Wildfires and Wittenberg

09 May 2017, by Ellen Yutzy Glebe in Uncategorized

Who’s responsible for the fire?

Last fall several wildfires raged in western NC. Ash rained down on my former high school; some schools closed due to the smoke, and some local residents lost everything, even their lives.

At least a few of these fires were apparently intentionally set by arsonists, others sparked through careless actions.

But the reason that the situation developed the way that it did, that local fire departments had such difficulty containing the blaze, was not that someone tossed a cigarette butt onto the forest floor or put a match to kindling. The area had been plagued by a terrible drought for weeks before—I had been there for a visit just before the fires started, and, while we had enjoyed the dry fall weather and clear sunny skies, the area was long overdue for some rain. The fall colors were muted because the leaves were just drying up on the trees.

I’m on my way to Wittenberg for a conference on the Reformation and religious pluralism. Wittenberg was once the site of a wildfire of sorts. A friar named Luther provided a spark which quickly caught in the dried underbrush of anticlerical resentment and ecclesiastical corruption. The fire fed on the tradition of medieval mysticism, and it was carefully tended by secular rulers who saw it as an opportunity to assert more authority over their principalities.

Just as a wildfire can jump creeks and roads, the fire Luther lit in Wittenberg soon sparked fires beyond anything he had imagined. The peasants revolted, basing their demands—to Luther’s consternation—on the Gospel. In Zurich Zwingli shared many critique points with Luther, but the two men soon became embroiled in a bitter dispute over matters which seem insignificant to many Protestants today. Zwingli’s movement in Zurich sparked fires of its own, and by 1525 a group had emerged which rejected the practice of infant baptism. Their movement in turn sparked groups across the Empire, most famously in Münster, where the excesses of the Anabaptist Kingdom were such that a coalition was formed among otherwise at odds rulers in a siege and capture of the city that ended with three corpses hung in cages on the church tower as warning for all.

In 1517, when Luther nailed (or mailed?*) his 95 theses, his hammer struck the church door, but it also struck a flint. Without the various social and religious factors that converged in this period—including, not least, the recent invention of moveable type—his academic criticism of the sale of indulgences would have had as much effect as a spark that falls into a puddle or upon barren stone. The challenge of this anniversary year is to retain this tension. There had been sparks before—but the flint struck by Hus, for example, in the end lit the pyre beneath him. There were sparks after, as “the Church” fragmented further and further into various churches. The Reformation contains much to be celebrated, but it was also a destructive force, much as a wildfire leaves behind a forest in which new things suddenly have room to grow.

I haven’t been to Wittenberg for several years. I’ll try to share some pictures here later.


*For a succinct summary of the discussion on this point, see: here and here.