A Life of Social Justice
It was four hundred and sixty-five years ago, yesterday, that Martin Luther died in Eisleben, Germany (February 18th, 1546). Of course, when we’re dealing with history that dates back so many centuries, some of the historical accuracy gets lost in legend, but there are a few parts of the story of the last days of Martin Luther’s life that stick out for me.
This 16th Century, Roman Catholic, German monk was a bur in the side of the church of his day. At the time, the church had a great deal of power and influence – one might even say that the Roman church of the 16th century was the most powerful multi-national corporation in the world. Luther, theologian and scholar that he was, wanted to free people of what he saw as guilt- and fear-induced bondage to the church. In his study of scripture, he came to the conclusion that God is a god of grace. We are not meant to live in fear, but to live in the freedom that God is with us, loves us, and knows us, no matter who we are – a word of hope to people who were being told things like their dead relatives would be held indefinitely in ‘purgatory’ until they purchased, out of their meager incomes, indulgences to buy them out of their suffering.
In Luther’s last days, he sensed that his life would not be a lot longer. So, he took a trip to the city of his birth, Eisleben (he was born November 10th, 1483, and baptized on the 11th – feast day of Martin of Tours, hence his given-name!). It is said that, in the last sermon he preached – just days before his death, and on the last Sunday he was alive – he ended with words to this effect: “I could go on about this passage for a while longer, but those thoughts can wait for another sermon.” In the prayer Luther is said to have prayed on his death-bed, he refers to the pope as “shameful” and one who doesn’t truly convey what Jesus Christ was about.
It might be our twenty-first century minds that find it funny that someone like Luther – born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church, also educated, and a priest of the church – could rail against the institution of his up-bringing until the very last, as he did. There might even be something satisfying about seeing that kind of despising of the institution by a person like Luther. However, I believe Luther came more from a point of view that all have worth and all are to be freed to be who they are.
It is so easy to allow one’s-self to become wrapped up in one’s own pursuits, and our institutions do it, too. We seek self-preservation – perhaps even at all costs. Turn a blind eye to that person’s suffering over there because we’re having enough trouble trying to live the life we want over here – thinking nothing of how our living can affect the life of another.
Social justice has to do with considering the needs of others all the time. If our needs are met, we don’t sit back and enjoy our lap of luxury, we look to the needs of others. We try to put ourselves in others’ places and consider how life does or does not treat us well, and we work for justice where all have enough.
Tomorrow is World Day of Social Justice. It’s a day designated by the UN and began in 2009. It’s a day where we might all open our eyes to need around us, and take responsibility for our place in the world and the footprints we leave in our wake. May each of us find, in our living, how life is about how we are all connected – all people, all creatures – and how we must be aware of, and work for, the needs of all.