Luther on the Thievery of “Secular Leaders”

I’m taking a little bit of a risk in posting this long quote from Luther. It is a compelling quote with important political implications in our contemporary context. But, as you will see, it is possible to interpret this as being anti-government. I am *not* anti-government. And neither was Luther.

Luther talks not only about “secular leaders” but also “secular princes” – i.e., what passed for government at the time. However, I’m inclined to agree with Marx on this one: the heirs of the feudal ruling class are not so much politicians as they are those who directly control capital. In other words, the equivalent of a baron these days is a corporate CEO, not your district’s congressional representative. Now, of course, your district’s congressman may well do the bidding of said corporate CEO. There’s far too much private money in politics – dark and light money, so to speak – to entertain the delusion that this is not the case. And your district’s congressman may in fact also be something like a corporate CEO. They tend to be very wealthy today. But, my point is that this passage should not be read as anti-government, but as anti-“rich-ruling-class.” It is anti-government insofar as particular forms of government are allied with said class.

With that introduction out of the way, I have only this to say about the quote. Wow. Luther dances around so many key issues – such as private vs. common good, the public commons and the evil of privatizing it, the rule of law that is no respecter of persons, the idea that it is possible for there to be unjust or immoral or evil laws, what is owed to those at the lower levels of society, right to health-care access, etc. – that are pressing today in so many ways that it deserves re-reading and careful explication. Unfortunately, I cannot provide that here. It would take a whole series of magazine articles (or blog posts…) to tease out all these connections and implications. So instead, I will leave you (for the time being?) to ponder Martin’s words.

Be sure to be alive to his use of satire. And, coincidentally, this is part of his commentary on Romans 2.1.

Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia, Luther’s Works volume 25 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1972), 172–73. Bold is mine.
On the basis of what authority do secular princes and secular leaders act when they keep for themselves all the animals and the fowl so that no one besides them may hunt them? By what right? If anyone of the common people would do that, he would justly be called thief, robber, or swindler, because he would take away from common use what does not belong to him. But because the ones who do these things are powerful, therefore they cannot be thieves. Or is it really true that . . . we can say that princes and the powerful lords are of course not thieves and robbers but that they nevertheless do the things that thieves and robbers do? The vice . . . is so deeply ingrained in them that they cannot rule without also oppressing people and hunting vigorously, that is, violently, which means seizing for themselves things that do not belong to them. Blessed Augustine in his book, On the City of God says: “What are the great empires but great dens of thieves?” And he adds the following story: “When Alexander the Great asked a pirate who had become his prisoner of war what business he had to make the sea unsafe, the pirate in boldest defiance answered, ‘What business do you have to make the whole world unsafe? To be sure, I do this with a small boat, and I am called a robber; but you do it with a huge fleet and are called an emperor for it.’” . . . They are hanging the thieves and executing the robbers, and thus the big thieves act as judges of the little thieves.

Along the same lines they exact taxes from the people without urgent reason and exploit them by changing and devaluating the money, but they fine their subjects for greed and avarice. What is this but stealing and robbing those things which do not belong to us? Indeed, who will finally absolve of theft people who collect regular tribute and rightful compensation and yet do not fulfill their duties owed to the people by giving them protection, health, and justice? For their eyes are only on tyranny, on collecting riches, and on boasting with empty show of the possessions which they have acquired and kept.

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