I’m a Lutheran. I don’t talk about that major part of my identity much, but if you want to know the real me, you have to understand that essential part of who I am.
I bring that subject up partly because it’s the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. On Oct. 31, 1517 an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther reportedly nailed a document titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” otherwise known as the “95 Theses,” on the door of a church in Wittenburg, Germany.
Luther didn’t think it would cause much of a stir because most people in those days were illiterate. He intended it to be the basis of a discussion among the few educated scholars in town. The problem was that the printing press had just been invented, and someone got hold of the document, printed it and, just like what happens nowadays on Facebook, it went viral.
And just like today, it was polarizing. It divided what was called the Holy Roman Empire and eventually led to the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants a century later in which an estimated 20 percent of the German population died.
So why am I clinging to an identity that sparked so much bloodshed — in the name of religion, no less?
To explain, I want to draw an analogy to what happened in Puerto Rico recently. You’ve all seen the devastation caused on the island by Hurricane Maria. Most of the lush vegetation on the island was flattened, except for a few palm trees here and there. I assume that the reason a few trees survived Maria’s 175 mph winds was that below the ground they had strong root systems that went deep into good soil, where the chaos above ground had no effect.
In contrast to the trees’ roots below ground, the trunks of the trees were flexible. They bent with the strong winds instead of being rigid and snapping.
What I heard as a child at First Lutheran Church in Manitowoc gave me strong, healthy roots. What I heard over and over was that God loved me. We sang:
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
We weren’t told about the Thirty Years War. The Cold War with the Soviet Union wasn’t mentioned. We didn’t find out that some members of the congregation were alcoholics or that some cheated on their spouses. We were protected from all of that, safe beneath the surface, growing our roots deep in good soil.
Another song we sang went:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
We sang that song in the safety of our underground, all-white protected space, of course, and didn’t know what that would mean when we got above ground, exposed to the testing gale. But they were, nevertheless, the right words to sing.
It wasn’t until I attended a Lutheran College that I learned about the chaos that was happening out where the gale force winds of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were raging. That same Lutheran tradition which had given me a safe environment in which to sink my roots in good soil now exposed me to what some called “real life” where I had to learn to bend if I didn’t want to break.
The problem with identity is that it can lead to a sense of exceptionalism and exclusion of folks who think differently than those in my own little isolated lifestyle enclave. That’s what is going on with white supremacists in our country. The same thing with the Kurds in Iraq, Buddhists in Myanmar and Catalonians in Spain.
On the other hand, the problem with not having a strong identity is captured in the saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” We see that being played out in Forest Park’s institutions. When different cultural groups disagree on an issue because they view the world through different cultural lenses, our neighbors without strong identity roots are at a loss. They want to be sensitive to everyone, which leaves them adrift without keel or rudder.
The reason my Lutheran tradition has worked for me through the 70 years of my life is that it opposed exceptionalism of any kind: religious, ethnic, national, class. The identity I absorbed from my Lutheran parents and congregation includes the belief that the basic human problem is being “incurvatus se,” i.e. being curved in on myself instead of primarily curved out toward God and secondarily being curved out toward my neighbor.
Those strong roots, growing deep into good theological soil, gave me a strong grounding, if you will, which anchored me as an adult when I was asked to respect and appreciate those who are different without giving up who I am.
From my point of view, that is what is true of every person I’ve encountered who is mature in their religious faith. They have strong religious roots which anchor them in the swirling winds of cultural change, roots that allow them to bend without breaking.