Reforming the Reformation, part 1

In 1517, when Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses against the Catholic Church, he began what we now call The Reformation. Luther had a lot of issues with his church, but his main gripe was the selling of indulgences. 

Partially in order to finance the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, partially in keeping with secular judicial practices of the era which required a monetary payment in return for a criminal conviction, Pope Leo X authorized clergy to exchange partial absolution of temporal sins in return for money (in Catholicism there is a difference between temporal and eternal sin). The subject is more complicated than most people are aware. Most folks tend to think the Catholic Church was selling complete absolution of all sins in return for gold and silver. In actuality, what they were selling was a way to decrease the amount of time a soul spent in purgatory, until such time as it was cleansed and prepared to go to Heaven. This idea reveals just how dualistic Christianity had become 1500 years after Jesus tried to show people how singular our relationship with God is.

For Luther, indulgences were not only an affront to our spiritual nature, they were also an affront to God’s gift of forgiveness and the very idea of grace freely given. If we have to continually and literally pay for our transgressions, where is grace? Eventually of course, this idea would be taken further. For Luther, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for the sins of all humankind was the theology of the day. Yet the idea that Jesus somehow had to die as payment for the sins of humankind is an idea that could only happen after the Jesus Movement lost all traces of its Jewish heritage.

It’s always important to remember that the Jesus story is a Jewish story. There was no such thing as Christianity in Jesus’ time. Like Martin Luther, Jesus was a reformer. He saw problems within his religion and he rallied people against the idea that they had to make blood sacrifices to God in order for their transgressions to be forgiven. Jesus’ radical idea was that God forgives, no literal sacrifice needed. Even more radical was Jesus’ claim that God is within. For Jesus, the sacrifices we make are economic, political, and social. The idea that one would gladly sacrifice their life for another—which is what Jesus does when he goes to the cross, not in some cosmic way, but in the same way Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., or any great and passionate social activist would, is a deeply Jewish idea that harkens back to Leviticus.

Every 50 years, the Jewish people were to forgive all debts (Leviticus 25:10). People who had lost their land were to have it returned to them. Slaves were to be freed. Debts and debtors were to be forgiven. This is why the Easter season is 50 days long. It is meant as a time for us to reflect on how willing we would be to sacrifice for others—perhaps by absolving them of whatever they might owe us. Easter is a time to wipe the slate clean and start anew. It’s no accident that it falls in the spring, a time of renewal. A time for new life and new growth. A time for reformation of the old ways that keep us burdened, enslaved, and chained to the cross.

The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a story of the ancient Jewish practice of Yovel, of Jubilee. It’s not that Jesus overcomes death so we can have some sort of afterlife (and certainly not so we can spend time in purgatory thinking about what we’ve done wrong, like some sort of eternal time out). It’s about willingly sacrificing everything we have in order to help create a better world for everyone else.

Jesus’ act on the cross is selfless, and his resurrection is a parable about how all lives are resurrected when debts are forgiven—not by God, to whom we owe no debt, but to each other. When we keep each other enslaved, we make it impossible to recognize God within, an idea so powerfully represented in Jesus Christ.

What would happen to our world if tomorrow, everyone’s debt was forgiven? If people who had their homes stolen during the bank-created mortgage lending crisis were given their property back? If people whose fortunes were stolen by Wall Street’s illegal trading and investment schemes were given their fortunes back? If the homeless were given homes, the jobless given jobs, the enslaved—form Nike factories in Indonesia to iPhone factories in China, were set free?

Easter is a chance for us to spend 50 days thinking about the reformation of our world, our churches, our economic and judicial ystems. Martin Luther started a reformation, and got upset when some of his contemporaries called for revolution. But 500 years after Luther’s reformation, religion and society are stuck in a rut again. Our churches still proclaim we are sinners, even though Jesus makes it clear we are nothing of the sort. Our judicial system still requires money in exchange for the payment of crimes, and if you have enough money, you can literally get away with murder. Our economic system creates slaves of all but the wealthiest 1% of people in the world. Our social systems are now sliding so far backwards that discrimination is being legalized.

I don’t believe Jesus died for our sins. Because of them, perhaps. But I truly believe that if Jesus were around to see what’s happened to his message today, he’d nail his own 95 Theses to the doors of every church—Catholic and Protestant both.

Meditation: My transgressions and debts are forgiven, may I forgive others as I am forgiven.

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