Values Worth Fighting For

Churches across the globe, Protestant but also Roman Catholic, will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation later this month. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor, nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The church door served as the community bulletin board and Luther’s Theses – or propositions- were in the form of an invitation to debate. There has always been some uncertainty about whether Luther actually nailed the document to the church door. What is not uncertain is the effect they had. The 95 Theses had to do with traditional church doctrine and practice that, in Luther’s mind, needed to be reexamined and reformed. The result was the Reformation, in Marilynne Robinson’s words, “a movement that touched or transformed thought and culture across the breadth of empire.” (The Givenness of Things, p.17). Before it was over Luther would be excommunicated from the church and branded an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor, and the absolute ecclesiastical monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church would be fractured. Violence ensued, wars were fought, martyrs on both sides were tortured and executed. Luther’s followers and their churches were called “Lutherans” in derision, but during the next century large portions of northern Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, all the way to the Italian Alps and the Scottish Highlands, separated from Rome and organized themselves into Reformed churches.

I don’t know what Catholics used to do on Reformation Sunday – probably not much – but for Protestants it was the day the preacher bashed the Pope and trotted out all the reasons, most of them based on stereotypes and prejudice, why we were grateful not to be Catholics. All that is gone now, thanks be to God. A very dear friend, the late Father Bob McGlaughlin, told me once that he led the congregation of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago in singing “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, Martin Luther’s great hymn, on Reformation Sunday. A distinguished theologian observed that after 500 years Catholics can now acknowledge the necessity of the Reformation and Protestants can acknowledge its tragedy.

Reformation Sunday, 2017, the 500th anniversary, is a time to ponder the ideas that prompted and grew out of the movement. Some of those ideas seem to me to be particularly relevant and urgent at this time and place.

Out of the Reformation, and later in John Calvin’s Geneva, emerged the notion of political liberty as an expression of the God-given dignity and worth of human beings. Luther’s Lutheran German princes were a distinct threat to the Roman Church’s, and the Holy Roman Empire’s, hegemony. French Calvinists, the Hugenots, likewise were regarded as a subversive and dangerous political threat to the French monarchy and were slaughtered and banished. Calvin himself was a French lawyer who was intrigued by Luther’s ideas and took them several significant steps further. The human conscience belongs to no one, no state, no church, but to God alone.  In Geneva, Switzerland, where he was a refugee from French persecution, Calvin imagined a whole new idea of authority, in the church and in the body politic. While the traditional notion of authority was based on God’s authority, granted at the top of a pyramid, to Popes and Monarchs who then conferred it to priests and bishops, who exercised it on the people, Calvin had an opposite definition, an inverted pyramid. Authority belongs to the people (not all the people, not yet), and the people have the right to self-government by selecting the pastors and officers in the church and magistrates in the civil arena. It was a political bombshell that reverberated in royal palaces throughout Europe and the Vatican itself.

The ecclesiastical expression of Luther’s and Calvin’s theology is a doctrine we know as “The Priesthood of All Believers.” Everyone has a vocation, a calling by God, not just clergy. No calling, no vocation, is holier or more important than any other. God needs farmers and street cleaners, doctors and laborers, teachers and plumbers, nurses and carpenters – equally. Both Luther and Calvin agreed that the individual Christian does not need a human intermediary with God.

The political expression of that Reformation idea was in the human hunger and struggle for liberty, freedom. The colonial patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and pledged their fortunes and their lives, and then wrote a Constitution and Bill of Rights creating a new nation based on personal liberty, understood John Calvin’s concept of political liberty deriving from God-given human dignity and worth.

The economic expression was in Calvin’s insistence that weights and measures in the Geneva marketplace be accurate, people treated equitably and children not exploited. The social expression was in the form of a charitable, publicly funded “Chest” to assist refugees poring into Geneva and in Calvin’s follower, John Knox’s commitment, in Presbyterian Scotland, that the community was responsible for the education of its children and young people – public education.

Nothing would make me happier today than not to be writing and worrying daily, hourly, about our nation. I am deeply concerned, more than I ever have been, not as a Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, that our President and his advisors and supporters are leading our nation away from those very values that are at the heart of my Reformed Christian faith.

I’m worrying about the Creation that the Bible teaches God has given to us for our care, our stewardship, our responsible management. I worry when unprecedented hurricanes, winds, floods and fires decimate American cities and communities while the government says it is not the time to talk about climate change and global warming, pulls us out of the Paris Accords and the Environmental Protection Agency eases regulations on corporate polluters in the energy industry.

I worry about the peace of the world because I aspire to follow One scripture calls the Prince of Peace as the President trades insults with a dictator who has nuclear weapons aimed at California, insults allies with whom the United States has maintained the peace since 1945, and begins to negate an agreement with Iran to prevent nuclear proliferation, publicly humiliates his own Secretary of State and treats vital, delicate international relations like playground fisticuffs.

I worry about the administration’s efforts to deny health insurance/health care to tens of millions of Americans, not because of political or economic ideology but because my Lord told me to love my neighbor.

I worry about a wall on the border and Dreamers being deported because scripture tells us to welcome the stranger, the alien, the immigrant.

I’m praying nightly for my nation and I hope you are too. I’m also calling and writing my political representatives and giving what I can to my political party of choice.

And in the midst of my worrying and fussing about my country I saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rap musical, Hamilton, and it was a blessed reprieve and a comforting reminder that we still have a history to be proud of and values worth fighting and dying for, thanks be to God.


  1. Well said, John!! You express the worries of many of us!

  2. Barbara Fountain says:

    Well said John as always. I continue to pray for our nation also.

  3. Lynn DeJong says:

    Thank you, John, for so concisely stating exactly why this current Administration’s policies are the antithesis of everything in which Reformed Christians believe.

  4. Frances Coe says:

    As always, John, right on target!!

  5. Thank you, John. Clear as a bell. It is a daily challenge to rise in the morning with hope for an end to the madness that assaults our best selves and the faith we grasp as our hope. A Mighty Fortress and O God, Our Help in Ages Past will speak as powerfully this Reformation Sunday in Protestant and Catholic churches as they did when they were first sung. Thank you!

  6. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    John Buchanan’s “Values Worth Fighting For” articulates clearly so much of what my seminary classmates and I are thinking and feeling as we prepare for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in the midst of the era of Donald Trump.

  7. Reblogged this on From Sandy Knob.

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