I’m letting Dr. Martin Luther take most of the credit for this month’s blog, which means it’s quite a bit longer than might be ideal for most readers. Bear with him, though, because what he wrote back in 1524 is still relevant today.
Even though he lived during a different era, in a different land, and spoke a different language than we do, his community experienced many of the same problems we face today. Divisions. Corruption. Violence. Poverty. Injustice.
Luther could be quite pointed in what he said, regardless of whom he was addressing, but he didn’t often use his pulpit or his publications to promote a particular leader. He was political without being partisan, most of the time, as he pointed out the failures and inadequacies of leaders and governments. Pointing out how governments have failed, or how citizens have failed in their duty to prepare people to become good leaders or elect leaders who make decisions based on love of neighbor instead of love of self is political. But it’s not partisan.
What Luther wrote in his open letter to leaders throughout Germany was this:
It is the business of our leaders to care for and pay attention to the young. For since the property, honor and life of the whole city are committed to your faithful keeping, you would fail in your duty if you did not seek its welfare and improvement with all your powers day and night.
Now the welfare of a city is not based only on great treasures, solid city walls, beautiful buildings, and a plentiful supply of weapons. No, when all these are plentiful and reckless, fools take control of them and the city suffers. A city’s welfare, safety, and strength consist in having many able, learned, wise, and honorable citizens; such leaders can easily gather treasure and all the rest, protect them, and put them to good use.
So since a city should and must have citizens who can become leaders, and there is everywhere a lack of them, and complaints that they cannot be found, we dare not wait until they grow up of their own accord (nor can we hew them out of stone nor carve them out of wood); and since God will provide no miracles so long as we can solve our problems by means of other gifts, we must spare no labor or expense to teach the young to become such citizens.
Whose fault is it that there are today so few capable young adults ready to become leaders? It is your fault, you who have left the young to grow up like saplings in the forest and have given no thought to their teaching and learning!
Good government must continue. Shall we permit only fools to rule, when we can teach the young to be more capable leaders? That would indeed be a barbaric and foolish policy. We might as well make swine and wolves our leaders and set them over those who do not care how they are governed.
Moreover, it is perverse to say to yourselves: “We rule now; why should we be concerned about what happens to those who come after us?” If you say such things to yourselves, if you seek only your own profit or honor in governing, you should only lead swine and dogs, not fellow citizens.
No, it is a necessity, not only for the sake of the young, but for the maintenance of good government, that we all must commit ourselves to the teaching and learning of the young.
Martin Luther, from An die Radherrn aller Stedte Deutches Lands [To the leaders of all German cities], translated from the original German by Deacon David Rask Behling
Dr. Martin Luther was a pastor. But it’s important to remember that he was also Chancellor of Wittenberg University and, as an educator, he was a firm believer in a strong public education system. From his perspective, public education for all children was the foundation for a well-run community, guaranteeing there would be a large number of leaders in city governments who had the wisdom and knowledge to understand issues and make decisions. Reformation-era German cities were nowhere near democratic in their governance, but there were many ordinary citizens who played an important role in decision-making.
I quote him because it seems that we Lutherans in America have forgotten that his reforms were not just about our private relationship with God. For Luther and many other reformers back in the 16th century, our faith was about how we worshipped AND how we governed ourselves. Our faith called us to serve God by serving our neighbors. Our faith was as much about how we made our money as it was about what we did in our churches.
And our faith should be visible in how we educate our children, not in requiring teachers or administrators to lead students in public prayers every day, but by providing the expertise and the wisdom needed to step into leadership roles, when people are called to do that. Our public education system is the foundation upon which our country is built, and our country is falling apart. Lutherans are too often among those who advocate for replacing public with private education, with the level of expertise and wisdom development in our children dependent on how much money we have. We’ve made a good education a privilege, not a right. And the result has been what we see in ourselves right now.
Dr. Martin Luther would not be impressed. I don’t think Jesus would be, either.