It’s the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and Germany has taken notice. Secularization has largely reduced the church to small pockets of either progressive therapeutic deism or wannabe-American megachurchism, but Martin Luther and the movement he started on October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg remain a known cultural touchstone. Last October, to kick off the Reformationsjahr, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—three of Germany’s most prominent and respected media outlets—ran features on Luther and his lasting influence on German culture.
Even in Catholic Cologne, the bakery around the corner from my apartment is selling Reformationskruste, a football-sized brick of spelt rye bread. Using the change I might have spent on indulgences 500 years ago, I bought a loaf.
It is easy to forget the turbulence and trials that accompanied the onset of Protestantism. As the word indicates, Luther’s movement was one of protest. He may not have intended to break from the Catholic Church, but he was certainly aware of the gravity of his actions. With his theses, Luther was initiating a wave of rebellion that threatened to overturn the religious, political, and social power structures of the Western world. A future in which the counterculture of the day could be marketed as a loaf of bread—get 10 loyalty points with your purchase!—half a millennium later was surely inconceivable at the time.
But Christianity is no stranger to protest. Once Jesus set foot on earth and told the world that he belonged to a different kind of royal lineage, he and his followers were at odds with the Roman Empire. And early Christian rebellion wasn’t just external. The church also protested itself. It was Jesus himself who rebuked Pharisees and flipped over tables in the temple courts.
In the Old Testament, David, Job, Amos and others approach God with appeals for justice that align with the Christian protest tradition. Thousands of years later, it was Martin Luther King Jr., named after a 16th century German rebel, who took to the streets quoting Old Testament prophets. His protest was focused on the injustice of the day but inspired by the example of faithful dissenters who had gone before him. The same could be said of the March for Life, a protest event that brings tens of thousands of people to Washington D.C. to protest America’s abortion laws.
Today, the merits of protest are a fixture in our national discourse. Last year, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a devout Christian, took a knee to protest the killings of unarmed minorities. Donald Trump, the man holding our nation’s highest office, has called for their censure and encouraged protests of the protests. A week later, a host of players and owners locked arms, took a knee, or just stayed in the locker room as a sign of solidarity, protest, or team unity. Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice President, responded last week by following his boss’ orders and walking out of a Colts game after some players knelt during the anthem. The National Football League and the owners, in the meantime, have reaffirmed their support of standing during the national anthem. The cycle has taken on a life of its own. Most people on the periphery probably couldn’t tell you how or why the movement started.
The church’s response has been far from uniform, falling quite predictably along the typical ideological fault lines. My bet is that most writers on this blog would stand behind the athletes’ right to protest and support their motives in doing so. I’d also bet that most of us aren’t far removed from people who will give on the athletes’ right to kneel, but condemn the sentiment behind the action in the strongest terms.
What can be said about this apparent difference of opinion? The first thing is that protest has a clear place in church tradition. The scriptures and church history testify to it. Christians—especially Protestants—who claim otherwise, in the context of the kneeling during the anthem or the Right to Life March or any other demonstration, should reexamine both their theology and their ontology.
The second thing is that the Bible outlines a clear template for Christian rebellion. Protest begins with humility. When Christ positioned himself as the true King, it wasn’t with loud proclamations or decrees. It was from the backside of a donkey or the asphyxiating perch of the cross. Martin Luther King Jr. noted this example and said “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”
Beyond humility, protest is necessarily angry. Protest arises when one recognizes injustice, when the established order is disordered. Protest seeks to turn disorder on its head, just as Jesus flipped moneychangers’ tables in the temple courts, or when Luther stood before the Diet of Worms.
Finally, protest must be fixed on an eternal sense of justice. In the penultimate chapter of the Bible’s recounting of his life, Job humbles himself—“I have uttered what I did not understand”—acknowledging that eternal justice contains “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” King Jr. expressed this same sentiment when quoting 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Oriented to these qualities, protest is an appropriate and essential part of the Christian life. Five hundred years after the Reformation, the Church has waxed and waned in its proximity to established power structures. Occasionally there are marches and theses; occasionally there are Presidents who claim absolute allegiance. Occasionally a world-changing protest movement is celebrated with a loaf of bread 500 years later. Regardless of the context, the question facing the Church is constant: Whom do you kneel to?