Martin Luther King, Jr., an American human rights activist, was killed in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. The killer, James Earl Ray, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in London, extradited to the United States and charged with murder.
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The reality of the circumstances aside, Martin Luther is largely known to history as the man who “lit the fuse” igniting the Protestant Reformation throughout 16th century Europe. The common perception is not essentially wrong, although Protestantism owes a great deal to movements and individual actions beyond Luther’s. He did challenge Catholic doctrine and policy boldly, and he most certainly generated immense support for the cause. At the same time, it is crucial to remember that Luther was a Catholic monk, and his dream was to reform, rather than separate from, the Church. The repercussions of his actions then went far beyond his intentions, just as the events to come in Luther’s own lifetime embittered him. Ultimately, the life of Martin Luther reveals how powerfully – and unknowingly – a single case of human agency may trigger upheaval on an enormous scale.
In order to comprehend how and why Martin Luther’s actions went beyond his intentions, it is of course first necessary to have an idea of the man himself, and what those intentions were. Marty Martin’s Martin Luther: A Life provides an excellent source for this information, cutting past myth and legend, and offering what is actually known of Luther. This is crucial, as the early years of Luther’s education and being are valuable in understanding his true motivations, which in turn goes to how events went beyond his ambitions. As noted, Luther was a monk, and this was no random calling or a vocation forced into. Certainly, Luther was a devout scholar, and early on; when he attained his master’s degree in 1505 from the University at Erfurt, he claimed it was a supreme happiness for him (Martin 5). It was not law, however, that engaged Luther’s intellect and passion, but theology. There were over a thousand monks and nuns within the fortified city of Erfurt, and this seems to have moved Luther more to pursue spiritual learning. He had studied philosophy, but the field did not provide him with the answers regarding God’s care and love he craved (4-5). This could only come from full immersion into Church life, and as a professor and monk.
What this translates to, then, is a profound conviction on Luther’s part to belong to the Church, so it is highly unlikely that his intent was ever to defame or attack it. Luther was in a sense tortured by the abuses he perceived within the Church hierarchy, and no abuse was greater to him than the practice of indulgences. These were literal transactions authorized by the Church, in which sins could be atoned for by providing money to the Church: “For a price, the owners of indulgences could see their time in purgatory shortened” (30). Luther protested against this and other policies, and it is important to note that his letter to Archbishop Albrecht in 1517, in which he decries indulgences as a part of his 95 Theses, is written in as apologetic a tone as may be imagined: “Luther denigrated himself as a humble feces of a man” (32). It is not known whether the famous documents were in fact nailed to the Church door at Wittenberg, but the reality remains that Luther was appealing to the higher powers as a base and unworthy monk. This does not at all indicate a man determined to “reinvent” Catholicism, but rather one desperate to see a beloved faith restored to its original, scriptural principles. It is noted that Luther’s devotion was extreme, and in ways reflecting individual doubt and suffering; he continually wished to know the will of God and make sense of a world in which God favored some and neglected others (16). Contrary to the legend, then, Luther was firmly within the Church, rather than a crusader out to reform Christianity.
What is important in all of this was that Luther himself does not seem to have ever entertained the idea of breaking with the Catholic Church, yet his actions went very much to encouraging precisely this. He believed Church practices were corrupt, but he believed as well that internal reform, set in motion by the pope, could save the Church (54). As the Protestant movement took on a life of its own, Luther very much remained hopeful that the pope would convene a council to address the wrongs of the Church, thus rendering the new movement unnecessary. Weakening Luther’s hope was the repeated criticism leveled at him from Church authority, asserting that he was going above himself in challenging the thinking of Catholic scholars and officials (149). As Martin reveals, all of this led to extreme bitterness overtaking Luther, who insisted he would be burned before surrendering his thinking.
How that Protestant movement evolved, however, is nearly as legendary as Luther himself. Moreover, it is a movement easily traced throughout European history in the 16th and 17th centuries, just as it would resonate in modern times. That the Catholic Church of Luther’s days was an immensely powerful political institution is well-known. Not only were kings and princes often set in power through Church influence and manipulation, the succession of popes reinforces the social, commercial, and political connections. Popes of the era were often princes in their own rights or, as in the case of the Medici, vastly wealthy individuals from powerful families. Luther’s impact notwithstanding, this was becoming an issue in Europe before he issued the 95 Theses, and it is even arguable that the course taken by England’s Henry VIII furthered Protestantism as much, if not more, than Luther’s initiative. In refuting the authority of Rome, and chiefly because the pope would not sanction his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry lit a fuse all his own. England became the locus for Protestant refugees, even as Henry burned them as heretics. In defying papal authority and in the unprecedented act of separating a European power from Church rule, he gave inestimable, if unintentional, support to Protestantism.
Even this, however, is likely due at least in part to the groundwork laid by Luther a few decades earlier. Consequently, the effects of his dispute with the Church went greatly beyond anything Luther envisioned or desired. Wars were engaged in, as in Philip’s attempt to conquer England in 1588, because religious and political authority had become hopelessly intertwined; Philip was not so much a king as he was a Catholic king, and Elizabeth’s status as Queen of England was bound to her own Protestantism. Even before the Armada invasion, religious schisms were tearing Europe apart: Philip’s sovereignty over the Netherlands was the cause for wars when the Dutch embraced Protestantism and insisted on freedom of worship; in France, Dowager Queen Catherine de Medici spent decades trying to end the bloody civil wars between the French Catholics and the Huguenots, or Protestants. While not diminishing the impact of Henry’s fight with Rome, it is arguable that all of this emerged as a series of world-shaking consequences because one scholar and monk named Martin Luther could not rest without questioning corrupt Church policy.
The single case of Martin Luther asks a question whose importance cannot be overstated: namely, how much is the human agency responsible for what it generates unintentionally? Connected to this is the further question of how individual motives and plays into this concern. On one level, the answer to the first question is remarkably simple. As human events and history are guided by multiple forces, there can be no real responsibility attached when one person’s actions set in motion repercussions never intended by them. In plain terms, it is impossible to know beforehand how certain actions, certainly going to social, religious, or political matters, may be reacted by any society. In some cases, it is true, there are probabilities. The assassination of a leader, for example, is likely to create chaos within a society, and largely negative repercussions. Similarly, decrees from a pope can be gauged as having likely effects, as when a stand is taken by the Church prohibiting abortion or gay marriage. In such cases, the intent may be to eliminate the practices, but the human agent is obligated to face the reality that controversy will follow.
Luther’s case, however, points to a unique quality here, and one also providing a legitimate rationale for an individual’s acting in a dramatic way concerning major issues. That is, given that there can be no certainty as to how a protest will evolve, or if it will at all, there is only one responsibility human agents must accept: confidence in the rightness of their action, and only as it applies to their specific circumstances. History, as history itself has consistently revealed, never exists within a single context. It is moreover nothing that may be calculated or planned simply because its nature is to be revealed as it is shaped by forces too many to calculate. Responsibility for repercussions, even of the greatest impact, cannot then attach when the individual’s intent is not on history, but only on an immediate concern. Intent is everything, then, and this absolves Luther of any blame – or credit – for the consequences of his actions which tore the Western world apart. Luther, as would be the case with any other such human agent, is not accountable for what evolved because his only motive was to attend to a wrong before him at the time, sand
History has generally created over time an image of Martin Luther as a radical and a rebel. He is thought of as the man who triggered – and single-handedly – the Protestant Reformation which would alter the shape of the Western world. Interestingly, this is true and untrue. Luther did indeed “light a fuse” and set in motion the reform movements. At the same time, other forces were certainly in play contributing to these developments, and perhaps the most important fact to realize is that none of this was foreseen or desired by Luther. His goal was to save the Church in which he served, even as that Church increasingly denounced him. This having been his real intent, he is absolved from actual responsibility in what followed because his motives were directed to the cause at hand, and in a way he felt to be right. This is then the dilemma within all human agency itself, as any action so guided may have impacts unimaginably beyond the actual circumstances of it. In the final analysis, then, the life of Martin Luther reveals how powerfully – and unknowingly – a single case of human action to address an issue may trigger upheaval on an enormous scale.
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