The world we inhabit can be made better if we think and write ideas that we feel deeply about, share them authentically, and choose to stand by them in good conscience.
Five hundred years ago, acting on a belief in what was good and right, Martin Luther tapped on a nail to post his 95 theses (points for debate) on the Wittenburg Castle church door in Germany. In so doing he struck a figurative hammerblow, rocking mid-millennial Europe every bit as much as his namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., did mid-century America. And the parallels to our time are astonishing, which makes Martin Luther more relevant today than ever.
In 1517, Luther was living, thinking, and writing in a world with a brand new “social media” tool—the printing press. This technology had exponentially expanded opportunities for spreading ideas—opportunities never before available in the world of hand printing and hand-to-hand distribution.
And like today, the introduction of new technology meant the awakening of new appetites. In 1517, owners of presses were hungry for content to publish, just like the publishers of our day are hungry the next big hit or viral post. And then, as now, virality means that even the tiniest microbe can create a plague, and one small idea can create a massive movement.
Such was the case with Luther. The document we celebrate today—his 95 theses—challenged the common religious practice of the day. In truth, many people around him shared his ecclesiastical concerns, but few risked talking about them, and even fewer writing about them. Luther hoped to stir discussion and maybe prompt some introspection and reform within the monolithic church and society of his day.
When he hand-posted that document, written in Latin, on the equivalent of a bulletin board—the door of the church at Wittenburg Castle—his expectation was that other Latin-educated clerics might read it and respond to his invitation for discussion and debate.
Therefore, he couldn’t have been more surprised to find it being reproduced in neighboring towns and cities, appearing in special editions, even translated into German. Enterprising printers everywhere were putting it up for sale. If you’ve ever seen your post or picture show up in a public place you didn’t expect (and might not wish it to be), you can imagine his dismay.
With one simple “post,” he had started a debate that raced beyond his control. It touched a nerve that was connected to hearts and minds across Europe, raising the interest and ire of priests and parishioners, commoners and kings. And Luther found himself not only defending his ideas, but his life.
In time, he was summoned to a tribunal of the highest authority where he was expected to recant or be executed. On his way to judgement, he was thronged from one village to the next by ordinary people cheering him on. Up until that time, such celebrity was, for the most part, reserved for royalty. But because of this new technology—the printing press—Luther’s image was widely recognized, and everyone came out for a glimpse of the man who had “spoken” truth to power.
Those powers would not immediately embrace the reforms he advocated. But he did not recant. He stood in good conscience by his published words. Unlike other reformers, he escaped execution, and lived to see his influence spread beyond the new church that came to bear his name. In time, thousands of branches of Christianity grew out of the seed he planted. And in hindsight, that seed became a towering tree, marking a change in the social landscape from ignorance and oppression, to religious freedom, democracy, self-government, and liberty.
Five hundred years later, in an age when ordinary people nail their ideas with ease and impunity to the digital door we call the Internet, how do we actually regard that once-obscure Augustinian monk? Except for Lutherans and religious scholars, most aren’t primarily interested in the church he founded or doctrines he espoused. But they are interested in the influence he had, which derives from a life of integrity—thinking, writing, sharing, and standing by what he believed.
Luther didn’t know that the ideas he posted would have such an influence. And in truth, none of us really knows the influence of our thoughts, beliefs, and posted words. Obviously, few will ride a technological wave that facilitates a socio-religious tsunami, as Luther did. But the world we inhabit can be made better if we think and write ideas that we feel deeply about, share them authentically, and choose to stand by them in good conscience. Then, even if our ideas fade in relevance and significance, the light of our integrity will endure and grow far beyond our sight, even 500 years or more.
Five hundred years later, in an age when ordinary people nail their ideas with ease and impunity to the digital door we call the Internet, how do we actually regard that once-obscure Augustinian monk?