Luther: The Purpose of the Rod

So I’ve been reading a bunch of Luther lately – he doesn’t really have the massive mega-texts like Aquinas, so we’re able to move between a few different works at speed. This week, we’re looking at the 1529 work On War Against the Turk. We’re going to start working backwards in time now, which might sound counter-intuitive, uh, but tough. When we’re finished with this one, we’ll move to a 1526 pamphlet on soldiering, and then a 1523 book on civil authority. And after that, the 1520 trilogy. Backwards, sure, but in an orderly fashion.

In our first text, then, Luther is concerned with the encroaching Muslim forces. Suleiman the Magnificent, also known as Suleiman I, had been making his way across Europe for eight years, conquering Belgrade (1521), Rhodes (1522), killing the king of Hungary, Louis II (1526), and now he’s just laid siege to Vienna in 1529. People are starting to freak out, and Luther’s kinda getting some blame. Back in 1520, when Luther was excommunicated, Pope Leo published an encyclical explaining what was up (‘Exsurge Domine‘). In this encyclical, Leo tried to produce his own cut-price version of the 95 Theses, listing 41 shit things that Luther said as reasons for his excommunication. Among these shit things, #34 condemned Luther for saying that “To go to war against the Turks is to resist God who punishes our iniquities through them.” Anyway now that the Turks are busy sieging Vienna, that whole thing is coming up again, and so Luther is producing his response where he addresses the claim in more detail. That response is On War Against the Turk.

So Luther’s basic position is that yeah, the Turks are bad, but God is using their war as a form of punishment for European behaviour: “Therefore, his war is nothing else than outrage and robbery, with which God is punishing the world, as He often does through wicked knaves, and sometimes through godly people.” The Biblical point of comparison would be the Babylonians or something – they aren’t Israelites, and within the logic of the Bible they’re the bad guys, but the Israelites have been naughty and so God punishes them by letting the Babylonians wreck the country. Luther is presenting the Ottomans in the same way. Bad people, but God is using them to punish Christian Europe.

From that perspective, then, Luther argues that picking up a sword to resist the Ottomans is really kind of pointless. The war is a symptom of a spiritual problem, and therefore needs to be addressed first on a spiritual level. Christian Europe must repent for its sins. Luther urges priests and ministers to “drive men to repentance by showing our great and numberless sins and our ingratitude, by which we have earned God’s wrath and disfavour, so that He justly gives us into the hands of the devil and the Turk.” The actual physical realities of war and death and invasion get collapsed into this internal spiritual problem. It’s an attitude we see cropping up a bunch with Luther – it’s fine if you die or get tortured or whatever else, as long as you’re still good before God. Practical circumstances are seconded to eternal, spiritual concerns.

That’s half the picture, anyway. Beyond the spiritual concerns, Luther also sees it as the Emperor’s job to go out and make war on the Ottomans. Luther sees the world as operating on two levels: the spiritual, and the physical. Each level – each kingdom – obviously has its own concerns and its own structures. The spiritual kingdom is all the religious stuff about God and Jesus and so on, and the physical kingdom is basically focused on keeping things chill until the world ends. We’ll get more into the nuts and bolts of that idea later. But basically, there’s political leaders in the world, and they’re set in place by God, and their job is to keep things stable and safe. The Ottomans threaten to disrupt society, and so Emperor Charles is within his rights to engage in a defensive war.

Crucially, Luther rejects any sort of crossover between these two levels. Popes shouldn’t be starting wars, he says, or telling worldly leaders to engage in so-called holy wars. He insists that war belongs to the physical realm, and cannot be motivated by spiritual concerns. War must be concerned with peace and social stability, which are both exclusively the concern of the physical kingdom. Therefore, he says, you absolutely cannot engage in war on religious grounds, just because you want to spread Christianity or beat up Catholicism or whatever. He gives the example of the Pope, who he says is just as evil as the Muslims. If you advocate war against the Ottomans on religious grounds, he says, then a holy war against Muslims would also seem to legitimise (at least in theory) a separate holy war against Catholics. Again: Luther’s solution is that war belongs to the earthly kingdom, the goal of which is only to maintain peace and order. Thus he says “I do not advise that men go to war with the Turk or the pope because of his false belief or evil life, but because of the murder and destruction which he does.” War against the Ottomans is only acceptable because they’re disturbing the peace with their warmongering. War against Catholics would only be acceptable under the same conditions. False beliefs and evil lives alone are not compelling reasons for war.

It’s a bit ironic, with the benefit of hindsight – we know that the Catholics had been declaring crusades against the Muslims since 1095, on specifically religious grounds. We also know about the wars of religion throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including the 1524 German Peasant’s War, which Luther himself wrote about. If you’re curious, he said that the rebelling peasants should all be murdered, because – wait for it – they were disrupting the peace with their disobedient and illegal behaviour (Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants). The man’s consistent, at least. He sees peace as important, and if that peace is threatened, the monarch is allowed to restore peace by force. That’s the monarch’s job – to keep people safe, and then to stay out the way.

As far as Luther’s concerned, then, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a defensive war against the Ottomans. He’s got his conditions for just war, and he sees the Ottomans as representing more of a spiritual problem than a practical one, but as long as the spiritual issues can be resolved, there’s no reason why the war shouldn’t be good and successful. And if it’s not successful, somebody probably fucked up one of the conditions. Probably the princes. Useless fuckers.

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