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Müntzer, Engels, and Seeing Through the Ideology of “Theonomics”

If you have taken classes dealing with the Protestant Reformation, chances are it was explained to you in generally theological terms, centered on the figure of Martin Luther. Of course we all know that on Halloween of 1517 (they loved Halloween back then, trust me), Martin Luther dressed up like a friar in a weird hat (or something) and instead of a asking for a treat, pinned his infamous “95 Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Luther, we are told (not wrongly, just simply) was protesting the sale of indulgences, and of of course had other concerns about particular Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. From that point of the story on, we are regaled with the theological disputes not only between Luther and the Church authorities, but with fellow dissidents like Zwingli, whom he spared over the theological significance of the Eucharist. The real issues, many are led to think, were theological. Of course theological differences were both acute and real, but Friedrich Engels tells a different story when he writes about the Peasant War in Germany.  Taking up the kind of analysis he and his partner Marx are famous for, Engels looks at the social conditions and relations leading up to the Reformation, and inflects not Luther’s theses, but rather the Peasant Revolt and another radical protesting figure, Thomas Müntzer.

Church dogma, Engels explains, was also a matter of jurisprudence for the feudal order in the 16th century. Theology, at least in name, was used as a foundation for laws and various taxes everyone from feudal lord to burghers had to pay to the Church. Therefore, “existing social relations had to be stripped of their halo of sanctity before they could be attacked.” In this sense, theological challenge becomes a kind of instrument for power plays within the existing social order. Protest against the feudal order had always been alive in radical mystical movements/heresies like the Waldenses and Albigenses, but the “town heresies,” which Engels says are the “official heresies of the Middle Ages… were directed primarily against clergy, whose wealth and political station they attacked.” Crucially, and especially relevant today, the bourgeoisie demanded (and continues to demand) a cheap government. In the 16th century, as we have already noted, matters of jurisprudence and theology were inextricably linked. A theological or biblical defense that could cut off the authority of well paid priests and church structures in the name of something like the “priesthood of all believers” would be a direct method of cutting the most expensive element of the church. This is the primary “burgher heresy.” This heresy, Engels continues to explain, while initially in

revoltthe name of diminishing the economic and social power of the church those in upper feudal society had to support, found unintended, more radical expression in the Peasant War and the idea of the equality of the children of God. A figure like Müntzer shows well how Christianity can thus be a radical starting point for radical social change.

Žižek’s method of ideological critique comes to mind, when he explains that the most effective method of criticizing dominant ideological thought can sometimes be to take it more seriously than it takes itself. Žižek recounts:

In early 1980s, a half-dissident student weekly newspaper in ex-Yugoslavia wanted to protest the fake “free” elections; aware of the limitations of the slogan “speak truth to power” (“The trouble with this slogan is that it ignores the fact that power will not listen and that the people already know the truth as they make clear in their jokes.”), instead of directly denouncing the elections as un-free, they decided to treat them as if they are really free, as if  their result really was undecided, so, on the elections eve, they printed an extra-edition of the journal with large headline: “Latest election results: it looks that Communists will remain in power!” This simple intervention  broke the unwritten “habit” (we “all know” that elections are not free, we just do not talk publicly about it…): by way of treating elections as free, it reminded the people publicly of their non-freedom.

So in a way, figures like Müntzer and the phenomenon of the Peasant Revolt took challenges to ecclesial authority in the form of populist theology more seriously than the burghers intended. This is the distinction, for Engels, between Luther and Müntzer. Muntzer, by analogy, stepped into the role of Žižek’s student newspaper editor while Luther stepped into a position of ideological authority . In Luther, we see the same kind of disavowal of the popular elements of his thought as many communist leaders in Žižek’s youth (as he tells the story). Luther put powerful tools in the hands of the plebeians, as Engels points out, not least of which was a Bible they could read, but when the peasants began to take Luther and the Bible more seriously, or at least literally, than Luther and his bourgeois supporters did , violent upheaval became inevitable between moderates (wanting to challenge the official Church on economic grounds) and the “extremists” who challenged the logic by which the burghers and their noble supporters tried to gain an upper hand on the clergy. Luther, of course,  played the part of the “liberal,” and eventually sold out the peasants at the behest of the princes whom he owed his life. Luther’s rage at the peasants, fervently advocating for their defeat, even went as far as to seem to revel in the prospect of strangling, stabbing, and knocking them to pieces. Liberals get quite upset when material conditions present the possibility of actual change. It is here, Engels points out, that Luther totally disavows his mutiny against religious authority, selling out not only the peasants but the burghers as well in the name of the princes.

Müntzer, in refusing to engage Luther on theological grounds, insisted, crucially, on bypassing the pretense of theology as a discourse of ideology. This realization that the approved or sanctioned mode of discourse is founded on bypassing the real cause of alienation (social relations) is an important step, even in our current situation of economic downturn and class oppression. Today, one might think of “economics,” rather than theology, as an abstract, in many ways fideistic discipline and carrier of so-called inherited, unchallengeable knowledge as the turf by which the bourgeoisie insist the debate take place. Today, economics, if not quite the equivalent of theology in the 16th century, at least has taken up many of its qualities so that we might call it, more appropriately, “theonomics.”

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber describes the current state of economics thusly:

Part of the problem is the extraordinary place that economics currently holds in the social sciences. In many ways it is treated as a kind of master discipline. Just about anyone who runs anything important in America is expected to have some training in economic theory, or at least to be familiar with its basic tenets. As a result, those tenets have come to be treated as received wisdom, as basically beyond question (one knows one is in the presence of received wisdom when, if one challenges it, the first reaction is to treat one as simply ignorant­ “You obviously have never heard of the Laffer Curve”; “Clearly you need a course in Economics 101″-the theory is seen as so obviously true that no one who understands it could possibly disagree.) (90)

Graeber goes on to say that the problem with the “empiricism” of these forms of economics is that they start with  the fallacious idea that human beings are “self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment.” The issue here is not disproving rational choice theorists and conventional economists wrong, per se, given the evidence we now have from experimental psychologists. The point is that the way economics (its tenets largely resting on faith in such “received wisdom” and assumptions about human pyschology and sociology) is situated in our society seems at least comparable to theology in the time of Luther and Müntzer. In the same way scholastic debates about theology were instrumental in matters of taxation and jurisprudence, today economic theory, infamously like that of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogof, is influential in political decisions that effect millions, such as European and American austerity measures (based in part on their models). This is what I’m calling, tongue in cheek, “theonomics,” both for its similarity to the role theology played in the past, but also the way in which it is taken on faith in many spheres of influence. This “theonomic” mentality of the established departments also resembles medieval theology in so far as its political power is great, and is apparently unquestionable by the laity. In Luther’s time peasants couldn’t read their scriptures and had no theological education, whereas today, even the educated cannot question the inherited technical wisdom of so-called economists (no matter how unreliable their models and predictions turn out to be empirically). I might not understand the ins and outs of high level economics, but neither do those who these economists are advising…

It would then be up to us to, in the spirit of Müntzer, insist to not “to bring the Spirit exclusively before the high school of learning,” rather learning new ways to think and act that do not necessarily discard religion, but use it as material in the struggle against the “high learning” that falsely posits itself as truly religious.  Also following Müntzer, we might refuse to debate in front of a rigged jury the technical aspects of the new theology, economics. The point is not to discard economic theory, as Müntzer did not discard theology or religion, it is to implement them in a revolutionary manner that takes economics even more seriously than the actual economists.  Additionally, in taking religion more seriously than the religious authorities take it, by Müntzer’s example, we have a concrete, historical starting point for revolutionary change (perhaps). We must break the habit of theological thinking that “knows that the bible does not really mean it when it speaks of radical social equality, we just do not publicly talk about it” that was as alive in the time of Luther and Müntzer as it is now. This might be a new form of “theonomics” which is not the same as defined above, but economic theory working with radical religion to deliver to “Spirit” of equality that Müntzer talked about to our world. Economics today, like theology then, is not only doing what it says it is. Engels laughs at those who “accept unquestionably all the illusions that an epoch makes about itself or that ideologists of an epoch make about that epoch.” Likewise, we need to be concerned about the way we currently accept the ideology of contemporary economics, much like historians often accept the account of ideology left to us by the Reformers and are content to call it “history.”
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One response

  1. Pat Maxwell

    Bo! This topic happens to be covered in depth in the podcast I mentioned yesterday (Hardcore History, Episode 48, “Prophets of Doom,” http://www.dancarlin.com/disp.php/hharchive). You might disagree with some of his phrasing and his characterizations, but he rigorously researches for these things (which is how they become 4 hours long).

    Obviously, my knowledge of this is very limited, so I’m probably not dealing in facts, but a couple thoughts:

    1) Whenever we talk about the 95 Theses, everyone goes straight to those indulgences, but the idea with the greatest social impact was his belief that (a) the Bible should be translated into the local vernacular, and (b) each person should interpret the Bible for himself. It was this idea that ‘let the cat out of the bag’ for reform and allowed anyone, including radicals such as Muntzer, to develop independent theology. Up to this point, Priests were the only people trained to read and speak Latin, thus everything that came from the Bible was filtered by the most conservative guy in town. As you point out, this is what the ‘establishment’ feared: if we give the peasants the Bible, they’ll get to know the real Jesus and recognize the obvious socialist/communist undertones that come up throughout New Testament. Additionally, the printing press allowed Luther and other more radical protestants to distribute their ideas discreetly and broadly, so that radical ideas didn’t live and die with any one person.

    I think it’s unfair to say Luther “sold out” the more radical reformers. Luther seems like a fairly conservative dude who just wanted the church to be a more principled organization. And while Luther wanted everyone to have the power to interpret the text, the Anabaptists, the more radical reformers, weren’t so magnanimous, and in many cases they were willing to kill their opponents (Catholics and Lutherans) for disagreeing with them. The Anabaptists deserve a lot of credit for the immense bravery and their revolutionary views, but it’s fair to disagree with them when they try to abolish private property. Because I’m ignorant, I can’t point to any direct quotes, but I’m guessing Luther’s stance was something like, “Jesus said you should share and be generous with the poor, but he didn’t say you should generous with someone else’s property. That’s stealing.” And if you take any of the Anabaptist ideas to their logical extreme, which happened in places like Muenster, a new form of tyranny replaces Catholicism and exploits the people.

    It seems to me like there’s a clear thread between current political labels and the three modes of political/theological thought during Luther’s time:

    Catholics – Fascists. I’m referring to the extreme Catholics in power, who harshly ruled over their subjects, quashed opposition, but allowed for commerce and gross inequality. Many people used Catholicism to enrich themselves, while placating the poor with the promise of heaven.

    Lutherans – Democrats. Obviously not the fully-formed Democratic ideas we know and love, but it seems democratic to make the good book available to everyone and let them determine what it means for themselves. I don’t think Luther himself necessarily stuck to this ideal, but the tie between Protestantism and democracy in the US can be attributed the fact that the ideas are ideologically similar.

    Anabaptists – Communists. Believed that the Bible called clearly for greater economic equality, but were vulnerable to ‘cult of personality’ types who also quashed opposition and at times exploited their people.

    I’m not saying whether anyone was more “right” or “wrong”. This was a period of incredible suffering and inequality, which creates fertile grounds for extremism.

    2) When you encourage us to question the economic status quo, what other ideas should enter the debate? Economic policies are always being debated and argued, albeit while still following a ‘rational choice’ model. Are you advocating that we allow more room for theological / political / moral arguments?

    You’re a great writer. I very much enjoyed reading this.

    October 1, 2013 at 2:54 am

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