Tear down the barriers! 

David Cornick at EG croppedRevd Dr David Cornick writes:

Five hundred years ago an Augustinian monk who was also a professor of theology in an upstart  new university in Saxony unwittingly changed the world.

Martin Luther was a complicated man, a passionately devout monk; a perceptive, original and courageous theologian unafraid to stand up for what he considered the truth even though the church and the world stood against him; a foul-mouthed reactionary polemicist who actively encouraged the slaughter of the peasants who dared rebel against the state in 1524; a devoted husband to Kate and in that sense a pioneer of the Protestant family; a skilled linguist whose gave German speakers a peerless vernacular Bible, and an innovator whose command of the new media (in his case print and pamphlets) would have trumped President-Elect Trump.

The legacy of Luther’s quest for the peace of God and his ‘re-discovery’ of justification by faith led to the invention of Protestantism, the division of Europe into religious blocs, and a consequent series of religious wars which wrecked and scarred almost every European nation for the next century and a half.  He could never have foreseen those unintended consequences, nor can he be blamed for them.  However, half a millennium on, we are the inheritors of that ambiguous legacy.

Its appropriate therefore, that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity material, which we will begin to use next week (18-25 January) was prepared by the German churches. Germany was permanently scarred by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), one of the unintended consequences of Luther’s reformation. The armies of Europe marauded across the states of Germany for thirty years bringing terror and plague in their wake. So deep was the scar that Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, explained their capitulation in 1945 as preventing the decimation of Germany from reaching that scale again.[1]

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Germany knew the pain of religious division as large swathes of the population had to move into either Catholic or Protestant territories. That movement of peoples was echoed in the long wake of the Second World War. The division of Germany into East and West, and the erection of the Berlin Wall, ushered in a new politics of division, symbolised by a literal, physical barrier that ran the length of Berlin, until it fell, extraordinarily and dramatically, in 1989, paving the way for re-unification in 1990.

Speaking out of that unique, terrible, pain-ridden history, the German churches call us to reconciliation. As they considered how they should celebrate the 500th anniversary of the promulgation of Luther’s 95 Theses in October 1517, they decided on a ‘Christusfest’ – a celebration of Christ. They took inspiration from Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. He reminded us that ‘unity prevails over conflict’, for ‘…Christ has made all things one in himself; heaven and earth, God and man, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, person and society’.

The sign of that unity is peace, a peace that is only possible in Christ’s victory. As Pope Francis reflects on that peace, he argues that its locus is first of all within us, for ‘…if hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society.’  This isn’t about negotiation, but about the work of the Spirit who ‘…can harmonise every diversity’ and bring from that conflict a new synthesis, full of new possibilities.[2]  Should we wish to see proof of that, we could do no better than look to the experience of the German churches, who out of a cruel, long and deep history of division, call us now to break down barriers. Christ has broken the ultimate barrier, the barrier of death through his death. As we all share in that death, so we all share in his life, the new creation, his reconciliation of all things to himself. Our unity resides in him, and he gives us that ministry of reconciliation.

This Week of Prayer, we need to re-dedicate ourselves to that costly ministry. This year Christians will also commemorate the centenary of the birth of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, one of ten modern martyrs commemorated in stone on the front of Westminster Abbey. Romero was remarkably talented priest. Ordained in 1942, he had obtained a doctorate from the Gregorian by the age of 26, and seemed set for an exemplary career. After twenty years of admirable parish work, he became a seminary Rector and then the Secretary of Bishops’ Conference for El Salvador before being raised to the episcopate. In 1977 he became Archbishop of San Salvador. The government were delighted, left-wing priests disappointed, for he was a judicious conservative. A close friend, a Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated a month later for his work amongst the poor. Romero was deeply moved – ‘…I thought, if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’ 

The El Salvadorian government must have felt like Henry II when he appointed Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury – that they had the church sorted. Like Henry II, they were wrong, for as the Revolutionary Junta came to power in 1979 with the backing of Carter’s America, they found in their Archbishop a determined champion of the rights of the poor. In less than three years, six priests were murdered, more than fifty attacked and calumniated, and thousands of ordinary worshippers were threatened, tortured or ‘disappeared’.

It was but a matter of time, and on 24th March 1980, Romero was shot down whilst celebrating mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital where he lived.  The week before he died, Romero preached on the same texts chosen by the German churches for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – 2 Cor 5 and Luke 15:11-32 (the prodigal son). Look at the ways, he said, in which left condemns right, and right left. Look at the hatred and the violence – ‘So many people are members of different groups and they are polarised and perhaps members of the same group do not love one another because in reality love cannot exist when there is so much polarisation and hatred. We need to tear down the barriers! We need to realise that there is one Father who loves everyone and awaits us all!....I am not able to speak about reconciliation with any other words except by saying that we must be united with Christ….God is in Christ reconciling all things to himself.’[3]

We too are called to that costly ministry in our deeply divided nation and world. May God grant us the grace, insight and courage that he gave to those two remarkable servants of his whom we commemorate this year – Martin Luther and Oscar Romero.

The Revd Dr David Cornick is General Secretary of Churches Together in England.

[1] Neil MacGregor Germany: memories of a nation (London, Allen Lane, 2014) p.xxxiv
[2] Evangelii gaudium  paras 226-30
[3] Oscar Romero ‘Reconciliation in Christ, true liberation’ www.romerotrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/homilies/reconciliation_christ_true_liberation.pdf. Accessed 13.01.17

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