How do we commemorate the past? That question is front and center in our civic as well as religious life. Currently, we are engaged in an increasingly-tangled debate about what to do with monuments to the Confederacy. Also, this October marks the 500th anniversary of the event that many think of as “launching” the Protestant Reformation. Both events – the American Civil War and the Protestant Reformation – were hugely disruptive and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The Civil War brought slavery to an end in the United States. The Reformation was essentially a spiritual renewal movement that reconnected Christianity with its biblical foundations. But how do we remember these events? What do they have to teach us?
A few years ago, as plans began to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, Protestant leaders (mostly Lutherans) decided to call this a “commemoration” rather than a “celebration.” They wanted to recognize not only the achievements of the Reformation but also the damage that was done. The Reformation was a protest against ways that the institutional church and church officials had amassed political and military power and great wealth. It was a theological revolution that brought Christians back to understanding salvation as God’s free gift of grace. Perhaps its most enduring legacy was the translation of the Bible into languages that people could understand and eventually read for themselves.
But the Reformation also disintegrated the unity of the Body of Christ in Western Europe. Christians came to look upon one another as strangers and enemies. They banned each other from one another’s worship. Martin Luther was a great scholar and teacher; a man of towering faith and courage and deep theological insight. He was also deeply anti-Semitic and wrote horrific things about Jews and Jewish faith. He demonized other Protestant leaders whom he thought to be too radical. He condemned an uprising of poor peasant
An honest commemoration of the Protestant Reformation means coming to terms with the larger truth about what happened and why. Things that once were overlooked have been brought to the fore, and it is to the great credit of the World Lutheran Federation that they issued a public apology for Luther’s teaching against the Jews.
What about the Civil War? Clearly, this was a complex tragedy that divided literal families as well as the nation itself. But at its core, the war was about the right of some people to own other people as property. No one today affirms that so-called “right.” Do the monuments to those who led and fought for the Confederacy memorialize something else worth claiming? And what about the fact that nearly all the monuments were erected during particularly violent times when Jim Crow laws were enforced with public lynching and when the Ku Klux Klan had its biggest following?
We should never try to erase history, but we must always try to understand it and above all tell the truth about it. It is also the case that, with the passage of time, our values change and that effects how we tell the story of the past. As the poet James Russel Lowell said, “New occasions teach new duties; time [sometimes] makes ancient good uncouth.”
Cynthia Campbell, Pastor