Luther: Justice For Your Neighbour

Okay so last week we talked about how Luther doesn’t want people resisting secular authority. As Christians, he says, we basically just have to suck it up and focus on our eternal souls. The practical details of our lives are of secondary importance to how those details affect our eternity. This week, we’re looking at Luther’s On Secular Authority, where he digs further into that idea. He argues that you’re still not allowed to even pursue legal justice for yourself – but you can pursue justice for your mate.

So Luther starts off by repeating all his earlier comments about the Book of James and not resisting tyranny. It’s all stuff we’ve heard before – although it’s worth noting that Luther himself doesn’t actually like the Book of James, and thinks that it’s shit theology. He actually says that it’s probably not even written by James, near the end of Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Even so, like James, Luther says that we’re all not allowed to resist tyranny or violence or injustice, because we have to suffer all things. Luther further says that if everybody in the world was Christian, we wouldn’t need legal systems or the secular kingdom: “For what would be the use of them, since Christians have in their hearts the Holy Spirit, who instructs them and causes them to wrong no one, to love every one, willingly and cheerfully to suffer injustice and even death from everyone… Therefore it is not possible for the secular sword and law to find any work to do among Christians.” The law is basically designed to keep the unrighteous in check. Us good Christians all know not to go around murdering people, but those stupid bloody pagans need a law about it. The Christian is governed by the Spirit, and the non-Christian is restrained by the law. That’s Luther’s position.

But even in there Luther’s got some nuance. After all, he says, Paul says in Romans 13 that everyone should be subject to power and authority. And in 1 Peter 2, it says “Be subject to every human ordinance.” Luther concludes that “Christians, among themselves and by and for themselves need no law or sword, since it is neither necessary not profitable for them. Since, however, a true Christian lives and labours on earth not for himself but for his neighbour, therefore the whole spirit of his life impels him to do even that which he need not do, but which is profitable and necessary for his neighbour.” As good Christians, we look out for our neighbours, including the pagan ones. The pagans need the law, so we support the law, because the law is good for the pagans. You can see how that logic is consistent with the basic premise of being a good neighbour. As Luther says, when you feed the hungry, it’s not because you yourself are hungry. You give people the things that they need in life – that’s being a good neighbour. And if those pagans need the law, then by golly you support the hecker out of the law. You still can’t invoke it for your own cause – “you have the kingdom of heaven; therefore you should leave the kingdom of earth to any one who wishes to take it” – but you have to support it, for the sake of the pagans.

There’s a couple of interesting things here, then. Firstly, Luther sees secular government as under God’s control, but doesn’t identify the law with Christian behaviour. It’s designed to stop pagans from wrecking everything. It’s not meant to impose Christianity on the secular world: “for the natural world cannot receive or comprehend spiritual things.” Quite on the contrary, Luther says: if you want to have a Christian government, you’re better off making everyone into a Christian first. Otherwise people will go on murdering each other and claim Christian liberty as their justification: “just so would the wicked under the name of Christian abuse the freedom of the Gospel, carry on their knavery, and say that they were Christians subject neither to law nor sword.” There’s a really important point about liberty and the law in here – for Luther, Christians are not directly subject to any laws or rules or whatever. They’re led by the Spirit, and do good things simply by nature. Laws are specifically counter to the purpose and function of the Christian life. They do not lead the individual to sanctity: “For no one can become pious before God by means of the secular government, without Christ’s spiritual rule.” The laws are incidental to the nature of a Christian person, and it’s counter-productive to impose them artificially on a broad populace.

Secondly, then, that line of thinking provides grounds for arguments in favour of legalising gay marriage, specifically for those Christians who believe that being gay is wrong. Simply put, even if it is wrong – and it’s not, but even if it is, you can’t impose that spiritual standard on the wider public. The natural world cannot receive or comprehend spiritual things – that is, banning gay marriage doesn’t bring anyone closer to God. You might think that heterosexuality is the only sanctified form of sexuality, but the pagans don’t understand that, and you’re not bringing them closer to God by forcing them to conform. There aren’t any demonstrable negative side-effects of gay marriage, so under the logic of keeping the peace, it makes sense to let them have it. That’s an appropriate operation under the secular kingdom. And – again, I obviously don’t support the initial assumption that being gay is wrong, but what we’ve got here is a weapon against people who do. It’s also interesting to note, by the way, that conservative lobby groups like Family First work really hard to show that gay marriage is actually scientifically demonstrably wrecking society. They do a lot of research trying to show that gay adoption is going to ruin the kids and make them maladjusted, because they’re missing out on either a positive male or female role model, but it’s a poor argument. By that logic, you have to ban divorce too, and – oh, they probably do want that banned.

So Luther’s got his two kingdoms, and he sees them as separate, and as noted several times by now, he doesn’t want individual Christians using the secular kingdom to lobby against injustice or suffering. More specifically, he says that if you’re a Christian, and someone does you an injustice, you’re not supposed to use the secular kingdom to gain recompense. You have to suffer all things. “You have the kingdom of heaven; therefore you should leave the kingdom of earth to any one who wants to take it.” But, he then says, you can use the secular kingdom to look out for your buddies. “No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself and for his cause; but for another he can and ought to wield and invoke it, so that wickedness may be hindered and godliness defended.” God invented the secular kingdom, the logic goes, and so He probably wants it to exist and do its thing and maintain justice for the pagans. Christians don’t need it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s worthless – it has a valid function and we have a responsibility to support it. Therefore, Luther says, if you’re supporting the state “not with the intention of seeking one’s own ends, but only of helping to maintain the laws and the State, so that the wicked may be restrained, there is no peril in them [the laws] and they may be followed like any other pursuit.” It ultimately seems like a bit of an exploitable argument, but okay, sure: you can’t use the law to defend your own interests, but you can use it to defend your mate. Best solution for everyone is to get some friends, I guess.

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