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Martin Luther on the Passions of Evangelical Politics

January 28th, 2013 | 9 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Now that we have a bit of distance from the Giglio controversy, it’s worth stepping back and thinking through this with a bit more depth:  how should Christians speak in public when those in government oppose them?

I’ve been rereading Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness and have found it illuminating in light of recent events.  A brief summary:

After describing public officials as those who have been ordained by God to “punish and judge evil men, to vindicate and defend the oppressed,” Luther turns toward private individuals–including, presumably, clergymen–and identifies three types of response when they have suffered injustices.  It’s an instructive taxonomy and comes very close to identifying some of the shortcomings I had tried to grasp at.

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Eva...

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006), 15. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first type Luther identifies are those who “seek vengeance and judgment from the representatives of God.”  Luther’s basic disposition toward these folk is that we should tolerate them, but not commend them.  In fact, he goes on to suggest that they may not enter the kingdom of heaven(!) unless they forsake “things that are merely lawful” and pursue “those that are helpful.  For that passion for one’s own advantage must be destroyed.”

The second class are those “who do not desire vengeance” and “do not resist any evil.”  Christian Citizenship 202as it were.  Yet Luther goes a step further and suggests that if the authorities seek to redress the wrongs done on their own, such Christians “do not desire it or seek it, or they only permit it.”  If they’re really advanced, then they may even prevent the government from pursuing justice as they are “prepared rather to lose their other possessions also.”

Yet this isn’t a form of political quietism, at least not of the sort that abdicates any responsibility toward the public square and those who are infringing other people’s liberties within it.  Instead, they “grieve more over the sin of their offenders than over the loss or offense to themselves.  And they do this that they may recall those offenders from sin rather than avenge the wrongs they themselves have suffered.”

There is a third class, though, who are like the second type in disposition but not like the second type in practice.  Which is to say, they “demand back their property or seek punishment to be meted out, not because they seek their own advantage but because they seek the betterment of the one who has stolen or offended.”  Yet Luther isn’t sanguine about this group:

“No one ought to attempt this unless he is mature and highly experienced in the second class just mentioned, lest he mistake wrath for zeal and be convicted of doing from anger and impatience that which he believes he is doing from love of justice.  For anger is like zeal, and impatience is like love of justice so that they cannot be sufficiently distinguished except by the most spiritual.”

Let me be the first to say that I am not among the most spiritual and am almost certainly not going to get the taxonomy of loves and passions right.  But it is  interesting that Luther (like Augustine) recognizes the subtle differences between zeal and love of justice on the one hand and anger and impatience on the other.  He is attentive not only to whether we are seeking the right, but the passions that motivate us to seek it. And one of the criterion he deploys is whether we are properly focused on the offender’s good, rather than rectifying the wrongs done to us for the sake of justice on its own.

Luther’s primary interest is in safeguarding the integrity of Christians’ witness to the Gospel. And no Christian is going to disagree with him on that, at least not that I know of. What’s more, Luther doesn’t specify whether his is only a criterion for action or whether it is also a criterion for communication.   Which is to say, we could conceivably be genuinely motivated to seek justice on account of the other person’s good, but not make that clear in our public reasoning about it. Yet the absence would, I think, reasonably call into question whether that had been our intention all along, or whether it was an ad hoc justification (even a true one!) for our public action.  Good intentions, after all, are not enough in marriage, economics, or political communications.

What’s more, those of us who speak publicly should remember the significant gap between our own characters and the intentions formed by them and the readers who come across our words (which I have been reminded of a good deal recently, having failed to clearly communicate myself several times over!).  To put a specific point on it, I am quite sure Al Mohler, Russell Moore, and Robert George are themselves motivated more by love of justice than impatience.  Those who know them well assure me such is the case and I have no reason to doubt it (and in George’s case, I’ve met him and have watched him interact with those he disagrees and am convinced for myself).

Yet our words about politics reach into an environment formed by impatient passions and a self-righteous sense of vengeance that we ourselves do not intend nor create.  In such a political context, strongly worded denunciations or even straight-forward arguments on behalf of justice by leaders might not be designed to enflame misguided passions, but it’s hard to see how they could do anything else.  Call it the problem that of the “unintended inevitable side-effects.”  â€śA gentle answer turns away wrath,” we remember, but it can also go a long ways toward minimizing the inflammation of controversy where, if anywhere, I suspect the love of justice is most likely to devolve into impatience and zeal into anger.

What’s more, as a movement I’d simply suggest that evangelicals aren’t terribly practiced at being in Luther’s “second class” and forgoing our own goods for the sake of the public witness of the Gospel.  There are many laws and parts of society that have not gone evangelicals’ way the past thirty years.  But the very real threat of being called “bigots” has made the problem personal for many conservatives in a way that the culture wars have not been before. We are concerned about the effects of being labeled bigots, and rightly so.  Yet the fact that the stakes are personal means we stand in even more danger of allowing our public opposition to the wrong slide into being motivated by a sense of anger and grievance.

Which is to say, I don’t get the sense we are facing up to the potential stigma with the sort of confident courage that we should be.  But then if my thesis about our underformed political passions is right, that’s not terribly surprising:  we haven’t had many opportunities to train our dispositions in the way Luther thinks necessary for Christians to speak Christianly in public.  Nor have we done a very good job of properly grieving for the other’s sake the wrongs those who oppose us do. If the bulk of our speech is oriented toward addressing “moral decline” and the loss of “religious freedom”–and it may be worth reminding you again that I have repeatedly and routinely raised worries about both for nine years here at Mere-O!–then I’m not sure we can claim to have reached “Christian Citizenship 202” in Luther’s taxonomy, much less the third class.

Ensuring that evangelical politics is properly evangelical–that it takes the form and tone of “good news”–is a good deal more sophisticated and difficult than it seems on the surface.  And I doubtlessly haven’t gotten it right and will certainly get it wrong in the future.  I have been comforted in recent weeks by remembering the failures of statesmen of old, failures that did far more damage than my own will ever do but which did not preclude them from participating in an even greater good.  For the failure of my own public witness, and of the movement I have grown up in and still love, are yet covered by the mercy, grace, and power of the resurrection.  The failure and triumph of Christ should give us courage even when we don’t arrive at Luther’s third class of Christian witness. The message will go forward in spite of our imperfect witness and messy political passions, just as it has for 2000 years.

But my hope and prayer for evangelicals is the same it has always been:  that in articulating the way things ought to be we would do so with the confidence that can endure our marginalization with a smile, with the shrewdness of those who have the wisdom of Christ, and with the perpetual willingness to seek the good of our neighbors even and especially when they treat us with scorn.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.