Would Luther have been a blast on Twitter? Historian Tom Holland thinks so. In an edition of ‘The Rest is History‘ podcast, he observes: “What happens is that Luther obviously dominates the early stages of the Reformation, but very rapidly his abuse generates abuse in turn. So it comes from Catholics, but it also comes from other Reformers, who start to cast him as a kind of ‘Centrist Dad’, and to complain that he’s not going far enough. This generates further kind of shit-throwing, from Thomas Müntzer, who is a far more radical figure than Luther. So Müntzer is using phrases like ‘donkey fart’; ‘scrotum-like diarrhoea makers’; ‘Since you clearly like drinking shit, I hope you bring beer out of stinking shit’, he says.”
“Priest don’t talk enough like that do they today?” responded Dominic Sandbrook.
Indeed they do not.
Neither do Reformation bloggers (generally).
By curious coincidence, this was also Matthew Parris’s theme in the Spectator, ‘The importance of giving offence‘. He mused the recent attempted constraint upon free speech at Cambridge University, where dons had proposed the requirement for all academics and students to ‘respect’ the views and opinions of others – no matter how patently absurd, odious or just plain wrong those views may be.
Is it possible to make ‘respect’ mandatory? Wouldn’t doing so transgress freedom of conscience and religion, let alone freedom of speech and expression? Isn’t the freedom to disrespect as fundamental as the freedom to defecate?
Make no bones about it: Martin Luther intended to offend. He was not just advancing a reasoned case against Catholic practice — though he did — but also turning his protest into a campaign that would catch fire. It would have been entirely possible for the professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg to have made his arguments with quiet courtesy, ruffling a few episcopal feathers but attracting no public interest. But he wanted to stir things up.
Luther could (in the language now recommended to Cambridge dons 500 years later) have worded his case with ‘respect’ towards opponents. The Wittenberg professor made no such concession. His language is neither respectful nor polite, nor even tolerant. In Thesis 10 he accused priests of acting ‘ignorantly and wickedly’. In his 28th thesis he accused priests who sold indulgences of ‘greed and avarice’. Thesis 32 claims that such priests face eternal damnation. Attempting to buy divine pardon for money (he says in Thesis 45) will earn ‘God’s wrath’. They are ‘the enemies of Christ’, he adds in Thesis 53. ‘Let him who speaks against [my] truth concerning papal indulgences’ (Thesis 71) ‘be anathema and accursed’. Luther goes on (Thesis 72) to accuse these preachers of ‘lust and licence’. To believe their priestly teachings (Thesis 75) ‘is madness’.
The objective was to cause grievous offence because Luther believed the object of his wrath fully merited it. He’d have stood no chance in the SNP’s Scotland, where they still seem intent on outlawing dinner-table conversation in the home: Luther’s purposeful ‘hate’ and ‘incitement’ would have certainly landed him in HMP Edinburgh. But it’s interesting how Parris observes the missional imperative of causing offence:
The fury he sparked was not a collateral consequence of the argument he made, it was central to his purpose. Luther was not even ‘tolerant’ (the word preferred by the dons campaigning against the censorship that ‘respectful’ implies). He was angry. Angry not only with an idea, but with the individuals who promoted it. He meant to wound them personally.
Was this simply because Luther was vindictive by nature? Absolutely not. We’ve no window into his nature, but it is plain to scholars of his era that he had wanted to start a popular movement for reform. Hence his fiery language, his personal indictments, his burning of the Papal Bull. This was a man with a strong argument, passionately held, and a canny sense of how to set his cause alight. By his intemperate, intolerant, dis-respectful language, Martin Luther lit the fuse that led to a conflagration in European theology: the Reformation was surely one of the most significant events in the history of our continent. And it began, as it had to, with language that in the words of the Pope was ‘offensive to pious ears’.
And it is to be observed that Jesus wasn’t always entirely respectful or ‘meek and lowly in heart‘ (Mt 11:29). Indeed, sometimes he was downright intolerant, terse, insulting and uncivil: ‘Ye fools and blind..’ (Mt 23:17); ‘Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers..’ (v33); ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine..’ (7:6); ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs‘ (15:26); ‘O generation of vipers..’ (12:34); ‘Go ye, and tell that fox..’ (Lk 13:32).
And when it came to hypocrisy, he called a spade a shovel: ‘Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets‘ (Mt 6:2); ‘And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets..’ (v5); ‘Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces..’ (v16); ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye..’ (7:5), and so on and so forth (15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51).
As Matthew Parris notes: “Insult and abuse, personal invective, scorn and ridicule are vastly important among the means of obliquely challenging a ruling dispensation, and loosening its command around the edges.” The insult isn’t quite the message, but it is intrinsic to the method. And the problem today is that such a method is considered madness, for it invariably evokes a barrage of insults back (‘racist’, ‘bigot’, ‘xenophobe’, ‘Islamophobe’, ‘homophobe‘…), which are designed to shut down all debate: nonconformity is shamed, language is controlled, and morality is policed.
The problem with Christians resorting to insults is that they become “offensive to pious ears”, and written of as ‘extreme’. Should the response to this reflexive offence-taking be that of Stephen Fry?
‘It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that”, as if that gives them certain rights. It’s no more than a whine. It has no meaning, it has no purpose, it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I’m offended by that.” Well, so f*****g what?’
Or is that too offensive? It certainly got him attention. Should the penultimate word have remained uncensored on this blog? If it was okay for the Guardian, why not a Reformation blog? Offensive to pious ears?
“But if we are to challenge folly we must needs offend it: challenge will be taken as disrespect, discourtesy, ‘intolerance’. So be it” concludes Parris. Indeed, “We who believe in free speech will probably win the battle for the right not to ‘respect’ some opinions or those who hold them. But let’s not settle for compromises like ‘tolerance’ or ‘courtesy’. Luther showed neither. Had he had better manners, we’d never have heard of him.”
This is true.
We need a few more spiky Christians with an acerbic streak to call out the latter-day Act of Uniformity which imposes a new ideological ‘Truth’. We should be resigned to the fact that it isn’t really possible to call someone a heretic or a batshit tankie moron without them taking offence.