Luther’s Legacy: How Luther’s vision and Protestantism changed Germany and the world

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By Žikica Milošević

The birth of Martin Luther’s Protestantism was celebrated all over the world last year, which marked the 500th anniversary of the historical moment when this priest “protested” against the Catholic practices in Germany and elsewhere. In Serbia, the celebration was more subdued and mostly went unnoticed. But Luther’s legacy is one of those things that has changed our world the most.

THE IDEA

Martin Luther was a priest who adored Christianity and dreamt about Rome and service in the almighty church. But, when he saw the state of the church at the time, he was appalled. In 1516, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On 31st October 1517, Luther wrote to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices. But in Thesis 86, Luther asks: “Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” – This was a clear sign of modesty that would become prevalent in Protestantism later on.

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HOW IT ALL WENT WRONG… AND FINALLY RIGHT

But the Catholic Church did not take that lightly, and subsequently expelled Luther who got increasingly defiant. In the period of great dissatisfaction of masses, nobility and clergy, he successfully started a new church, and the rest just fell into the place – different versions of Protestantism, including Zwingli, Jean Calvin and many other congregations, especially in southern Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland and later, America, mushroomed. The Catholics have lost the North of our continent. Today, the northermost Catholic countries in Europe are Lithuania and Poland. But other nations, which adopted Protestantism, also changed rapidly. Look at the Viking lands Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway! During the Pagan times, they were fierce Viking warriors, during the Catholicism they became humble. Only Protestantism, with its absence of riches, ornamentations and icons could ever satisty their Northern souls who were appalled by the Italian Renaissance and the opulence. Silence, internal prayers, no mysticism, the Bible in their own languages, priests talking about everyday life… Instead of the vertical line of communication with God, protestants understood that horizontal solidarity is more important – it was a backbone and the founding stone for all the Protestant countries, even the aristocratic ones like England. There is a lot of truth it in – help you neighbour, clean your house, mow the lawn, paint the fence, make yourself decent and clean, and you will be the best servant of God. If everyone does the same, there is hope! When everyone did the same, “perfect” egalitarian societies emerged with majority of them being in Protestant countries; from Canada to Australia, Finland and Germany to Scotland and Norway.

THE PROTESTANT ETHICS AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM

Of course, we have to mention Max Weber and his idea that the Protestant ethics is the basic of capitalism. Capitalism was founded in the South, in the mercantilistic Italy and Greece which are populated by people who like to enjoy life. The basic point is moderation in pleasure, even restriction from pleasure, or rather the combination of “I have to work hard in the Glory of Gord” and “I must not live lavishly because it is a sin” combined with massive amount of wealth and discipline in the Protestant countries. Scrooge McDuck could be the symbol of such spirit, which brings us to Wall Street and the perversity of today’s capitalism, all derived not from the thrifty spirit of the old rich, but the individual entrepreneurship that also characterised Protestantism. It took on many forms – from egalitarian supersocieties like Sweden, to wild capitalism in the UK during the Industrial Revolution and venture capitalism of America today. From God-fearing Bible reading Nigerians to modest Vojvodinian kulen-loving Slovaks. But, Luther’s revolution, namely questioning the dogma, thinking for yourself, wanting to understand and deferring from sin, has changed our world like no other revolution, including the French one!

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