Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 12:39 PM
July 10, 2010
In Luther's later treatise, entitled “The Sermon on the Mount,” we see an unfortunate shift from the promising (if somewhat disorganized) start of “On Temporal Authority.”
Having started with the Beatitudes, he asks,
“What does it mean, then, to be meek? From the outset here you must realize that Christ is not speaking at all about the government and its work, whose property it is not to be meek, as we use the word in German, but to bear the sword (Rom. 13:4) for the punishment of those who do wrong (1 Pet. 2:14), and to wreak a vengeance and a wrath that are called the vengeance and wrath of God. He is only talking about how individuals are to live in relation to others, apart from official position and authority.”
This is not an uncommon route to take--insisting that different ethical standards apply in private life vs. public life--and I am not going to contest that there must be some difference, because there is still a provisional task of judgment to execute until the fullness of the Kingdom comes. The question we must ask, though, is whether it is an absolute difference; should the commands of Christ have no effect on how a government decides to execute vengeance? Do the priority of peacemaking and the value of mercy have no purchase in the public sphere? Moreover, we must beware of articulating this eschatological distinction in terms which suggest it is simply a public/private distinction, as Luther appears to do here: do Christian ethics cease to have any relevance once we move from the individual level to the level of any institution? The CEO of Enron had “official position and authority,” he was working not as an individual, but as representative of an institution. Did the same ethics no longer apply? As we go on, we will see that our concern here is not unwarranted.
Luther goes on to draw a sharp distinction between office and person:
“The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher. Here we have two different persons in one man.” Jesus, is not talking about the office-person: “He is not talking about this person here, letting it alone in its own office and rule, as he has ordained it. He is talking merely about how each individual, natural person is to behave in relation to others.”
See, now this is a very troubling move. We have shifted from contrasting civil government and private life to contrasting any “office” such as “doctor or preacher” with private life. While clearly every man has certain functions which belong exclusively to a particular office that he executes, and are not relevant outside of that office, it is rather more problematic to assert that different ethical principles apply within and without the office. Moreover, if we are speaking about “offices” of this sort, it seems that very little of our lives indeed lie under the commands of Jesus.
All this is simply under the discussion of meekness. Later, as he turns to consider the difficult commands of 5:38-40, he insists that this doesn’t mean a literal turning the other cheek--
“it was enough for a person to be ready in his heart to offer the other cheek....We say, therefore, that all it does is to proclaim to every Christian that he should willingly and patiently suffer whatever is his lot, without seeking revenge or hitting back.
“But the question and argument still remain. Must a person suffer all sorts of things from everyone, without defending himself at all? Has he no right to plead a case or to lodge a complaint before a court, or to claim and demand what belongs to him? If all these things were forbidden, a strange situation would develop. It would be necessary to put up with everybody’s whim and insolence. Personal safety and private property would be impossible, and finally the social order would collapse.”
This new move is also quite troubling. To take Christ “literally” here would mean that we would constantly have to suffer from “everybody’s whim and insolence,” and so it is clear that Christ merely means that we should turn the cheek of our hearts, so to speak, that we should be willing to suffer passively, but should not actually do so. Such bifurcation of action and intention seems to rob these commands of most of their force, relevance, and value.
In the following paragraphs, Luther combines the two approaches he has taken here--the distinction of civil government and private life, and the distinction of heart and outward action. The earthly regime, we are told, must continue to “administer law and punishment,” maintain distinctions of ranks, etc.
“But the Gospel does not trouble itself with these matters. It teaches about the right relation of the heart to God, while in all these other questions it should take care to stay pure and not to stumble into a false righteousness. You must grasp and obey this distinction, for it is the basis on which such questions can easily be answered. Then you will see that Christ is talking about a spiritual existence and life and that he is addressing himself to his Christians. He is telling them to live and behave before God and in the world with their heart dependent upon God and uninterested in things like secular rule or government, power or punishment, anger or revenge.”
We begin, it seems, with a distinction between civil government and the kingdom of Christ, but this latter gets defined as “the right relation of the heart to God,” suggesting that, as Luther has already ventured, what matters is not that our actions conform to Christ’s commands, but that our hearts do.
Of course, it is possible to read this at first in an Anabaptist way; Christians are to be “uninterested in things like secular rule or government, power or punishment” because they live according to a different kingdom. However, we are going to see that he does not mean that Christians are to stay aloof from such things--of course they are to be involved in such things, but as secular persons, not as Christians. As a Christian, we must love our enemies. But Christian could be, in addition to being a Christian “a prince or a judge or a servant or a maid--all of which are termed ‘secular’ persons because they are part of the secular realm.” One’s identity in relation to other people, in this portrait, is not part of one’s being a Christian--one is a secular person inasmuch as one stands in relation to other people. We may then ask how it is that a Christian could love his enemies, because inasmuch as he relates to his enemies, he must do so as a secular person. You will see soon that I am not overstating the problem...Luther just plunges further and further into it.
He expands upon the bifurcation of person and office, and considers the office to be a “secular person”: “There is no getting around it, a Christian has to be a secular person of some sort.” In this role, “your name is not ‘Christian,’ but father’ or ‘lord’ or ‘prince.’ According to your own person you are a Christian; but in relation to your servant you are a different person, and you are obliged to protect him.”
“You see, now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, whether under him or over him or even alongside him, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect.”
In such cases we are told that it is wrong to apply the turn-the-other-cheek principle. Is it wrong because the principle is in abeyance when you are acting in an office, or because the principle is about self, not others?
He no longer draws the distinction clearly. Observe, for instance, where he says:
“What kind of crazy mother would it be who would refuse to defend and save her child from a dog or a wolf and who would say: ‘A Christian must not defend himself’? Should we not teach her a lesson with a good whipping and say: ‘Are you a mother? Then do your duty as a mother, as you are charged to do it.”
Rather than taking the obvious route with this example and saying, “Christ says a Christian must not defend himself, but clearly he should defend his child, so there is no contradiction,” Luther imagines that we must, as it were, suspend the Sermon on the Mount because we are talking about someone acting as a secular person. We are to neatly distinguish two different identities for the Christian and two different sets of ethics for these identities: “Now, with this distinction of the boundary between the province of the Christian person and that of the secular person you can neatly classify all these saying and apply them properly where they belong, not confusing them and throwing them in one pot, the way the teaching and the administration of the pope has done.”
What, we must ask, remains in the province of the Christian person, if we have bracketed out every aspect of his life that is in relation or in obligation to others? It would seem that Christ’s commands are still to apply when it is solely oneself who is threatened, and Luther says so. But having said this, he then immediately flip-flops and says, “It is permissible to use orderly procedure in demanding and obtaining your rights, but be careful not to have a vindictive heart.” It’s fine to use the law simply for your protection, only not for vindictivenss. “When the heart is pure, then everything is right and well done.”
So the Sermon on the Mount does not offer us instruction when it comes to living in relation to others, and, even addressing us as individuals, it should be taken only as speaking to our hearts, our intentions, not our outward actions. This is because any of our outward actions, it appears, are part of our “secular person.”:
“He lives simultaneously as a Christian toward everyone, personally suffering all sorts of things in the world, and as a secular person, maintaining, using, and performing all the functions required by the law of his territory or city, by civil law, and by domestic law....A Christian should not resist any evil; but within the limits of his office, a secular person should oppose every evil. The head of a household should not put up with insubordination or bickering among his servants. A Christian should not sue anyone, but should surrender both his coat and cloak when they are taken away from him; but a secular person should go to court if he can to protect and defend himself against some violence or outrage.”
Since we are all secular people, we should all go to court to defend ourselves, but in our hearts, we should still live as Christians. Here is an ethics that has been entirely emasculated and robbed of any livable form. Here the Catholic counsels/precepts distinction gets turned on its side, separating each individual into a spiritual person who inwardly follows the counsels--the hard teachings of Christian ethics--and outwardly follows the precepts--more basic, natural law teachings.
This is, of course, not Luther at his best, and we mustn’t imagine that Luther actually consistently applied such a bizarre and schizophrenic ethic. Nevertheless, this sort of inward/outward ethical dualism has exerted a very strong influence on Protestantism and we must be alert to its presence. A common form it takes in the modern world is in the dual standards we apply to the world of business: as a private individual, I am not greedy, nor combative, I seek peace with all men, but as a businessman, I can be a cutthroat competitor, seeking to destroy the competition and wring the last cent out of my customers, always seeking more and more profit.
For Luther, the attempt to escape the hard words of the Sermon on the Mount has led him to destroy the foundations of Christian ethics. Clearly, we need a better interpretive solution.