Demons of Violence: Searching for Theological Responses with Luther

Introduction: Freeing our souls from the grip of violence


[1] Violence is about the use of force to abuse, injure, distort or profane.[1] Violence is about power and has consequences. Violence is random and rampant, and it is learned and calculated. Violence fuels despair, desensitizes the human heart, and brings about shame. Violence threatens to destroy our sense of self and honor as God’s images; it hurts our soul. As Pamela Cooper-White writes, “What is needed is a way for understanding how, from a personal and holistic perspective, all violence is one. All violence begins with the personal, the I…”[2]


Kirsi Stjerna[2] Supported by systems and ideas that grow unchallenged, violence committed by individuals, by “I’s”, manifests itself in heinous acts, irrational, chaotic, and devastating, and keeps people as hostages of fear. This is so regardless of our laws and mechanisms designed to control or prevent violent acts. At the same time, our laws and structures allow controlled violence for the common good; violence with wars, judicial systems (most extremely the death penalty) and for self-defense has its supporters and rationales, whereas disagreements linger on whenever violence can be “just.” Who decides and whose experience matters.


[3] Regardless of our personal opinions on these matters, on the justified and unjustified use of violence, and regardless of our respective societies’ legalized rationales for controlled violence for the greater good – areas of constant attention for Lutheran theological ethics – Lutheran theology can address the spiritual nature of violence and name the different faces, dimensions and feeders of violence as theological concerns. “Demonic” forces such as racism and sexism, are behind many violent acts and forces that draw upon and promote distorted notions of what it means to be a human created as Imago Dei. Violence that hurts not only bodies but also our souls, violence that damages our human relationships and turns us cold toward one another, violence that threatens to kill the name of God from our hearts and consciousness is a deeply theological concern and best understood theologically as a matter of original sin.[3]


[4] Violence is a matter of “reformation urgently needed”. The Reformation theology of justifying faith and God’s radical grace for all persons and the taunting evidence of our failures to promote God’s grace in our lives and relations demand that we target violence as a serious theological concern. To name violence as an enemy of the gospel and an obstacle for the kingdom of God here and now, and to reject it and suppress it as such, the battle for the minds involves engagement in both so called “spiritual” and ”temporal” realms. I will first briefly reflect on two vicious roots of violence, sexism and racism, with a rationale for a counter-attack with Luther in the war of words. I will highlight violence against women as a topic of special urgency. As Pamela Cooper-White notes, “Violence against women is connected to all other forms of violence”.[4] Second, I will reflect briefly on Luther’s explanation of the fifth commandment in his Large Catechism for its foundational directives regarding violence. In light of his idea of two kingdoms and two governments, I will look at Luther’s “situational” position and the tension between his anti-violence and pro-violence rationales.[5] With this I hope to illuminate the complexity and many faces of violence, and speak to the necessity that Lutherans not stay silent but actively take part in decision making, in action, in counsel and, importantly, in exploring the potential of the Lutheran tradition to offer theologically framed, hope-inducing approaches to violence and the suffering it causes.[6]


Violence of sexism and racism – the ugly faces of the stinking demon


[5] Violence against women is an immediate cause for Lutherans and others to address with urgency. We know this through the stories shared in private, and what we learn from the public news that makes us gasp in disbelief. Ungodly things happen in God’s creation, and we are tempted with the demonic spell of false awareness of humanity and life, and deceived into despair and acceptance of the abominable as if there was nothing we can do to change the status quo. With our experiences with violence and assaults, we get a sense of what teachers like Luther meant when they spoke about the Devil and demonic.


[6] Ntozake Shange writes in her “With No Immediate Cause”[7]

“every 3 minutes a woman is beaten
every five minutes a
woman is raped/every ten minutes
a lil lil girl is molested
yet I rode the subway today
i sat next to an old man who
may have beaten his old wife
3 minutes ago or 3 days/30 years ago
he might have sodomized his
daughter but I sat there
cuz the young men on the train
might beat some young women
later in the day or tomorrow
i might not shut my door fast
enuf/push hard enuf
every 3 minutes it happens
… … …
I spit up I vomit I am screaming
we all have immediate cause
every 3 minutes
every 10 minutes
every day
women’s bodies are found … …”


[7] The poem (quoted in part) describes a distorted reality that is not of God. The poem describes Hell on earth where the kingdom of God is supposedly being built. (Not using the word “demonic” in a medieval sense here, but for the lack of a better word, how else can we describe the state of affairs in our world where increasingly sadistic violent acts against women occur every day?) The poem illustrates the reality that the raping and killing of women continues from isolated villages to metropolitan centers, regardless of the country, culture, or geographical or economic circumstances and regardless of our laws.[8] It is alarming if theologians are not reacting and, more so, taking the lead to resist the demonic. Isn’t that in the job description for theologians to speak to the matters pertaining to the Gospel and the kingdom of God and to promote both with full power of words and engagement? That would seem to be the obvious Christian thing to do. At the same time, the Lutheran Christian tradition is fused with factors that condone the status quo: misogynism, sexism and a deeply problematic anthropology in its “exclusive” reading of what humanness entails.[9]


[8] Violence against women is a deeply theological concern on many accounts, not the least because it feeds from deep-seated misogynism, the hatred and fear of women. Sexism can be named behind the devious ills that make the world an unsafe place for women as well as a factor behind economic injustice. It is not a random matter that most of the world’s poorest people are women, and with them, their children. Poverty, as a particular type of violence, hits women the hardest, and with them, their children. Fear controls the lives of women and children more than the lives of men.[10] This reality speaks to our failures with the gospel that promises the freedom and integrity of godly holiness for each person, the kingdom of God where all persons of God are equal. We are in the midst of a series of massive failures in this regard. That the church and its theologians and leaders are not in more outrage about the status quo that makes the world an unsafe place for women and their children speaks itself of the depth of sexism’s infiltration. Women’s hurting is not systematically treated as a priority. Misogynism and sexism fuel continued violence against women and it is systematically “allowed” and tolerated.[11]


[9] Our common sense cries out that none of this is acceptable or tolerable. Institutionally, the ELCA recognizes this and has an office dedicated to promoting justice for women in the church and in the world.[12] In addition to training Lutheran pastors, deacons and church leaders with satisfactory knowledge in order to advocate for women in various ways and meaningfully connect with protecting agencies and networks of support, Lutherans share the task with other Christians to vigorously educate all women and men, girls and boys, about the worth and beauty of gendered human beings and their sexuality. Lutherans can proactively speak to matters of sex, gender and sexuality and intentionally counter shaming or distorted views of humanity, especially womanhood.[13] That work belongs in the “spiritual realm” and involves addressing the questions of humanity, humanness, gendered-ness, and sexuality theologically and reclaiming a God-centered understanding of human beings as beautiful and holy, even in their brokenness.


[10] In the “temporal realm,” as practicing theologians and sharing in the priesthood of all believers in our respective vocations, Lutherans can concretely engage in advocacy and leadership work in our communities to enforce laws and mechanisms that protect women. We can act locally, on the state-level, and globally. We can protest against unjust rulings or laws or any unjust treatment of women. This operating in the so called “temporal realm” where the rules are not made by the church but where Christians are among the workers, the church’s teaching certainly could influence the decisions made for the wellbeing of all. A Christian calling in Lutheran teaching involves participation in different levels in attending to common concerns.[14]


[11] For this we have an example from the 16th century reformers who urgently saw the need to establish schools for girls and to provide for orphaned girls or women struck by poverty. They did so very concretely by organizing common chests for financial assistance, becoming guardians and sponsors for women in need of protection, and writing regulations to ensure that those in need were cared for.[15] They were not satisfied with proclaiming “justification by faith” in words alone. The deeds were important to show what was meant by proclamation of God’s grace. Liturgy continued in deeds outside of worship. Attention was paid to girls’ needs and means of protection and empowerment.


[12] Our 16th century reformers also promoted major changes in how people understood the holiness of the whole person and every person. In this regard, we have more work to do to attack the violence of sexism deeper than any laws, which reach only the body. The Lutheran church can effectively launch an attack to counter and prevent violence towards women by intentional addressing of the false images of women that continue to pervert our consciousness of what it means to be a woman.[16] Lutheran theology can counter sexism in its manifestations by staring it right in the face, naming it as a sin and not apologizing for it but giving theological rationales for alternatives. With creation theology and the doctrine of salvation, an alternate vision can be offered to our children who are absorbing clues for their identity from questionable sources.


[13] Countering violence on the “soul level” involves a feminist critique of patriarchal[17] structures and remnants in the Lutheran/Christian theological tradition, from the use of language and symbols to power dynamics and a basic understanding of what sex/gender means and doesn’t mean.[18] These are essential steps towards creating a safe place for women in our own household – the church – first, and from there outward to make a difference. Feminist theology leads the way.[19] In the words of bell hooks: “Feminist effort to end patriarchal domination should be of primary concern precisely because it insists on the eradication of exploitation and oppression in the family context and in all other intimate relationships. It is that political movement which most radically addresses the person – the personal – citing the need for transformation of self, of relationships, so that we might be better able to act in a revolutionary manner, challenging and resisting domination, transforming the world outside the self. Strategically, feminist movement should be a central component of all other liberation struggles because it challenges each of us to alter our person, our personal engagement (either as victims or perpetrators or both)… in a system of domination.”[20]


[14] A major step towards extinguishing the roots that feed violence against women is to ensure that our church is a place with an ideology and practice that requires and ensures uncompromised equality between men and women. An equally important step is to purge gospel proclamation and hermeneutical perspectives from andro/male-centrism that have historically fed false images of women and oppressive structures. Since only women can authentically speak to women-specific experiences, women’s participation in all levels is indispensable.


[15] A model for this kind of fundamental purging and paradigm shift comes from Martin Luther. Whereas the Reformation sought to correct a distorted understanding of humanity’s sinful condition and the mechanisms of grace and abusive practices cashing in on peoples’ existential grief and fears, he was not immune to the issues pertaining to women. He was quite mesmerized by woman-ness, eagerly observing from life and the bible what it meant to be a woman, and, in his own ways, promoted a positive understanding of womanhood in comparison to his tradition. Also, approached by many a woman with issues of various sorts, most often with marital and parenthood issues, Luther spoke from the position of an advocate for women on more than one occasion, and used these conversations as examples in his writings.[21]


[16] The proof of Luther’s “woman-friendly” position – theologically and in practice – is in his theological anthropology and its foundations as well as his biblical interpretation. Regardless of the many ingredients he inherited from the male-centric medieval Christian and Jewish, hermeneutics, Luther incorporates in his context an unusually compassionate interpretation of biblical women, especially the biblical women who had been sexually assaulted, attempting to honor their experience and giving them a voice. For example, in his interpretation of the Old Testament matriarchs, he goes against the trends in Christian tradition pre-Luther (and post) that cast women as culprits and examples of sin. By making women subjects of the stories of violence and giving his best effort at interpreting the events from the assaulted woman’s perspective, and not excusing the male sinners, Luther effectively offers alternate woman-friendly interpretations that correct one-dimensional Christian portraits of women and complexifies the understanding of basic theological and anthropological matters.


[17] Luther’s potential for feminist work is seen especially regarding violence against women: In the case of the assault of Tamar, narrated in 2 Samuel Chapter 13 in the Hebrew Bible, Luther interprets Tamar’s sin and redemption from a radically compassionate point of view that gives voice to Tamar’s agony. Furthermore, Luther finds a justification for Tamar’s sin that was no greater than her faith. Similar dynamics can be found in his interpretation of stories of similar tragedies e.g. the rape of Dinah. In his treatment of the Ur-texts of Genesis 1-3, Luther portrays Eve the first mother as a leader equal to Adam, and envisions their experiences in their sex and sexual love as equally holy, without reading any added shame or guilt on the woman. Generally speaking, Luther reads in the matriarchs’ story God’s salvation plan embodied, and the glory of motherhood is Luther’s window to that. When interpreting the Fall and the consequent punishment in male-female relations, Luther stays away from associating women’s sexuality or lust to enhanced proneness to lust and sin, as a majority of the church fathers had done. Luther appreciates Eve’s deliberations, while grieving her error, and puzzles over the passivity and obtuseness of Adam. In Luther’s view of the post-Fall punishments, whereas Eve would endure pains of childbirth, Adam would be plagued with lust impossible to control, a situation from which many problems ensue. With the Genesis stories Luther has a theological hunch about tensions in gender relations and the resulting violence in post-fall reality![22]


[18] Finally, in teaching about justification and resurrection, Luther makes no distinction between men and women ontologically speaking and takes care to underscore the principle of equality. His expansive vision of justification and justice and Christian love explicated in On Freedom of a Christian is gender-neutral in a sense, addressing all Christians with the same message of gospel-induced liberation and calling.[23] All this said, Luther does believe in the goodness of order and the division of labor of the Christian estates, and sees men and women fulfilling different roles in the earthly kingdom. Socially speaking, he does not promote the changing of patriarchal mores and orders as that would promise chaos, but he considers this a functional matter. The connections he makes of the necessity of such orders with the creation and fall stories and the reality of two sexes are complicated and some ambiguity remains. Yet Luther clearly identifies issues with power and authority and violence in gender relations or gendered existence as post-fall issues and reasons to stay vigilant. These are just a few brief references to Luther’s central theological anthropology that Lutherans today can engage when developing God-centered, egalitarian, and emancipatory views of human beings and humanity, that comes in two sexes, both in full equality, dealing with the aftermath of sin in – to a degree – gender-specific ways.


[19] At the risk of sounding anachronistic, there is enough evidence to suppose this. Given Luther’s experiences as a husband and a father of three daughters, whom he loved dearly and compassionately, and given his theological perspectives and biblical interpretation, Luther would have been appalled to learn of the crimes our daughters and sisters and mothers are subjected to. He would have found a way to make the fight against violence towards women a front-burner Reformation concern and insert himself in the decision making process or in the spheres of influence that had the power over the affairs in society.[24] From Luther we have a model for action and involvement in human affairs. From Luther we also have a theological vision for Christian living that values the integrity and freedom of all persons. From Luther’s central 1520 reformation texts, we have a theological rationale to fight violence, including violence against women, an issue that per se was not a priority for him but is for us.


[20] The bottom line for Luther with issues of violence is to uphold the liberating faith and freedom that the Christian Gospel provides. From that ensue love and care for one another. Freedom demands to be defended, as Gospel is at stake when the freedom and integrity of human beings is compromised. Our interpretation of Luther’s basic vision of Christian freedom needs to include especially women and their daily lives, with freedom to walk on this earth without fear, freedom to live without violence, freedom to live as they are as women, and freedom to define and express themselves as women, and the gift to be loved by and love fellow human beings. Luther and the feminists can sing in the same choir and establish an “immediate cause”[25] concerning the meaning of freedom and equality, faith and love.


[21] Speaking of immediate causes and urgencies, an abominable sin is committed in every instance when a child is subjected to violence in any shape or form. This topic stands alone as an urgency requiring our most diligent attention. The “isms” we can identify as feeders of violence affect the lives of our children first and foremost.


[22] Racism is about violence.[26] It is soul-eating just as much as it is a violent crime behind assaulted bodies. In the lingering aftermath of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, in the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s decisive proclamation for freedom, and during the term of the first African-American president of the United States the issue of race is calling for our unceasing attention. Preparing for celebrations of the Reformation’s beginnings in 2017, the issue of race needs to be repeatedly raised as one of our primary urgent concerns where reformation is still needed.


[23] With racism[27], much is at stake – our souls. ”We are searching for a soul in America”, stated a news reporter in the aftermath of a notorious summer 2013 trial, after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing a young African American man, Trayvon Martin. A great deal of evidence pointed to race/racism as a definite factor in the crime. Stunned by the proceedings and the outcome, the reporter expressed the sentiment of many, and the puzzlement over the continued crimes fueled by racism every day. The daily tortures of racial discrimination evident in all areas of our life together shape our children’s imagination of humanness and of freedom and equality. All we have to do is walk in the shoes of our children one ordinary school day, from classroom to the playground or the school bus, to have a reality check on how rampant racial violence still is, in its blatant and more subtle forms. What do we want to teach our children about race and race-based violence and how do we prepare them? Lutheran theologians, and Lutheran parents, surely do want to be part of shaping our children with a God-centered vision of the beauty of human life and created equality, and thereby suffocate racism in its roots. Lutheran theologians can model active listening and learning about the different dimensions and experiences of racism, on the one hand, and boldly “confess” the absolute intolerance towards any hint of racism, on the other.


[24] Reckoning with the realities of racism is uncomfortable as the complexity of ugly issues reveals itself to us and fixing things proves costly and demands sacrifices. Things are complicated by the reality that “Economics is the great controller in both sexism and racism.”[28] There is an intricate connection between sexism and racism. Suzanne Pharr writes “We have to look at economics not only as the root cause of sexism but also as the underlying, driving force that keeps all the oppressions in place. In the United States, our economic system is shaped like a pyramid, with a few people at the top, primarily white males being supported by large numbers of unpaid or low-paid workers at the bottom. When we look at this pyramid, we begin to understand the major connection between sexism and racism because those groups at the bottom of the pyramid are women and people of color. We then begin to understand why there is such a fervent effort to keep those oppressive systems (racism and sexism and all the ways they manifested) in place to maintain the unpaid and low-paid labor.”[29] Racism, just as sexism, are issues connected with power and money and they compromise peoples’ daily lives, self-worth, and survival. Racism is a burning reformation concern for Lutherans today.


[25] Lutheranism as a tradition today is not ethnic-specific in terms of its constituency but has been part of systems and structures that have favored certain ethnicities over others. In the spirit of 16th century Reformation principles, Lutherans today can learn and be inspired by the diverse roots of the early Christian experience and re-claim ethnic diversity as a given fact and a gift. Part of the Lutheran catechism today is to actively engage in understanding what race and ethnicity may mean today and how that affects the life and proclamation of the church.[30] Lutherans are not exempt from the task, any more than any individuals could claim to be exempt from the sin of racism, or any more than they could claim immunity to sexism. The “original sin factor” permeates human life and none of us is free in that regard. Quite to the contrary, all of us affected by sin(s) have a moral responsibility to continue to study our concepts of race and ethnicity, sex and gender, and issues of power, and actively listen to voices that challenge our experience and preconceptions, especially the voices historically dismissed as the “other”. This is important for the sake of our children who will inherit from us seeds for their attitudes towards others.


[26] In an effort to contribute towards this larger task, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, situated on the hallowed grounds of bloody Civil War battlefields, pregnant with memories of grief with war and surrounded by canons and battlefield memorials, is re-envisioning its curriculum and service to the larger community in terms of theological leadership and empowerment in eradicating racism. The issue of racism is on the front-burner, with the specific issue of religious significances and responses with violence. As a pioneering program, a week-long 2013 Fall Academy addressed related topics under the larger theme “Reforming! Our Battles with Sex, War and Demons of Violence.” The gathering that featured lectures and conversation took place in the historic 150th anniversary year of the Gettysburg Battle and invited attendees to visit the brand new interactive Seminary Ridge Museum designed to educate visitors on the horrors of the Civil War especially from the perspective of race and religion. The lectures approached issues of sexism, racism, and violence from different perspectives, from 16th century to Civil War era experiences and beyond, and intentionally tied in one way or another the Lutheran heritage.[31] From its founding days, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, with the legacy of its leader Samuel Simon Schmucker and its most famous African American graduate, Daniel Alexander Payne, has sought to live out a legacy that is theologically and in praxis anti-racist, in light of the gospel of Christ that promises equality and freedom for all.[32] In this anniversary year, the aim is to find different ways to bring religion into the middle of the battle against the demons of racism – which is, very much, a battle for the minds.[33]


Luther on violence – insights and warning bells


[27] How can Luther be of help to us in framing theological responses to violence? What can we learn from his participation in his context, and from the principles he developed for himself and his contemporaries? The complexity of Luther’s own position on the unfortunate but acceptable occasions of violence towards a “good cause” – that is, the Gospel-cause to him – speaks to the history and identity of his followers who have not, generally speaking, been the persecuted group for their faith. Lutheran tradition from its beginning days of theological rebellion has defended itself with words and arms as deemed necessary.


[28] In the following, I’ll briefly observe what Luther says about violence in his Large Catechism, a work where he expresses his standard teaching for “general” use. I will reflect on his anti and pro violence arguments in the context of his disagreement with those with a different strategy i.e. Thomas Müntzer and the rebelling German peasants. Luther’s words regarding the marginalized of his time, the peasants and the Jews, open up with his understanding of the two governments and two kingdoms, topics demanding our renewed attention. In this regard the conversation partner in these matters here is Bernard Lohse.


On the fifth commandment: “You are not to kill.”


[29] Luther offers in his Large Catechism in the explanation of the fifth commandment basic insights into the different faces of violence. It serves well as a foundational text for seeking Lutheran theological responses to violence.


[30] Luther writes, “The meaning of this commandment, then, is that no one should harm another person for any evil deed, no matter how much that person deserves it.” [34] This means that “We must not kill, either by hand, heart, or word, by signs or gestures, or by aiding and abetting. It forbids anger except, as we have said, to persons who function in God’s stead, that is, parents and governing authorities. Anger, reproof, and punishment are the prerogatives of God and his [God’s] representatives and are to be meted out to those who transgress this and the other commandments.”[35]


[31] Here Luther makes two central points. 1) The notion of “killing” needs to be understood broadly, involving angry thoughts and mean words and even wishing harm for the other, and neglect of others’ needs. All of these are to be discouraged and guarded against as diabolical. 2) This commandment applies to individuals, not authorities who operate under different rules. Luther names parents and government as those offices that are exempt from this categorical forbidding of the use of violence. The good news, he points out, is that “God has delegated his [the] authority to punish evil-doers to the civil authorities in the parents’ place…. Therefore what is forbidden here applies to individuals, not to the governmental officials.”[36]


[32] As a good psychologist, Luther recognizes anger, sometimes justified, as a natural reaction. But it is harmful and often the beginning of violent acts. He describes the realities of human life when people hurt us in ways that naturally incur anger and demands revenge. This said, Luther is adamant that nobody should lay one’s hands on the other person, regardless of the crimes committed. Rather, people should intentionally guard against these impulses and protect themselves and their hearts against the evil of violence: “Therefore, God wishes to remove the root and source that embitters our heart toward our neighbor. He [God] wants to train us to hold this commandment always before our eyes as a mirror in which to see ourselves….. This we may learn to calm our anger and have a patient, gentle heart, especially towards those who give us cause to be angry, namely, our enemies.”[37]


[33] Our 16th century theologian sharply names the root of violence in human hearts and minds and advocates a fierce battle against the demons of violence starting from one’s own heart. His words in this regard are highly applicable for our use with identical concerns. Where his words may be harder to apply in our context have to do with his understanding of authority and the justified use of violence by civil authorities.


[34] After forbidding all forms of violence, Luther places those in governing positions in a different category. Those in a position of authority are obligated to use force and even kill those who harm others, and they do this for the greater good of the commonwealth. That is considered a given, a relief and a source of comfort. The very occasion for giving the commandment was, Luther says, “that, as God well knows, the world is evil and this life is full of misery. Therefore he [God] has erected this and the other commandments to separate good and evil.”[38]


[35] In other words, in Luther’s view the intent of the commandment “do not kill” and its “supervising” by governing authorities who are exempt from this law in their offices, is most positive and reflects both the post-fall realities of human life and God’s providence: “In short, God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and refuge around our neighbors, so that no one may do them bodily harm of injury.”[39]


[36] In addition to making a distinction between authorized use of force and violence for the protection of the (possible or actual) victims of violence, and the destructive violence committed by individuals, Luther considers human beings’ guilt in participating or condoning violence also indirectly. In explaining the depth of the commandment, he exposes the less obvious sins of violence committed every day in human beings simply “allowing” it: “First, we should not harm anyone, either by hand or deed. Next, we should not use our tongue to advocate or advise harming anyone. Furthermore, we should neither use nor sanction any means of methods whereby anyone may be mistreated. Finally, our heart should harbor no hostility or malice against anyone in a spirit of anger and hatred.” [emphasis mine.][40]


[37] Luther recognizes and names the diabolical in all forms of violence. He points to the human heart as the home for it. He points to both the human impulses to respond with violence to violence and also to the passivity in the face of violence as diabolical and breaking the commandment of “do not kill”: “Thus you should be blameless in body and soul toward all people, but especially toward anyone who wishes or does you evil. For to do evil to someone who desires good for you and does you good is not human but devilish.” Diabolical is the term Luther finds most accurate to describe the circle of violence, and the anti-godliness and the enmity of God it implies. With Luther, we can recognize in violence – in promoting, committing, allowing and not preventing violence - very tangibly and crudely what original sin is about.


[38] Luther’s points are radical in his context and a timeless argument that holds us today equally accountable in the face of the insidious sins of violence we are “allowing”. “This commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so.” [41]

[39] Luther’s words hit home hard, and present a challenge for Christian daily life that is an ongoing struggle against violence – violence in the world and violence in human hearts. “Therefore it is God’s real intention that we should allow no one to suffer harm but show every kindness and love. And this kindness, as I said, is directed especially toward our enemies.”[42] As an assurance, Luther concludes, “Once again we have God’s Word by which he [God] wants to encourage and urge us to true, noble, exalted deeds, as gentleness, patience, and, in short, love and kindness toward our enemies.”[43]


[40] Luther expands the notion of violence when underscoring the power of caring for the other as the opposite of violence, and as a remedy for it. With Luther, we would never claim that human beings would be able to conquer their demons on their own and “stop” being a sinner, not without divine intervention. Whereas the gift of God’s unmerited grace humbles the recipient and evokes an instinct of reciprocity, in Luther’s teaching, it is impossible for human beings in their fallen status to love God or one another on their own. From that foundational insight Luther never wavers. Yet, equally forceful is Luther in his urging of human beings to repent their sins, with gratitude for gifts received, and intentionally grow in their godliness. Luther believes that God with God’s word “wants to encourage and urge us to true, noble, exalted deeds, as gentleness, patience, and, in short, love and kindness toward our enemies.”[44]


[41] Here would be an invitation for Lutheran theology to evolve, in order to draw from Lutheran theology as a source of empowerment in the battle against violence. In Lutheran teachings, human beings, created good but fallen yet saved, live with an existential tension between good and bad as simul iustus et peccator , thus the need for the fifth commandment. Whereas an understanding of coram Deo denotes that we “cannot” choose – God has to choose for us, and has done so, in Christ – in human affairs coram hominibus denotes that we “can” choose, even if imperfectly.[45] The reality of violence and suffering could be considered the diabolical testing, Anfechtung, in this tension between passivity in coram deo and expected activity coram hominibus. Whereas violence appears as if insurmountable, as if a given reality, it does actually not need to be so. In Luther’s sight, allowing, promoting and not preventing violence are human choices, actual transgressions against the fifth commandment. In this light, Lutheran theology today needs to shift the emphasis from recognizing the human passivity in individual salvation towards emphasizing the many possibilities for human activity in saving others. The reality is that we do have choices to make on a daily basis with the ills in our world and we do make them, based on what we find tolerable or not tolerable. What we tolerate and what we don’t mirrors the state of our souls.


Luther on Poverty as a Form of Violence


[42] An example for this comes from how Luther addressed one particular form of violence he found intolerable, poverty. Permitting poverty was something Luther found an intolerable sin. Luther concludes, “Therefore God rightly calls all persons murderers who do not offer counsel or assistance to those in need and peril of body and life.”[46]


[43] Like in our world, poverty was an everyday experience for a majority of Luther’s contemporaries. Luther, with his reformation insights, began to see it as a sin to be eradicated, a form of violence. Unequal sharing of wealth and related hunger, supported by systems in place and tolerated by fellow human beings was in Luther’s eyes a grave sin. In this coram hominibus issue, he provided theological rationales for ending poverty and begging. He took action in word, in his proclamation and address to the authorities. He also took action in deed, instilling measures to alleviate poverty and legislate these reforms.  

[44] It is not a coincidence that one of the first reforms instilled in Wittenberg and neighboring reformation cities was the establishment of the common chests and the banning of begging. Luther saw no value in poverty or related suffering. Rather, welfare should be guaranteed for all, safety should be provided for all, and poverty and related suffering should be eliminated among those who call themselves Christian. In his understanding, if people heard the Word and oriented their lives with the Gospel – fallible and feeble as they were – they would do what it took to eradicate the poverty that was within their control. Not relying on people’s free will on this matter – which he considered seriously compromised by ever-present sin – regulations by church orders made sure these reforms would happen. This 16th century Reformation-induced model for the care of the people in the commonwealth has been practiced in countries where Lutheranism has been the main religion. The issues addressed with welfare in the Reformation era continue to be hot button topics and urgencies in our contemporary societies as well. These issues were handled in Luther’s time with the collaboration of “spiritual” and “temporal” authorities. Mandates and force were used to make even those not yet convinced to comply.[47]


Coram deo, coram hominibus and the use of the temporal sword


[45] In coram hominibus matters, and in the temporal realm, use of force can be justified, when it is for the common good. Through public offices of sword-bearers and legislators, instituted by God for the well-being of the communities, force can be used. This means that sometimes wars can be just and necessary (primarily wars of self-defense), and capital punishment can be justified for crimes considered irredeemable. Otherwise, and particularly in religious matters, force and violence were not options Luther favored. For example, Luther did not support violent Christian crusades and remained lukewarm towards the military Smalcald League of the Protestant princes.[48] The only other area where Luther approves of controlled and reasonable use of force is parenthood. When practiced in the spirit of love and for the good of the child, parents’ duty was to discipline their children when so needed. Haunted with his childhood memories of harsh punishments, however, Luther did not approve of hurting children but generally speaking to them.[49]


[46] In other words, Luther understands the proper use of force with violence only through God-instituted office and in an orderly fashion for the purpose of the good of the individual and most of all the commonwealth. Otherwise it is not an option.


[47] In the context of deliberating on just violence and the use of force, Luther speaks of the importance of government, the temporal realm because of the needs of the commonwealth but also, and ultimately, the Gospel: “There are few true believers, and still fewer who live a Christian life, who do not resist evil and indeed themselves do no evil. For this reason, God has provided for them a different government beyond the Christian estate and the kingdom of God. He has subjected them to the sword so that…..” In other words, because the world cannot be ruled by the Gospel, and because the Gospel needs protection, temporal government is necessary. “For this reason God has ordained two governments: the spiritual, by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians and righteous people under Christ; and the temporal, which restrains the un-Christian and wicked so that – no thanks to them – they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.”[50] Force, calculated violence, is justified within this system. Such orderly use of force serves, indirectly, the cause of the Gospel and the kingdom of God.


[48] Luther’s understanding of two kingdoms is often (mis)quoted in conversations on the right use of force, etc.[51]As Bernard Lohse writes, Luther “spoke about the doctrine of the two kingdoms without explicitly using this concept. He asserts that all people are to be divided into two groups: those who belong to the kingdom of God, that is, all true believers in Christ who are under Christ. These have no need of the secular sword and secular justice. Importantly, both are instituted by God and belong in God’s order. The temporal sword is needed, because the World cannot be ruled by the Gospel.[52] Why that is so has to do with sin and what God for God’s inscrutable reasons allows to be the case. Luther is happy to leave it at that.


[49] Of all Luther’s teachings, this tension between obedience to the sword and discerning times and moments to resist, has been interpreted in problematic ways. His ideas about the two kingdoms and two swords and two governments have been employed towards, and criticized for, promoting blind obedience to power and equating state with the “temporal”. That is, however, hardly what Luther meant. He was far more situational about these kinds of rules. His vision of what constitutes “temporal” and temporal authority was fluid and holistic.[53] Second, it would be a serious misunderstanding to associate the secular kingdom solely with the “state”. Rather, the word temporal kingdom consists of everything that belongs to human life, including family life, culture, etc. The application of his reasoning today is also problematized by the different political realities he lived within and the consequent eras and our times. For instance, Luther’s experiences with Prince Fredrick importantly shaped his trust in the political, secular authority.[54] “In this context, Luther experiences that it is possible for government to function to maintain the peace in a way that cares for people and takes their actual situations into account.”[55] Would he have felt the same trust had he lived in the 1930s in Germany? It is reasonable, in light of Luther’s theological method and in light of his own actions, to surmise “No.”


[50] Situation is important in Luther’s theological application and thus ethics and, most poignantly, in considering the proper use of force and calculated violence. Bernard Lohse comments that “Luther, however, did not thereby intend to develop a comprehensive doctrine that he could schematically apply to every situation. On the contrary, even though Luther continued to use the distinction between the two kingdoms or governments … he always made that distinction in any given situation in terms of the actual facts of that situation.“ Furthermore, “It is particularly to be noted that Luther never simply abandoned the secular realm to the temporal authority but rather always involved himself in political developments and in the process of decision making, both by consultation with the decision makers and by advocacy of a particular course of action.”[56]


[51] In interpreting Luther’s stance on violence and his responses, we may ask if we can honestly make any reasonable connections, given the centuries of distance and differences in governmental issues and worldviews. Knowing what we know of Luther’s era, life was shadowed with a daily dose of violence, from war, illness, abuse, persecution, etc. Governmental systems and safety measures and the framework for worldviews perhaps seem primitive to our modern eyes. Regardless of how we assess the medieval world in comparison to our world, in terms of the topic of violence and Lutheran responses to it, there is an ugly existential connection that evaporates the time difference. Our world too is plagued by unfathomable violence, even more so with our “sophistication” with weapons, whether swords, guns or words.


Luther, the Jews and Violence


[52] There is one area, however, where we should be able to observe a significant difference between the 16th century and our times in terms of violence. In Luther’s time people were legally” persecuted for religious crimes, such as heresy and witchcraft. In both cases, the death penalty was considered justifiable in cases where enough evidence had been accumulated to condemn the individual. Authorities had the right to penalize even by death a person deemed a heretic, a person with unorthodox/heterodox faith considered dangerous for Christendom. Luther himself was in the vulnerable position with a death sentence hanging over his head. Perhaps that experience gave him some caution when speaking of “just” measures towards those with “wrong faith”. As a rule, Luther did not promote burning or drowning persons, even if he in his angry moments blurted out violent projections. So when Luther talks about Anabaptists, he expresses sympathy for the persecutions while vehemently opposing their views on issues such as baptism.[57]


[53] In Luther’s world there was a particular constituency always vulnerable to Christian violence and that suffered from Luther’s words and inaction. They were the Jews. In a toxic anti-Jewish climate, oppressive laws and expulsions regulated the lives of the Jews, who were at the mercy of their Christian neighbors and authorities. Trials, burnings, drownings, expulsions and forced baptisms took place in various cities and villages throughout Europe, in Luther’s time, and in both the preceding and ensuing centuries. In addition to the authorities, but also the ever insatiable Christian mob imposed much suffering on Jewish individuals, families and communities.[58] Luther’s position is of great importance, because his words had a wide-ranging influence as he went on record, as a rare Christian voice, initially promoting merciful treatment of the Jews. Most famously, in his That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, Luther speaks against violence towards Jews and definitely against the killing of the Jews.[59]


[54] This voice is significant given the climate and the long history of anti-Jewish violence in Christian lands, but also in terms of deciphering Luther’s own demons and wavering with the issue. Namely, Luther’s notorious writings from the end of his career, and life, have a different tone, revealing his vacillating between different strategies. In his scathing work On the Jews and their Lies from 1543 he then promoted harsh measures of confiscating and burning books and suppressing teaching and preaching in Jewish communities, as ways to suppress the Jewish faith and its practice[60]. The measures he proposed echo in haunting ways the strategies later employed by the Nazis. It is important to notice that Luther wanted to kill Jewish faith, but Luther did not promote killing Jewish persons.[61] In his frustration Luther, toward the end of his life, unambiguously revealed his rejection of the Jewish faith and his loss of having lost his originally high hopes for the Jews’ mass conversion to the Christian faith. Consistent with his teaching of the different swords, he calls upon the authorities to do what needs to be done. Luther was not promoting anarchy or lynching but is giving a theological rationale for an official “defensive” mission led by those in authority, the rationale being the protection of the Gospel and Christians’ well-being against the imaginary enemy, the Jews. The rationale is theological, but the measures are handled by the “temporal sword”.


[55] Posterity has pointed at Luther as one of the main culprits of violence against the Jews. Indeed he promoted use of controlled force, but one thing is clear. Generally speaking, Luther did not accept or suggest hurting people or killing people, not even those he considered the utmost enemy of Christians – the Turks and the Jews. At the same time, he was promoting violence in a broader sense toward Jewish neighbors, with a rationale of the Gospel-cause, and authorizing the secular authority to do that in order to protect the Gospel. Luther was aware of the power of his words and he explicitly inserted himself into the realm of secular authority in advising those with power. Lutherans today obviously condemn and renounce Luther’s anti-Jewish violent words and any ensuing actions.[62] Luther’s model here in all its negativity is that of the power of words.


Luther, the Peasants and Violence


[56] When searching for clues to Luther’s attitudes on violence and the use of force, his words on the two governments and his deliberations on what authorities should do with the rebelling peasants are another illustrative case. In his dealings with the Peasants’ war and the radical social reformer Thomas Müntzer, Luther’s position on violence and authority were shaped in fundamental ways.


[57] Early on in the Reformation era, the issue of the justified use of violence for the sake of reforms was a central concern. Some of the reformers like Luther’s colleague and former teacher, Andreas Karlstadt von Bodenstein, were eager to implement reforms even with violence if necessary, in order to implement reforms and take the new theology to its radical practical applications. Karlstadt and his leadership, during Luther’s stay in Wartburg in hiding in 1521-1522, led his troops to iconoclastic reactions, and a moment of anarchy ensued. It is to be noted that it was for these very reasons that Luther returned to Wartburg, much earlier than planned – even before it was safe - to restore order and preach caution. In his Invocavit Sermons from 1522 Luther writes about the right and wrong way of going about reforms. He argues against the use of force in affairs of religion, since as force leads to nothing good in the end. One is to proceed in the spirit of love.[63] It is better to suffer bad theology and less-than-desirable practices for the sake of avoiding force and violence. This is quite a compromise from a theologian willing to go till the end of the world with his theological revelation!


[58] Another instance of the early iconoclastic reaction occurred in Wittenberg in 1525 when German peasants began to revolt. Clearly inspired by Luther’s preaching of the freedom of a Christian, oppressed peasants had their hopes lifted by Luther whose theological vision promised spiritual equality. Their hopes of finding in Luther a leader ready to translate his theological vision into an enforced policy were soon enough to be squashed. Mainly because of the violence that erupted, Luther wanted to have no part of this rebellion. Besides, rebellion was something Luther found scary and to be avoided at all cost. The unfolding of events is tragic. Peasants with their Twelve Articles demanded their basic human rights from the right to fish and hunt to relief from excessive taxation, to a right to call their own pastor. Luther reacted first by calling the nobility and criticizing them for their greed, accusing them of being culpable for the ills in peasants’ life. When revolts ensued as peasants took matters into their own hands, Luther quickly set a different tone. He addresses the princes and calls them to stab the murderous dogs, to end the revolt and prevent anarchy. After more violence ensued, in pain Luther wrote back to the nobility, accusing them for all the violence.[64]


[59] As Lohse observes, “Luther tried to address the consciences of both parties. He rebuked the lords and considered them ultimately guilty for the revolt. He disagreed with the peasants – even if with understanding for their difficult situation and demands – because they were trying to seek justice for themselves and thereby attempting to sit as judges in their own case.” Furthermore, they were using force and “misused the name of Christian for secular purposes” when identifying themselves as a Christian confederation, in addition to sinning against the second commandment by demanding their “divine rights” in God’s name.[65] In this specific, devastating situation, Luther the theologian gives a theological rationale for the authorities to take action, even with force.[66]


[60] Luther was over his head with these political implications and the results of violence in the case of the rebelling peasants. He was full of remorse, in disbelief that all this could happen, and angry that his name was associated with it. He wished to clear his name from all that happened. Under no circumstances did Luther wish to take the role of a social reformer if it required violent acts. Yet he was on some level aware of the power of his words as in the case of Jews. Luther’s agony and failures here demonstrate the risks when one gets involved! At the same time, his example shows how theological concerns can lead peacefully to social reforms. In Luther’s time, instilling schools with new curricula and securing common chests and when preaching against poverty and begging and usury represented peaceful social reforms. The bottom line in the case of Luther and his deemed “failures” with the marginalized who solicited his support was that he was petrified by violence, wanting to stop it at all cost, if it was in his power. He did not wish anyone to be hurt, including not by his words. He deemed it the role and duty of the secular government to fairly use the sword and do what it takes to suppress and prevent further violence. In considering Luther’s course of action, while critiquing it and learning from it, it is helpful to consider his context and his conversation partners with alternate approaches.


[61] Most famously, a decisive dialogue took place with Luther and another reformer who took a drastically different position on violence. Thomas Müntzer was a radical leader willing to suffer violence and use violence. He was a reformer with a strong social conscience and who led peasants in Frankenhausen to their sure death. Muntzer was a reformer much revered in DDR times.[67] The scary example of Müntzer’s fate and what unfolded definitely shaped Luther’s position “against” violence and rebellion, and only reinforced his sense of the division of “swords” and realms, for the sake of order in the commonwealth. It was in relation to Müntzer and the like that Luther developed his anti-violence arguments regarding the use of force and violence with Reformation theology, and articulated his trust in the public office of those in authority.[68] This is a valuable observation for us as we consider Luther’s teachings’ value and alternatives for today. Unlike Müntzer, Luther saw no reason for Christians to seek martyrdom. “Keeping your cool” under difficult situations seemed like a better option to him, to a man who lived his entire career under significant danger of martyrdom. Given his personal situation and seeing how the systems in place in his society ended up supporting his cause and practically protecting him, it is no wonder that Luther believes in the value of trusting the governmental systems and orders in place as something God had sanctioned. Ultimately, we could say that Luther’s trust in the temporal sword speaks of his immense trust in God’s design for human life and of his deep fear of chaos, and violence.


Luther, Soldiers and Violence


[62] This leads to the much debated questions of “is war ever justified” and “can soldiers be saved”. What could we learn from Luther’s Whether Soldiers, Too, can Be Saved, 1526?[69] Luther wrote the text with the Peasants war in the background in response to a question from Colonel Assa von Kram. Luther’s answer is simple, based on his understanding of the two realms. The issue is not about the salvation or sin of the individual soldier but about the right use of the office that God has instituted. In Luther’s view, God “uses the horrors of war to bring such terrible punishments on people. The soldiers are only the means or the tools that God uses.”[70] Luther’s answer to the question if soldiers can be saved is “Yes, of course!”


[63] Related to this arises a question of personal ethics and Christians’ right not to fight. Luther’s answer is clear: “Christian is not commanded to fight.” Faithful to his primary principle of freedom of conscience, Luther underscores that one should not and could not be forced to act against one’s conscience. “We should fear God more than [hu]man and not participate in a war against the advice of one’s conscience. If we are not certain of that, however, we should go ahead and fight without worry. In such a case, we need not have a bad conscience before God.”[71] The bottom line is that neither option, though, whether serving as a soldier in the war or opting out of the war is better or worse. Both are equal options. In his reflection, Luther is eager to preserve the integrity of the Christian individual in question and removed the burden of guilt from the individual’s shoulders.


[64] Soldiers who are called to fight can and should do it with good conscience. It is the authorities’ role to rule when a war is justified and when not. When looking at the different kinds of war, whether a war between equals, a war a sovereign wages against subjects, or a war that subjects wage against a sovereign, Luther is clear. The one who initiates war is more vulnerable to guilt than the one who responds in need of self-defense.[72] Similarly with equals, “only defensive war is allowed. Luther never approved aggressive war.” Given this logic he also condemned the Crusades.[73] Luther warns, “Whoever starts a war is in the wrong. And it is only right and proper that he who first draws his sword is defeated, or even punished, in the end.”[74]


[65] Considering Luther’s words and their relevance to us is tricky. Luther wrote in a world not yet modern, no longer medieval, and about “organized” or sanctioned violence for the sake of the common good and protection of the Gospel. Three observations can be made: First, in all of his deliberations on war, Luther’s pastoral instincts are always an under-current. Second, on all grounds Luther is anti-killing, anti-war and anti-violence. Yet, he also recognizes times and situations when the use of violence is necessary and justified only in its controlled use by the government, and when it can lead toward the common good. Third, in his own assessment and example, his words do not fit each situation equally well. Each situation requires its own solution. Luther does not give one solution for all regarding violence. Rather, he gives us a theological framework to proceed and an example to stay engaged. We cannot leave decisions around war and violence to others.


[66] The learning with Luther is manifold as timeless issues with violence continue to demand our attention: How and when do we get involved as theologians and pastoral leaders? What effect will our words have? When is it time to take action that leads to chaos or disorder? Under what circumstances do Christians today obey the temporal authority and under what circumstances is civil disobedience called for? What are the most efficient ways to eradicate violence and who takes the lead? For better or for worse, Luther’s example calls for engagement, at all cost, and his words, when assessed critically and compassionately, continue to provide the foundation for Lutheran responses to violence.[75]


Personal conclusions with memories of war


[67] My childhood was filled with memories of war. It was a war my parents lived through as children and my grandparents fought in, whether in the front or at home. This was the Finnish Winter war, November 1939 – March 1940, when the small Finnish army miraculously rejected Russian troops and defended their declaration of independence from 1917.


[68] Every Finnish town and village has a cemetery dedicated to the men who did not return home alive. My grandfather who had enlisted at the age of 17 was one of the lucky ones and lived the post-war years with demons he brought home from the infernal war zones. With their sacrifice in the battlefields, and with the women tending the homes, Finns succeeded. Finland today is independent and prosperous.


[69] The price of the war was the grief carried by a whole generation, and the curse their children inherited. The memories of those still alive are bittersweet. My late grandmother used to tell about the frantic escapes to the woods during air raids and about people getting sick from eating bread made of tree dust and drinking coffee made of mud. My other grandmother, from Karelia (the stretch lost to Russia) still cries remembering her home in Karelia bombed to dust and looking for her family among strangers who gave her shelter. I grew up admiring my grand-parents’ generation, fascinated by the war memorabilia and photographs and my grandfather’s nightmares. Since early childhood, then, I know I was shaped by the memories of war in explicit and implicit ways. Since childhood, I have taken it for granted that sometimes people have to bear arms to defend freedom for which no price is too high. Or is it? Today, I’d like to say I am against violence and war because killing another person is a transgression against the basic commandments. And yet, I realize that had my grandparents not gone to war, I or my children might not exist today. Or if we did, we would speak Russian. Just recently, in the citizenship oath in Philadelphia, I swore to defend my country the United States of America, even bearing arms if necessary. I gave that promise with a Lutheran trust in the system and the wisdom of different responsibilities.


[70] At the writing of this article, the world is focusing on Syria and the world’s eyes are on President Obama. Will we enter or ignite another war, and if so, what is the greater cause that justifies our involvement? Are wars fought for independence, and by the people directly affected, more “just” than wars in other cases or wars involving “helpers”? World Wars I and II are a relatively recent memory and we know the outcome of both and can only imagine the outcome without the engagement and sacrifice of allies. How does our knowledge of the past World Wars inform and motivate us today, when a unified effort is urgent to avoid such wars with unimaginable destruction capacity in our day and age? How about the American Civil War and the urgency to end the slavery? How does our knowledge of that inform us and motivate us toward peace making, and peace keeping, on the one hand, and for the fight for justice, on the other hand?


[71] Especially in this 150th anniversary year of the Gettysburg Battle, our country is visiting old wounds. We fight the temptation to glorify the war while continuing the critical battle against racism, this time without arms other than words. With Luther we could agree on the justification for violence for the sake of defense of the vulnerable. We understand the wisdom of counter-attacking measures of terror and appreciate the duty of the government and those in offices of defense to carry on battles for the greater good. At the same time as Lutherans, with Luther’s logic, we could not necessarily support acts of violence to deliberately kill a person, not even a demonized one. With Luther we can humbly recognize violence as an insidious complex question with no good answers and always to be negotiated anew in each new situation – as every human situation is unique and every person’s suffering is unique. There are no categorical unilateral answers.


[72] Luther’s questions are our questions: Can goodness ever come out of bloodshed? Who should be able to decide? Who deals and how with the aftermath? And, as theologians, how do we teach that God is present in “all” sides, that our “enemy” is also a child of God? The world is watching what the world’s super powers do, such as the United States of the America, when deliberating which wars to participate in and which “greater causes” to consider worthy of the sacrifice of war. The world is also watching what we, as Christians and as Lutherans, say and do in these matters. For it does matter what we say and do in the battle for peace and justice.


[73] Luther’s ambiguity about when to stand “for” and when to stand “against” war and violence can be helpful to us, as is his model of risk-taking and action. Of most importance is that we not stay silent but speak to matters of violence, to war and the other endless forms of violence. With that we show we care, and instill accountability. None of us are not guilty. None of us have the luxury to stand by and watch others fight our wars, with words or otherwise, in our back alleys, our homes, or foreign deserts. Luther’s example is to stay involved, even if we may become tarnished, or even die, in the process. Theologians of the cross get involved and name what needs to be named. Most of all, we shed light on God’s presence in every life affected by violence. 

Kirsi Stjerna is Professor of Reformation Church History and Director of the Institute for Luther Studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.


[1] See e.g. On different faces of violence related to gender, sex and race, see Paula Rothenberg, Race, Class, and Gender in the United States. An Integrated Study (3rd ed., New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995).

[2] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar. Violence against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012, 2nd edition), 42.

[3] Ted Peters in his forthcoming book Justifying Faith, Fragile Souls, Broken Souls, and the Life of Beatitude (Abingdon, forthcoming) writes about the losing one’s soul in the face of violence, with poignant examples from war veterans.

[4] Cooper-White 2012, 42.

[5] As examples of two different, relatively recent Lutheran approaches to war and violence we could take the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 in Germany and the Finns’ War of Independence, January 28 – May 16, 1918 against the Russians’ Red Army 1939-1940.

[6] I am not writing as an ethicist or an expert on violence but as a Lutheran professor, theologian, pastor, with a grounding in Luther’s and Lutheran theology, and my own experiences of violence. I write as a grand-daughter of a Karelian Lutheran war refugee and of Finnish Lutheran Winter War veterans, and as a new citizen of USA who has promised to bear arms “to defend” the homeland. In the midst of heated debates on gun control laws, school shootings, capital punishment regulations, and new wars of terror, it is also my Lutheran duty to address the issue of violence pastorally, pedagogically and in scholarship, and in my personal life.

[7] Ntozake Shange, “With No Immediate Cause”, in Rothenberg 1995, 236-238.

[8] In the aftermath of the outrageous rape and killing of a young Indian woman in Delhi on December 16, 2013, the world as if paused in shock for a moment, as men and women united to call “Stop!” See Monica Jyotsna Melanchthon, “Translating the Extravagance of Violence”, in Dialog 52:2, Summer 2013, pp. 85-87. See also Cooper-White, 84-192, 64-82.

[9] See e.g., Else Marie Wiborg-Pedersen, “A Man Caught Between Bad Anthropology and Good Theology?” in Dialog 49:3, Fall 2010, pp. 199-20.

[10] Suzanne Pharr, “Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism”, in Rothenberg 1995, 481-490. “Violence against women is directly related to the condition of women in a society that refuses us equal pay, equal access to resources, and equal status with males. From this condition comes men’s confirmation of their sense of ownership of women, power over women, and assumed right to control women for their own means. Men physically and emotionally abuse women because the can, because they live in a world that gives them permission. Male violence is fed by their sense of their right to dominate and control, and their sense of superiority over a group of people who, because of gender, they consider inferior to them.” (Pharr in Rothenberg1995, 482.) Furthermore, “it is not just the violence but the threat of violence that controls our lives.” … “Fear, often now so common that it is unacknowledged, shapes our lives, reducing our freedom…” (Ibid., 483.)

[11] See Rothenberg 1995, 483-484, who identifies some of the risks with “a society that gives tacit approval to pornography.” (484.)

[12] Mary J. Streufert, Ph.D., Director for Justice for Women, Office of the Presiding Bishop, ELCA.

[13] Especially important is to counter the distorted images of women promoted via pornography. On the power of images, see Cooper-White 2012, 64-66, who writes (66) “Public imagery of women is the text for all the other forms of violence.” See also Rothenberg 1995, 484.

[14] A mighty example for this comes from Luther, who already in his 1520 Address to the Christian Nobility underscores on the one hand Christians’ equality, and on the other hand their need to become free and bold with the Scriptures and follow their duty against forces that threaten to destroy souls and offend the gospel. In his situation, the institutional church was considered the obstacle, and temporal authority the shield to protect Christian values. WA 6 (381), 404-469, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung, LW 44:123-217; WA 6: 405-415.

[15] See e.g., Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, Wiley Blackwell 2009, 40-47.

[16] E.g., we can talk recognize internalized violence that has its roots in “society that gives tacit approval to pornography…“ (Pharr 1995, 484). Also Cooper-White 2012, 64-66, 80-81.

[17] “Patriarchy – an enforced belief in male dominance and control – is the ideology and sexism the system that holds it in place.” (Pharr in Rothenberg 1995, 481.)

[18] The issue of inclusive language and its importance is addressed by the ELCA’s statement on the use of inclusive language. Classic texts with feminist theology and on inclusive language, see Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is. The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (Crossroad Publishing, 2002), and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God Talk. Toward a Feminist Theology (Beacon Press, 1993).

[19] As examples of Lutheran feminist works, see e.g., Mary Streufert, ed., Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Fortress Press, 2010); Deanna A. Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism and the Cross (Fortress Press, 2004).

[20] bell hooks, “Feminism: A Transformational Politic” (Rothenberg, 491-498), 493. bell hooks understands feminism as “a movement to end sexism and sexist oppression”. (ibid., 494.)

[21] E.g., in his De captivitate Babylonica (WA 6, 497-573; LW 36 :11-126) when addressing the right to marry and divorce, Luther’s examples include women and their needs.

[22] See, e.g., Cooper-White 2012, 24-38; Joy A. Schroeder, Dinah's Lament: The Biblical Legacy of Sexual Violence in Christian Interpretation (Fortress Press, 2007); Mickey Leland Mattox, Defender of the Most Holy Matriarchs": Martin Luther's Interpretation of the Women of Genesis in the Enarrationes in Genesin, 1535-1545 (Brill, 2002); Kirsi Stjerna, “Grief, Glory and Grace: Insights on Eve and Tamar in Luther’s Genesis Commentary” in Seminary Ridge Review 6/2 (Spring 2004), 19-35.

[23] De libertate Christiana WA 7:20-38 (German), WA 7:42-49 (Latin); LW31:333-377.

[24] On Luther’s engagement in the affairs of the secular/temporal realm, see the treatment of Bernard Lohse, Martin Luther. An Introduction to His Life and Work (English translation) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 55.

[25] bell hooks writes” “That aspect of feminist revolution that calls women to love womanness, that calls men to resist dehumanizing concepts of masculinity, is an essential part of our struggle. It is the process by which we move from seeing ourselves as objects to acting as subjects. When women and men understand that working to eradicate patriarchal domination is a struggle rooted in the longing to make a world where everyone can live fully and freely, then we know our work to be a gesture of love. Let us draw upon that love to heighten our awareness, deepen our compassion, intensify our courage, and strengthen our commitment.” (bell hooks, Rothenberg, 497-498.)

[26] As a white woman from Scandinavia, I write about race and racism with a significant degree of trepidation. In my inculturation in North America, I have become aware of the dimensions and forces of racism in ways I could have never imagined when living in mostly white homogenous communities in Finland, not free form racism either, quite the contrary. In this matter, I am a learner and I hope that my reflections are received in the spirit they are intended.

[27] See Rothenberg’s definition of race and racism, “Introduction” 1- 22 and e.g., Michael Omi and Harold Winant, “Racial Formations”, in Rothenberg 1995, 13-22; Gloria Yamato, “Racism: “Something about the Subject Matter Makes It Hard to Name”, ibid., 85-89; Rita Chaudhry Sethi, “Smells like Racism”, ibid., 89-99.

[28] Pharr in Rothenberg 1995, 482.

[29] Pharr in Rothernberg 1995, 482. “Racism, sexism, and classism are not merely narrow but identifiable attitudes, policies, and practices that affect individuals’ lives. Rather, they operate on a basic level to structure what we come to think of as ‘reality.’ In this way, they cause us to limit our possibilities and personhood by internalizing beliefs that distort our perspective and make it more difficult to blame the socio-economic system that benefits.” (Rothenberg 1995, 5.)

[30] E.g. Rothenberg (in Rothenberg 1995, 16, 17) writes that “racial formation” basically refers “to the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings.” (16) Conception of race is something that “results of diverse historical practices and are continually subject to challenge over their definition and meaning.” (17)

[31] Seminary Ridge Museum at LTSG had its grand opening on July 1, 2013, see The lectures, by Volker Leppin, Anna Madsen, Mickey Mattox, Kirsi Stjerna, Leonard Hummel, Karin Bohleke and Briant Bohleke, and Nelson Strobert will be published at the Spring 2014 volume of LTSG’s Seminary Ridge Review.

[32] See a new book by Nelson T. Strobert, Daniel Alexander Payne: The Venerable Preceptor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (University Press, 2012).

[33] Dr Scott Hancock, Professor of Africana Studies, in his keynote lecture “Reframing the Civil War: Religion, Race, and Culture”, at LTSG 09/21/13 at Washington Theological Consortium’s convocation of the faculty, named racism as the reason for the Civil War and talked about the anti-racism challenge as a “battle for the minds”. The article will be published in the Seminary Ridge Review Spring 2014 issue.

[34] Large Catechism, in Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, 2000, 411 [from here on LC/BOC]. Here only the English text is referred to.

[35] LC/BOC, 411.

[36] LC/BOC, 410.

[37] LC/BOC, 411. That Luther acknowledges the serious damage done by tongue, also in his explanation of the eight commandment, gives a sense of Luther’s emphatic insights into the roots of violent acts.

[38] LC/BOC, 411.

[39] LC/BOC, 411.

[40] LC/BOC, 412.

[41] LC/BOC 412.

[42] LC/BOC, 412.

[43] LC/BOC, 413.

[44] LC/BOC, 413.

[45] An important article on the matter, see e.g., John Witte Jr., “Between Sanctity and Depravity: Law and Human Nature in Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms”, JLE VOLUME YEAR?? (Donald A. Giannella Memorial Lecture.)

[46] LC/BOC, 412.

[47] See Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Fortress Press, 1993).

[48] See Lohse 1986, 61-62.

[49] See Volker Leppin, “God in Luther’s Life and thought”, in The Global Luther. A Theologian for Modern Times, ed. by Christine Helmer (Fortress 2009).

[50] WA 11:251, 1-10; LW 45:90.

[51] Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed 1523, WA 11:425-81; LW 45:81-129. “In the process of writing this treatise, Luther also developed the set of concepts that is usually referred to as his teaching on the ‘two kingdoms.’” (Lohse 1986, 53.)

[52] Lohse 1986, 54. “On the one hand, … no one belongs naturally under this kingdom of God. On the other hand, all those who are under the law, that is, all those who are not Christians, live under the kingdom of this world”. (ibid.)

[53] Bernard Lohse reminds, first, that “Luther himself never used the concept of the ‘doctrine of the two kingdoms’.” (Lohse 1986, 188) (191)

[54] Lohse explains: “Rather, he included under this term the whole secular realm including nature, the family, the arts, and all the sciences. Thus the relationship between the church and secular government is only one small section of this doctrine, even though a very important section.” (Lohse 1986, 188)

[55] Lohse 1986, 193.

[56] Lohse 1986, 55.

[57] “Still, it is not right, and I truly grieve, that these miserable folk should be so lamentably murdered, burned, and tormented to death. We should allow everyone to believe what he wills.” Von der Wiedertaufe (1528) WA 26:144-174; LW 40:229-62.

[58] Brooks Schramm and Kirsi Stjerna, Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People (Fortress Press, 2012), see particularly the introductions.

[59] Daß Jesus Christus ein geborener Jude sei (1523), WA 11:314-336; LW 45:199-229; in Schramm and Stjerna 2012,. 76-83.

[60] Von den Juden und ihren Lügen, WA 53:417-552; LW 47:137-306; Schramm and Stjerna 164-176. This is one of the most well-known of Luther’s explicitly anti-Jewish faith texts in the end of his career.

[61] See Schramm and Stjerna 2012 for a fuller treatment of this, especially the Introductions and the Conclusion.

[63] Luther preached this in his eight “Invocavit” sermons upon returning from Wartburg (1522), WA 10/III; LW 51:70-100.

[64] The Twelve Articles of the peasants, February 1522. In April 1525, Admonition to Peace, A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, WA 18:291-334; LW 46:17-43. Severe criticism in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, WA 18:357-61; LW 46:49-55 whom he calls the lords to suppress by force in 1523. Lohse (1986, 56) speculates that “It is entirely possible that Luther’s final public statement made during the course of the Peasants’ War itself was an exhortation to peace and to reconciliation.”

[65] Lohse 1986, 55, 56. Further, Lohse (1986, 53) reminds that already in July 1520 and before the rebellion Luther had condemned – and preached against - Wittenberg disturbance between students and town’s people (WA Br 2:15-16, no 312; Lohse 1986, 53) and wrote A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard Against Insurrection and Rebellion (WA 8: 676-87; LW 45:57-75). Then followed his Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed in 1523 (WA 11:425-81; LW 45:81-129). Even in light of Diet of Augsburg 1530, Luther did not see the Protestant princes having the right to resist the emperor. ”Only after being instructed by the lawyers that the emperor acts in roles other than that of sovereign power over the princes, did Luther abandon his opposition to a defensive alliance such as the Smalcald League which was formed in February 1531.” (Lohse 1986, 61-62).

[66] See LW 45:61; WA 8:679, 26-27; Lohse 1986, 53: It is notable that it was in this context and writing about temporal authority that “Luther also developed the set of concepts that is usually referred to as his teaching on the ‘two kingdoms.’”

[67] Eric Gritsch, Thomas Münzer. A Tragedy of Errors (Fortress Press, 1986).

[68] According to Lohse, “the study of the conflict between Luther and Müntzer provides us with very good examples of both the validity and the limitations of Luther’s political ethics.” Both men presented a theological rationale with basic disagreements. “Luther saw Müntzer as personally incorporating enthusiasm’s distortion of the gospel, its blurring of the Reformation’s distinction between law and gospel, its proclamation of a new spiritualized legalism, its revolt against and rejection of the authority of government, and thus also its endangering of all secular order and the public peace. In his controversy with Müntzer, Luther thus further developed and more clearly defined important points and aspects of his own theology. This is particularly true of his doctrine of law and gospel as well as of government.” (Lohse 1986, 58)

[69] LW 46:93-137, WA 19:623-62.

[70] Lohse 1986, 60.

[71] Lohse 1986, 60, 61. “Luther was primarily concerned with instructing the conscience of his readers. Luther no longer saw the conscience as subject to the decision of the church, with the result that we may no longer act contrary to our conscience. On the other hand, however, Luther saw the conscience as basically being under the authority of the Holy Scripture. We therefore have no basis for interpreting Luther as teaching that the conscience is autonomous. The question as to what we may or may not do with a good conscience before God was really the central problem for Luther.” (Lohse 1986, 59)

[72] Lohse 1986, 60-61; also, “Luther held that no subject ought to wage war against any superior to whom obedience is required according to Romans 13. Revenge belongs to God and no one can sit as judge in one’s own case. Luther warned against any attempt to overthrow the government.”

[73] Luther “gave unlimited affirmation of the justice and necessity to efforts to defend the West against attack but rejected the idea of a crusade”. Crusade was not about defense but a secular matter that misused the Christian name and cross. (Lohse 1986, 61)

[74] Lohse 1986, 61; LW46:118; WA 19:645, 9-10.

[75] Two relatively recent opposite examples of Lutherans responding to violence come from Finland and Germany: 1) In 1930-1940s wars the Finns fought against the Russian Red Army, defending their independency and freedom, cultural identity and religious freedom, with success; today Finland is a successful predominantly Lutheran country where many of the societal democratic structures directly reflect the 16th century reformations visions for welfare (public education, welfare, healthcare, pensions benefits, freedom of thought and speech, academic excellence). Majority of the soldiers and civilians were Lutherans and the Lutheran Church of Finland was actively involved. Had the Finns surrendered, Finns as people and Finland as nation would not exist today. 2) In 1989 the Peaceful Revolution began from Leipzig, Germany, by Lutherans gathering after worship to take over the squares and streets and without a single gunshot overthrew the Stasi and the communist regime. Freedom was won for East German people who had lived under the dictatorial communist rule for decades, and with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Germany became united.

© November 2013
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 13, Issue 7