What would Martin Luther post today?

I recently read an article in the Economist magazine titled “How Luther went viral– Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation.”

Why this interests me

This is a subject I’ve been spending a lot of time on over the past 2 months because it brings together two of my interests:

  • I was a history major in college, and studied the Reformation (at Conrad Grebel)
  • I’ve also spent a lot of time studying computers, and thinking about new media
Last fall, I created this “Staying Connected” blog with the mission of exploring the connections between new media, author-ity, and community.  It is from that seed that this article springs.

Re-imagining History

It’s sometimes fun to compare the present day to the past and imagine what would happen if we took a page out of the history book when making choices.

In October, I was talking with a women named Faith about her support of Occupy Wall Street and commenting that the Occupy Wall Street crowd needed to get more focus when I had an “ah-ha” moment:

It’s almost as if someone ought to post 95 theses on the door of the stock exchange.

I went home that night and did a little bit of research.  As I did, I saw some interesting parallels between the 16th century and our current time.  Of course there’s a danger in reading too much of our own experience into the past, but it can create new perspectives as well.


In setting up the premise, I imagined what Martin Luther would write if he were alive today.

  • what would be the message?
  • what would be the format?
  • what does that say about us and our world?

The History of 16th century Europe

It’s been a while since I studied history in college, but as I revisited it, some interesting material emerged.  What I found is that the 16th century was a time of transition, in which social and economic forces were changing Europe.

Europe was divided by class and several of the class groups were feeling the squeeze:

  • The princes were finding their administrative and military costs rising and passed the increased costs on to the peasants through higher taxes and the selling of indulgences. They also found it economically advantageous to break from Rome and become independent.
  • For the lesser nobility, evolving military technology was reducing the value of knights and castles. Inflation and urbanization also contributed to the Knights Revolt of 1522.
  • The clergy were losing their priveleged postion, and divided between the aristocratic clergy that were well-positioned within the church and those poorer and more rural clergy.
  • the peasants were coming under increasing financial pressure, through increasing taxes, and the privatization of common fields, forests and waters. If they wished to marry, they had to had their Lord’s permission, and pay a marriage tax.

It was within this context that Martin Luther’s 95 theses were published.  Five years later, there was a revolt by the Knights; followed by the Peasant’s war.

Occupy Wall Street -20

Occupy Wall Street Protesters

Tea Party

Tea Part Protesters

Would Martin Luther have supported Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party?

I reached the conclusion that Luther did not support the Peasants and would not support Occupy Wall Street.   (Luther thought Romans 13:1-7 supported the Divine rule of Kings)

A Reformer, but not a Radical

Martin Luther’s original message did not propose a new economic system like Marxism.  He did not argue for a new political system like democracy.

Luther simply said that the Catholic church was not an accurate representation of true religion, and appealed to scripture as the standard of reference.

Rather than drafting an Occupy Wall Street articles comparable to the Peasant’s 12 articles, I thought it would be interesting to imagine what it would look like if Luther were to create a “conservative” or “foundational” critique of “Wall Street”, similar to his 95 theses, but updated for the times.

The Comparison:

Just as:

  • Luther said, the Catholic church‘s teaching on ingulgences are not true religion,
  • One could say: the crony relationship between the large global megabanks and government do not truly represent Capitalism or Democracy

The format

As I developed the concept, it became clear to me that if Martin Luther were alive today, the format of his theses would have to be different, mainly because today we’re drowning in printed material, and we have such diminished attention spans.

I went back and read translations of Luther’s 95 theses (which were originally written in latin), and it struck me that each thesis could almost be thought of as a tweet.  They’re a little bit longer than twitter’s 140-character limit, but not by that much.  They certainly can’t be though of as articles or chapters in a book.  Still, ninety-five is too many for all but the most dedicated readers to digest today.

The other thing that I decided is that a modern-day 95 theses would not be written by one person, but be an aggregation of the the most popular ideas from many authors.  Part of the reason for this is that one person doesn’t have the knowledge to address all issues in enough depth; and the other reason is we don’t trust one person to set the terms of debate and speak for the group.

The slideshow prototype

The second draft that I created was a prototype of a slide show, because as I browse a lot of websites, I see an increasing use of lists and slide shows.  If you’ve read much online at this year’s end, I’m sure you’ve come a cross a number of slide shows listing the best and worse of the year.

So here’s my sample slide show critiquing the unholy alliance between the largest financial institutions and the government.

I think of the format as a footnoted and illustrated tweet.

I was able to find a number of videos to use a supporting material (notice if you click for more information, you’ll see an excerpt and a link to additional material), but I found that a video clip should be less than a minute or people will lose interest.

Here’s a video clip that I think captures what a credible insider, like Luther was, might look like today if he had a forum to debate the existance of global “megabanks”.

(In this video, Simon Johnson is arguing that the large global “mega banks” will be bailed out again because they are too big and interconnected to fail.)

I can imagine that the complexity of Johnson’s argument over “counter-cyclical buffers” turns many readers off, just as Luther’s use of theological terms would have gone over the heads of many peasants, but the language also signifies his authority to speak as an expert on the subject.

This also brought me to another principle for my list — the list would not be an individual’s own writing, but a collection of references to sources that others are likely to trust to have some authority.  Many slides include video, but even a 10 minute clip is too long for the modern “reader”.

One question I had was over the tone of the document.  Simon’s Johnson’s argument is quite forceful, or as he calls it, “less polite”.  If we look at Luther’s original theses, they did include some rather biting questions.  Take for example #86:

Again: since the pope’s income to-day is larger than that of the wealthiest of wealthy men, why does he not build this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of indigent believers? (more)

As I researched the early Reformation, I found that Luther frequently demonized the Catholic church.  While today it is common for debates to decline in civility, to the point where inevitably one person compares the other to Hitler, in Luther’s day the comparison was to the anti-Christ.

Multiple themes / topics

Even though I created the list on the theme of Wall Street and Washington, my idea is that a contemporary list would be written on multiple topics and “tagged” (or categorized).

Someone could write a list on the topic of the environment, or energy.  The topics would span national borders.

Here is a video that a church did on the subject of the institutional confession:

What’s the common theme?

Martin Luther’s original 95 theses were called:

A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences

If you were to read all the slides I’ve written on the “Wall Street / Washington” theme, is there a unifying theme?

I read an article today titled: “In 2011, the revolution was tweeted” which says:

Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

The unifying complaint is crony capitalism. That’s a broad term, to be sure, and its bloody Libyan manifestation bears little resemblance to complaints about the Troubled Asset Relief Program in the United States or allegations of corrupt auctions for telecommunications licenses in India. But the notion that the rules of the economic game are rigged to benefit the elites at the expense of the middle class has had remarkable resonance this year around the world and across the political spectrum.


Unsaid in these critiques are the many difficult structural issues that stand in the way, beyond cronyism.  It would be just as interesting, and likely more useful to list the complex problems preventing reform on issues like heath care or education.

Perhaps a common critique would be:

A Disputation on the limits of Greed and narrow self-interest to achieve the greater good.

That may sound like a caricature of Capitalism, but if you read Tyler Cowen or Raghuram Rajan, incentives are not as easily aligned as someone like Alan Greenspan assumed.

Economics professor  Tyler Cowen admits the insoluability of the problem, saying: ”The root cause of income inequality, viewed in the most general terms, is extreme human ingenuity, albeit of a perverse kind.”

The fact that a few of our largest financial institutions do not experience the disciplining possiblity of failure makes the problem especially unmanageable.

What was Luther thinking?

Martin Luther was a priest who was upset that his parishoners were purchasing “certificates of forgiveness” from traveling salesmen.  Some of his parishoners would then tell him that they had no need of confession, because they had already purchased an indulgence.

When Luther published his 95 theses, he was trying to engage in a debate.  He did not intend to start a split in the Catholic church.  I’ve even heard that he may have hoped that the pope would intervene and stop the practice.  But it makes me wonder whether there was any way that the church could be engaged in an honest debate.  Indulgences were a major funding mechanism that they would have had to give up.  Under what conditions would the church do that voluntarily?  Did Luther really think that the pope would stop the corruption when it was brought to his attention?

Where does that leave us today?

I’ve spent a lot of time researching my “Wall Street / Washington” reasons and I’ve shared them with quite a few people. One thing I’ve concluded is that on a complex issue like financial reform, it is unlikely that there could be a person today like Luther, absent another crisis.

For an issue to spread, it has to be transmittable in video form, but as  Oliver Stone recently concluded – complex financial corruption doesn’t play well on the movie screen.

Another factor is that the “airwaves” were a lot less cluttered then. Even though many people were illiterate, those people who could read, would read Luther’s tracts to their neighbors around them. Many of clergy in the surrounding area were sympathetic to Luther as well; and they would preach on Luther’s message within their parishes. In this sense, by using both the printed and the oral form, Luther’s social media was superior to what we have today, because we “consume content” in isolation, rather than in person.

If there were someone who could take a message of reform viral today, my guess is that person might be an accidental spokesperson, like a comedian who with a license to say things other people normally can’t – someone like Stephen Colbert or a fake newspaper. Thought it wouldn’t contain the systematic thought of a theologian or intellectual, reform could also be sparked by a child.

Then again, Luther did not start with a grand strategy and a goal. He did not try to start a reformation; and likewise we can not engineer change. Luther merely planted a few seeds, and change emerged unexpectedly.

Related Material:

  • Part 1: Published Oct 31, 2011
  • Part 2: Slideshow of 19 reasons to “Occupy” Wall Street and Washington
  • Beginnings of a “sensationalistic” blog format: 95 reasons


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