David Bouchier: Martin Luther Drains The Swamp

Nov 13, 2017

I like to imagine that I am in touch with history – not on the level of a professional historian of course, but like anyone who has noticed the basic fact that the past shapes the present, just as the present shapes the future. We are products, and perhaps playthings of history, whether we like it or not. But the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s dramatic gesture in Wittenberg in 1517 might have passed me by, if it hadn’t been for a flurry of book reviews and an excellent documentary on public television.

This is not the kind of thing we ought to forget. Religious wars over small details of doctrine are still very much with us, but Martin Luther’s campaign was more specific. He was protesting corruption which, then as now, was one of the most popular human vices. Human nature doesn’t change much, and nobody ever wants to be punished for bad behavior, and indeed would prefer to be rewarded for it. But in the sixteenth century the prescribed penalty for breaking the rules of the church was very severe indeed – eternal damnation in fact - which is the kind of thing anyone would want to avoid if possible.

So agents of the church sold what were called indulgences. An indulgence was a kind of get-out-of-hell-free card that cancelled the buyer’s sins, and of course the bigger the sin, the higher the price. The practice was abolished in 1567, but still the process sounds strangely familiar: break a law, pay some money, and avoid the consequences. What does this remind us of?

The desire for forgiveness has never gone out of fashion, although the things we need to be forgiven for have changed. Our mortal sins are now mostly about money, and defined by more or less arbitrary human laws. So those who have the power to forgive economic wickedness are our-all-too-human lawmakers. In 1517, as now, if you couldn’t afford an indulgence you didn’t get one, and presumably paid the penalty in the next world. Now you may pay the penalty in this world – or not. Robbing a convenience store of $50 can get you a minimum of five years in jail. Robbing consumers or investors of tens of millions or even billions of dollars may get you some negative press coverage, or at worst a well-paid retirement.

So you can still buy your way out of trouble, if the trouble is big enough and profitable enough. Indulgences are obtainable from the armies of lawyers and lobbyists who intervene – on behalf of those who can afford it – with the Olympian lawgivers in Washington, D.C., who alone can forgive out our legal and economic sins, or cancel them out with a convenient piece of legislation. It’s not what you do, it’s who you know, and who you pay.

Perhaps I am being unfair to our political system which, after all, is far less corrupt than most in the world. Yet there are so many sins out there that need to be forgiven, and so many people willing to make them disappear for a price, that it may be time for a new Martin Luther, and a new Reformation.

Copyright: David Bouchier