though protected by the Wartburg retreat for almost a year, Luther was thereafter practically safe, with freedom to come and go at will among a libertyloving people for the remaining quarter of a century of his life. The rights of the individual conscience had been discovered, and the ban had lost its sting. The old and the new met in the presence and in the persons of Charles V., the emperor, and Martin Luther, the monk. The aim and the effort of the young Emperor to turn time and the world backward for centuries proved futile; and Luther gave the Holy Roman Empire its death-blow (Ansbro, 1982).

The Teuton has been known throughout his history as a lover of liberty. For the first conception of the modern constitutional and popular government, we are taken to that section of Europe lying between the rivers Rhine and Elbe and to the east of the Elbe. “The civilisation of the present age and the peoples who enjoy the blessings of liberty and freedom owe a great debt of gratitude to the pioneers of these German forests, for between the Rhine and the Elbe rivers and to the east of Elbe, among these early invaders of the unknown forests, breathed the first spirit of true liberty based on limited and popular government, as now practised by the English-speaking peoples. There it was conceived and had its birth; there its works and blessings developed a people not of art and eloquence, not of fancy, philosophy, and literature, but of plain and strong morals and natural endowments, with a burning desire in their conscience for justice and for humanity-a people who were to go forth destined to rule and to plant their principles of freedom and liberty in the hearts and consciences and minds of the human family.” (Bitzer, 1971)

But Luther’s Appeal to the German Nobility was really the first definite announcement that Germans ought to work all together for a united Germany, and was the first practical step taken in the movement to create a German nationality which has made such an advance in our own generation, and whose end is not yet.”

After continued efforts on the part of the estates of the realm to secure effective, uniform imperial legislation and action to protect themselves and their subjects against foreign interference and aggression, and against continual internal disturbance and petty warfare, as it was felt absolutely necessary to have a stronger civil government for the protection of all rightful interests and the punishment of evil-doers, there was no solution to the problem but for each elector, each prince, each free city, to take measures to accomplish the necessary reforms. This undoubtedly would have happened, in view of the necessity, though the religious Reformation had not come about; and this increasing authority and power of the separate states of the empire cannot be attributed–certainly not entirely–to Luther’s teaching. Luther, personally, would have strengthened the nation and the national power as a unit; but, under the circumstances of the case, the nation, with a peculiarly weak confederacy of the whole, was unequal to the task, and the natural and inevitable result was a stronger, unitary, individual state. Charles V had a golden opportunity, but he failed to see or use it. We have no right, it must be admitted, to demand that Charles V, on the one hand, or that Luther, on the other hand, should see matters of this nature in the light that the developments of centuries have enabled us to see them. Both of them must be judged in the light of their age.

That Luther changed his views to a limited degree on certain subjects connected with civil government is only to say that he became wiser in the light of new developments and larger experience; but on essential points he is absolutely consistent in all his writings and in all his actions alike. That the years following his activity brought a reaction along some lines is an historical fact for which he is in no way responsible. In his own day, he did not change the map of the political world to any appreciable extent, but he did change the field and the sphere of inalienable individual rights. His sober and vigorous criticism of political conditions operated as a mighty impulse in the field of the theory of the state, and his teaching operated in the European field of politics as a new revelation. 1 In the light of the truths and principles asserted by him, it may truly be asserted of him and his age: “The enduring work of the sixteenth century was the modern state. Its legal omnipotence and unity, the destruction of all competing powers, separate or privileged, were assured, and a universal allembracing system of law became possible” (Bitzer, 1971).

The date of the beginning of the modern age has been much discussed by various writers viewing the subject from different standpoints. Mr. Bluntschli, for example, dates the modern era from the year 1740. He gives the following reasons for this selection:

The rise of the Prussian kingdom, Joseph II’s reforms in Austria, the foundation of the United States of North America, the changes of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire, the transplanting of constitutional monarchy to the continent, the attempted introduction of representative democracy, the foundation of national states, the gradual removal of religious privileges and disabilities in public law, the separation of church and state or at least the clear demarcation between their spheres, the abolition of feudalism and of all privileged orders, the rise of the conception of national unity, the recognition of the freedom of society,–all these are the achievements or at least the attempts of the modern state.

When we review the various political principles enunciated by Luther, we cannot but recognise and acknowledge that the fundamental and inalienable rights of the individual and the unquestioned duties of the state, as held in the modern civilised world, are clearly set forth by him in the first half of the sixteenth century. Known and widely proclaimed as a theologian, a university professor, a preacher, a poet, a hymn writer, a musical composer, a humourist and satirist, a naturalist, the modern world loses sight of his position and influence in the field of politics as a teacher, a prophet, a statesman.

Luther’s Political Principles

I.  The origin of the state. The state, as natural and necessary to man, is as truly divine in its origin as the creation of man himself; though the nature or the form of government that may be established is a matter of human determination.

II.  The sovereignty of the state. The state possesses exclusive coercive authority. To it, in its sovereignty, belongs all legislative, executive, and judicial jurisdiction in temporal affairs. This jurisdiction extends over every individual within the territory of the state–ecclesiastic and heretic included. Status in the church does not affect or determine status in the state. The state does not hold or wield a sword in the interests of the church (Ansbro, 1982).

The national state is the natural unit of civil government. Foreign interference–whether ecclesiastical or civil–is not to be tolerated. Every individual is in duty bound to obedience to civil authority, legally constituted and exercised, unless it be a command to do that which is explicitly prohibited by the word of God.

A government may be constitutionally reformed or altered. Illegal or unconstitutional government may be overthrown. Ultra vires commands or acts have no force or validity. Submission is not  duty and self-defence is a right of the individual in case of tyranny.

The objects of the state. The primary object of the state is to protect the good, punish the wicked, and maintain public peace. Civil government is to be conducted in the interests of the governed–not of any particular person or persons, any class or classes, but on behalf of all the people. Whatever the form of government –as Luther expresses no preference–civil authority is a sacred trust. To every man is to be given equal consideration and opportunity, under similar conditions.

The functions of the state. It is the duty of the state to educate its youth not only in the secular field of learning, but also along moral and religious lines. It should care for its poor, protect its subjects against monopolies, extortion, gambling, and public immorality.

The limits of the state. Religious and civil liberty–of conscience, speech, and press-are inalienable rights belonging alike to every individual, subject only to the equal rights of others, the maintenance of public peace and order, and the sovereign power of the state over the external life, where it touches the lives of others (Fairclough, 1987).

In all these respects, Luther lives ‘yet to-day, for these principles are the fundamental ones in force under the enlightened governments of the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nor have we yet fully realised his ideals. Perhaps we never shall. Leopold von Ranke regarded the Reformation as a great political force working political transformations not yet ended. The best thought and the highest political leadership of the age is calling now, not for more, but better government, not wealth for the favoured few, not government in the interests of a certain class or classes, but on behalf of the masses and of the people as a whole. The government itself, in Luther’s view, may be by prince or people, but it must be government for the people. To this end it is a trust from above.

In the light of his attitude on all these political questions, we must recognise in Luther not merely a prophet, or a forerunner, but the founder of the modern theory of the state; not that he secularised it, but he declared it to be absolutely separate and distinct from the church and the sole possessor of coercive authority and sovereign power; and with this theory of the state, he declares the inalienable liberty of the mind of man, of the human soul, of the individual conscience. “The dearest goods of our estate,” says Dr. Hedge, “civil independence, spiritual emancipation, individual scope, the large room, the unbound thought, the free pen, whatever is most characteristic of this New England of our inheritance–we owe to the Saxon reformer. . . . Modern civilisation, liberty, science, social progress, attest the world-wide scope of the protestant reform, whose principles are independent thought, freedom from ecclesiastical thrall, defiance of consecrated wrong.” Luther was a German, but he is claimed to-day by all lands and all civilisations as an epochmaker, as a beacon light of history, for he is the founder of modern liberty; his “service to mankind was nothing less than the successful declaration of individual freedom of conscience from the dictates of any human authority.” (Fairclough, 1987)

The priceless blessings of liberty and the rights of conscience recognised, enjoyed, and guaranteed in our own great republic, and working like leaven among all peoples who do not enjoy them, are, directly and indirectly, the result of the truths and principles so clearly and so forcibly proclaimed by Martin Luther nearly four hundred years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reference:

Ansbro, John J. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind , 1982

Bitzer, Lloyd F., and Edwin Black, eds. The Prospect of Rhetoric, 1971

Fairclough, Adam. To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens, 1987.

King, Martin Luther Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by James M. Washington, 1986

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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