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Martin Luther: The Role of Government in Hindering Sin
The terms 'conservative', 'liberal', and 'libertarian' are so misunderstood today. The latter are the real utopians. Did the devil elect Donald Trump? Is government bad? Consider intersectionality.
By Ed Knudson
A question was asked by Lutheran Pastor Lura N. Groen on Facebook where Luther talks about the law hindering sin. R. Don Wright then posted the answer below in the direct words of Luther. Now, in reading this, remember that Luther understood the "devil" as a very active force in the world. Today, people do not believe in a sort of personal devil in the same way.
But there are forces today that, indeed, act like the devil, powerful forces, that have an independent existence to some degree, and are able to capture and control the minds of people. Think of racism. It exists, really, in what we might call "public consciousness". And people let it into their minds and allow it to determine how they think and feel and act. In fact, it is impossible to understand the past election for president without realizing the degree to which racism played a large part. Some studies have indicated that cultural racism was the prime factor in the election, a backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama. So, in Luther's view, it is possible to say the devil elected Donald Trump.
Law hinders the devil's power. Read this and think about it. I will talk about "liberal" beliefs and the concept of intersectionality afterwards. Here's Luther:
Here one must know that there is a double use of the Law. One is the civic use. God has ordained civic laws, indeed all laws, to restrain transgressions. Therefore every law was given to hinder sins. Does this mean that when the Law restrains sins, it justifies? Not at all. When I refrain from killing or from committing adultery or from stealing, or when I abstain from other sins, I do not do this voluntarily or from the love of virtue but because I am afraid of the sword and of the executioner. This prevents me, as the ropes or the chains prevent a lion or a bear from ravaging something that comes along. Therefore restraint from sins is not righteousness but rather an indication of unrighteousness. Therefore just as a rope holds a furious and untamed beast and keeps it from attacking whatever it meets, so the Law constrains an insane and furious man lest he commit further sins. This restraint makes it abundantly clear that those who have need of it—as does everyone who is outside Christ—are not righteous but unrighteous and insane, whom it is necessary to tame with the rope and with prison to keep them from sinning. Therefore the Law does not justify.I am reading right now a book by Gary Dorrien on Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit. These are two major figures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who are associated with the Enligntenment. Kant emphasized the use of reason in human affairs and Hegel talked about communal spirit in history and a positive role for government. Both are Germans influenced by Luther. Luther believed that Christians could, in the power of the Holy Spirit, do what Jesus commanded, that is, "love the neighbor" and to do so they should use their "practical reason" to do so. They should leave the monastery and go into the world to do some practical "secular" work using their minds to figure out how best to love the neighbor. Reason was no help whatsoever in attaining one's salvation before God; only faith helps in that domain. But reason can be helpful in loving the neighbor. So Kant is not wrong as a Lutheran philosopher, and those who have followed him have been called "liberals" in subsequent decades (though he is not the only figure influencing liberalism, of course). Human beings are able to do good in society through reason.
Hegel took an additional step. He believed the state itself could create a more rational world. Hegel wanted to think a new logic that he would teach to his students who would then take positions in government to improve society through application of rational principles. Now, this too is in the tradition of Luther, who had a very high and important role for government, to restrain sin and provide order. And this, too, is something "liberals" today tend to affirm, that government can be not just a negative but a positive force in ordering society.
Now, if you just read the words of Luther above you might conclude that he is very, very conservative. That is, he has a very low estimate of human nature. Human beings are sinners, they need government to restrain them, they allow themselves to be controlled by evil. In this sense, political philosophers who understand human beings in this way have been called conservative. To be conservative is to believe that one should obey authority, including the government as authority, such as the king. During the Revolutionary period of the United States it was conservatives, often at the urging of religious leaders, who opposed the revolutionary war against the king of England.
It was "liberals" influenced by the Enlightenment who supported the war. A new sort of government was being established. And this was done with a higher view of human beings, that they could come together and create a different government, one based on law, yes, but not on the authority of a king. This is known as "Republican" philosophy.
Now today, all this has been turned upside down. To be "conservative" is to be opposed to government itself in favor of allowing the "free market" to order society, no need for government. Harvey Cox has just written a new book, God as the Market. Many so-called religious conservatives today believe in this market god, and blame liberals for believing that the government itself is god.
And they do this with the claim that to be conservative is to believe in the freedom of the individual, which, to be clear, is not a historic conservative belief but its very opposite. It is Enlightenment liberalism that emphasized the importance of the individual. And Luther and the Reformation are often claimed for religious authorization of individual freedom, including freedom for economic decision makers even if their decisions result in serious disorder and even environmental degradation for the larger society. So today's conservatives believe in what for Luther would be ungoverned, sinful behavior under the power of the devil and evil.
It is difficult in current conditions to discuss exactly what constitutes conservatism. This is because in some ways it is social conservatism that is emphasized. But the so-called social issues, abortion, same-sex marriage, are politically charged wedge issues. Conservative religionists claim they want "religious freedom" to be able to discriminate against minorities, immigrants, women, gay persons as they have in the past, and they want government to maintain the order by which they are able to so discriminate.
But all of this serves a political party which is controlled not by social conservatives but by hyper-liberal economic actors, super hyper-liberals in the sense that they claim to want no economic governance at all. It is "libertarian" political philosophy which articulates this kind of hyper-liberalism, the absolute freedom of the individual with no constraints, no social order at all. This is the kind of philosophy the billionaire Koch brothers advocate. They are utopians, they believe that if there is no or very little government then human beings will be able to live with one another happily forevermore. They are blind to the reality of power and the reality of sin. They are not really conservatives at all in the classic sense. That's why I call them hyper-liberals. They are extremists in their beliefs, which are not shared by most people, who know how important social relationships are in all domains when they think about it.
True conservatives are concerned for good social order, as Luther indicates. Law helps in this. Luther calls the civil use as the "first use" of the Law. The second use is theological, it is Law that drives the sinner to realize his or her sinfulness, such as the first commandment to love God. Law does not help save the sinner. It just makes the sinner open to receive the gospel of God's gracious forgiveness. This spiritual dimension has nothing to do with the state. The state represents the force of violence, the sword standing behind the law, and no such force is involved in bringing a person to faith. Faith is based on the very opposite of the sword, the death of Jesus on the cross, the power of the Roman state which itself is overcome in the Resurrection. Preachers of conservative religion in the United States still use this talk, but it is no longer central to their theology. What has become central is their political commitment to the Republican Party which they view as the source of their religious freedom. In this way, in Luther's language, they have given themselves over to the devil.
To understand the depth of evil in this society it may be helpful to point to the concept of intersectionality. This is a concept that is driving conservatives nearly crazy because it is a way to conceptualize the interconnections of those who experience oppression in today's world from legal, social, economic structures of domination. The term was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 in a legal context focused on the way the experience of a black woman is not at all adequately addressed in legal theory. There is law concerning black persons. And law concerning women. But a black woman presents an "intersection" of two types of oppression that is not recognized. A black male and a white woman may be able to get a job because of laws against discrimination, but a black woman? She experiences vast discrimination unique to herself; sheer evil is being done to her. And this is unrecognized. Except among those who have allowed themselves to believe that "people on welfare" are to be rejected as less than human. It is usually white males who have an image inside their minds of the black female on welfare, having babies to get more money. Ronald Reagan spoke of this contantly and white people voted for him because of this kind of hostile rhetoric. Right wing radio still focuses constantly on this.
This is, I would say, an evil image, a false image, the black woman on welfare and still exists despite changes in the welfare system. The devil is control of white males who allow this image to control their thoughts and feelings. Radio station owners make a lot of money on it. Fox News television lives off of these sorts of racist images. Those calling themselves conservative today let the devil inside their minds when they accept such images as true.
Luther believed government was established by God to provide some order for society so people didn't kill themselves or others. He himself was socially conservative, and said some terrible things about Jewish people. But he did take on the most powerful institution of his time, the Roman Catholic Church aligned as it was with major growing financial powers. After Luther, religious wars caused massive death and destruction. Government failed to provide adequate social order, failed to hinder the sins of war.
The United States experienced a civil war over the question of race and slavery. Government was not able to provide order in this case. And race seems to continue to be the basis of politics in this country. The Republican Party has its base in the old South, which has changed, but still is dominated by race-oriented political philosophy. White people in other parts of the country also respond to racist rhetoric, enough to elect Donald Trump in 2016. It is evil. It is destroying the order of this society. Government is failing to hinder the sins of racism and the sins that cause inequality and injustice. It is failing to provide for good order and this has come to the point, now, of an existential crisis for the country as a whole.
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