God “Flowing and Pouring into…All Things”

[1] I have been asked to discuss resources in the Lutheran tradition that might undergird resistance to neo-liberal globalization.1 This paper explores four interrelated theological streams running through the work of Martin Luther.2 They are his eucharistic economic ethics, his theology of Christ indwelling creation, his refusal to minimize the pervasiveness of sin in human life, and his insistence that in brokenness and defeat the saving God is present and draws forth power. My comments focus on the first two, while touching also on the latter two. Held together, these four streams suggest moral-spiritual power for resistance to economic practices that damage many who are impoverished, while enriching the wealthy.3

Eucharistic Economic Ethics
[2] Luther’s economic ethics and his eucharistic theology are inseparable. A fruit of the Eucharist, “properly practiced,” is a communing community that attends to human needs and privileges the needs of the vulnerable. Economic practices flow from the Eucharist. Hear Luther speaking about the sacrament of the table:4

“…by means of this sacrament, all self-seeking love is rooted out and gives place to that which seeks the common good of all.”

“When you have partaken of this sacrament….your heart must go out in love and learn that this is a sacrament of love. As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ’s in his needy ones….”

“The sacrament has no blessing and significance unless love grows daily and so changes a person that he is made one with the others.”

“In times past this sacrament was so properly used, and the people were taught to understand this fellowship so well, that they even gathered food and material goods in the church, and…distributed among those who were in need….this has all disappeared, and now there remain only the many masses and the many who receive this sacrament without in the least understanding or practicing what it signifies….They will not help the poor…intercede for others…”
[3] According to Luther, economic activity is intrinsically an act in relationship to neighbor, and all relations with neighbor are normed by one thing: the Christian is to serve the neighbor’s well-being, while also meeting the needs of self and household. Widely accepted economic practices that undermine the widespread good or the wellbeing of the poor are to be denounced theologically by preachers,5 eschewed in daily practice, and replaced with alternatives.6 About this Luther is vehement and specific.

[4] Economic life as practice of neighbor-love, according to Luther, transgressed many norms of the emerging capitalist order in his day. If time allowed, we would go through the levels of moral discourse in his treatise called “Trade and Usury.” Two norms established therein and two rules derived from them illustrate. Hear them in light of neo-liberal globalization.

[5] One norm: Because selling is an act toward neighbor, its goal should be not profit but rather serving the needs of the other and making “an adequate living” for self and household.7

[6] A second norm: Economic activity should be subject to political constraints.8 “Selling ought not be an act that is entirely within your own power and discretion, without law or limit.” Civil authorities ought to establish “rules and regulations,” including “ceilings” on prices.9

[7] In accord with these and other norms, aimed at protecting the poor, Christians are to follow firm rules in economic life. For example, Christians ought not buy a commodity when cheap and then sell when the price goes up. Nor are they to sell goods at the highest price the market will bear.10

[8] Economic structures and practices denounced by Luther, for the sake of neighborlove, also undergird the currently prevailing global economic order. Luther’s economic norms challenge specific dynamics inherent in it; including severing economic activity from accountability to bodies politic, elevating profit, rather than an adequate living, as the goal of economic life, and pricing commodities as high as the market will bear, where so doing undermines the well-being of the poor. In more general terms, Luther’s impassioned economic ethics denounced free public market activity that enabled a few to maximize profit at the expense of the common good or the well-being of the poor.11 Many of his words speak directly to the global economy today, mirroring the claims of its critics. (I was reading Luther during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. I discovered, to my great surprise, that the words of Luther and of the protestors were, at times, the same! I tested my perceptions out during a lecture at a midwestern Lutheran college, reading quotes and asking people to indicate whether the words were Luther’s or the protesters.’ The audience could not tell!)

[9] My point is not to advocate a direct and uncritical application of Luther’s economic analysis or norms to the contemporary situation. Given his inflammatory denunciations of Jews, peasants, and Anabaptists, never are Luther’s social analyses or ethics to be adopted uncritically. So doing would lack intellectual and moral integrity. Nor is my point to imply that Luther was a progressive early anticapitalist. The implication would be false, failing to acknowledge that his condemnation of emerging capitalism and his crafting of alternative economic norms and practices were not rooted in a bent toward progressive social change (which was not within Luther’s conceptual world). His critique was rooted, social theoretically, in his conservative defense of feudal social arrangements and prohibitions on interest.

[10] Rather, the salient points are these: Luther’s economic ethics defied the emerging capitalism of his context. This subversive nature of Luther’s economic norms, and the moral power for heeding them, derive from their theological foundation: neighborlove, manifest in economic life, and empowered by Christ’s indwelling presence. Luther’s economic ethic depends upon his claim that God as the love of Christ actually comes to live within and among the community of believers. That indwelling Christ-presence is the power to love, and love is manifest in-though not only in-economic life.

Christ Indwelling
[11] To that indwelling presence we now turn. It is the second of the four theological streams considered here. According to Luther, the God of unbounded love has made “habitation” in the community gathered and sent forth by wine and bread. The finite bears the infinite. Consider the implications for moral-spiritual power. As unmerited gift, Christ comes to dwell within the assembly of believers. The indwelling Christ, mediated by practices of the Christian community, gradually changes it toward a manner of life that actively loves neighbor by serving the neighbors’ well-being in every aspect of life. Hear Luther: “[T]his is…one of the exceedingly great promises granted to us…that we should even have the Lord Himself dwelling completely in us….”12 One in whom God dwells “makes daily progress in life and good works…is useful to God and [others]; through [that person]…[people] and countries benefit…such a [person’s] words, life and doings are God’s.”13 “Christians are indeed made the habitation of God, and in them God speaks, and rules, and works.”14

[12] The centerpiece of Christian moral-spiritual power is the crucified and living Christ dwelling in the community of believers, the form of Jesus Christ taking form in and among those of faith.15 Christians as objects of Christ’s love become subjects of that love. Faith is both “faith in Christ” and “faith of Christ.”

[13] Let me be clear: For Luther, becoming dwelling place of Christ and agent of Christ’s love cannot be earned by human effort and cannot earn salvation. Quite the opposite. Christ’s indwelling and transforming presence is pure unearned gift, and is a consequence of salvation by God’s grace alone. The significance is moral and anthropological, not soteriological.

[14] Note too Luther’s insistence that the change toward neighbor-love is never fully completed in this lifetime. “Christians are indeed called and made the habitation of God, and in them God speaks, and rules, and works. But the work is not yet complete; it is an edifice on which God yet works daily and makes arrangements.”16

[15] Luther’s theology of God indwelling creation hints at another source of moral power. Luther insisted that “…the power of God…must be essentially present in all places even inthe tiniest leaf.”17 God “is in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and [God] fills all….”18 God as boundless, justiceseeking love coursing through creation suggests that all creatures and Earth itself may offer creative, saving, sustaining power toward creation’s flourishing. To think theologically about the moral agency that flows from God inhabiting “every little seed” and “all creatures” is to struggle for and with a concept that barely exists in western Protestant ethics. Luther’s indwelling God opens that door theologically.

[16] The claim that the gracious mystery of God working toward the flourishing of creation resides within and among all creatures, considered by Christians in the context of neo-liberal globalization, provokes countless questions. How may this indwelling God-power be realized by people of economic privilege to free us from immobilization in the face of neo-liberal globalization, and free us for faithful resistance on behalf of the Earth community and its cultures?

[17] Indeed, Luther hints at wellsprings of moral-spiritual power stemming from a eucharistic notion of Christ filling all things and turning earthlings into subversive lovers on behalf of the widespread good and especially on behalf of the vulnerable. This is important moral wisdom, especially for Lutheran communions and their friends in faith. However, it must be admitted that we do not need Luther to arrive here. Some Orthodox, Anglican, and Catholic theologies; recent cosmic christologies and eco-theologies; and some feminist relational theologies also play out as God indwelling all of creation and working through all creatures and elements to heal and liberate the entire household of life.

[18] So what is the provocative pull of Luther? What is the insistent tweak that says “plumb the depths here, because there is more and the world is hungering for it”? Two things. They are the third and fourth theological streams considered in this paper.

Pervasive Sense of Sin
[19] Third, Luther’s sense of profound moral agency flowing from the indwelling Christ is met with his equally strong insistence on the pervasive presence of sin, the humanly insurmountable reality of “self curved in on self.” That we are se encurvatus en se is a strikingly descriptive and deeply truthful account of reality in the globalizing economy for the Global North. According to Luther, it is not possible for us, by our own power, to do the good as fully as we try to do it. Luther’s paradoxical moral anthropology speaks directly to the heart of life for economically privileged people. Collectively, we are “selves curved in on ourselves.” We may long to live according to justice-making, self-honoring love. That is, we may yearn to live without exploiting neighbor or Earth. But look at us, and here I speak contextually of the United States: a society so addicted to our economic ways that we close our eyes to the death and destruction required to sustain them. We do not see the vision of Mozambique’s Methodist Bishop Bernardino Mandlate, that our economic privilege is bought with “the blood of African children.”19 Needing expanding markets, short-term financial gains, fossil fuels and inexpensive goods, we will lie, kill, and support brutal regimes: the Taliban and Osama Bin Ladin in their war against Russia, Saddam Hussein fighting Iran (while he was gassing the Kurds), Marcos, Somoza. The drive to dominate or exploit others is a drive of “self curved in on self,” the polar opposite of serving the needs of others. Luther’s insistence that we are “selves curved in on self,” unable by our own power to be otherwise, is crucial as dialectical partner to his claim that the indwelling Christ renders profound moral-spiritual power. Only held together and in tension with each other can either assertion truthfully describe who we are.

God Present in Brokenness
[20] Finally, Luther’s paradoxical moral anthropology lives within a theology of the cross. Where God seems hidden, there God is. As expressed by Larry Rasmussen, “the only power that can truly heal creation, is instinctively drawn to the broken and flawed places in life, there is most fully known, and precisely there draws forth power that you did not know you had.” God is drawn into brokenness in this world-including the complicity of some people with economic ways that exploit others-and there God becomes lifesaving power incarnate. Luther’s theology of the cross and of Christ indwelling and empowering the believing community, together, render the promise without which, to open ones eyes to the data of despair might be to drown in it. That “Christ…fills all things”20 and is present particularly in sites of suffering enables us to
acknowledge soul-searing economic brutalities that must be faced if we are to resist neo-liberal economic globalization, and convert to economic ways that enable just and sustainable communities and Earth community for generations to come.

[21] We have entered mystery, the ancient faith claim that God’s love in Christ is “flowing and pouring” into the people gathered and sent forth by wine and bread for justicemaking neighbor-love in all aspects of life. That claim-as articulated by Luther and wed to his eucharistic economic ethics, his refusal to minimize the pervasiveness of sin, and his insistence that in brokenness and defeat the saving God is present and draws forth power-points toward moral-spiritual power for resistance to economic arrangements that breed injustice. According to Luther, in the communing community, the incarnate God bodies forth as justice-making, self-honoring neighbor love, manifest powerfully in economic life. Such neighbor-love in the context of neo-liberal globalization is faithfully subversive.

This article was first published in Seattle Theology and Ministry Review(volume 3, 2003).
Reprinted with permission.

End Notes

1 The term-used more extensively in Africa, Europe, and Latin America than in NorthAmerica-refers to the prevailing paradigm of economic globalization, characterized by increasingly “free” transnational trade and investment, and by the increasing severance of economic activity from accountability to bodies politic.

2 Adapted from a presentation for the World Council of Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and Lutheran World Federation Consultation on Ecclesiology and the Challenges of Economic Globalization, December 11-14, 2002, Geneva. I have taken the title for this article from Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of John,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1957), 26.

3 The remainder of this article is drawn from a longer article, entitled “Globalization in Light of Luther’s Eucharistic Economic Ethics,” published in Dialog: A Journal of Theology (Fall 2003).

4 The following statements are from Luther, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body and Blood of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” in Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), respectively on pages 260, 247, 251, 250.

5 Luther, “Admonition to the Clergy that They Preach against Usury,” Weimar Ausgabe 51.367, cited in Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism (Utrecht: International Books, 1995), 220-21.

6 Luther, “Trade and Usury,” Luther’s Works 45: 244-308.

7 Ibid., 250.

8 In contrast to the contemporary neo-liberal move to “free” economic powers from political constraints.

9 Ibid., 249-50.

10 Ibid., 261, 247-51.

11 Luther, “Large Catechism,” in Book of Concord, 397. In “Large Catechism,” see also Luther’s comments on the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 9th/10th commandments and on the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

12 Luther, “Third Sermon on Pentecost Sunday,” in Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. John N. Lenker (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983), 3: 316-7.

13 Ibid., 317.

14 Ibid., 317.

15 This sense of ethics as the form of Christ taking form in and among the faithful is consistent with one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approaches to ethics, “conformation with the form of Christ,” as seen in his Ethics, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), Ch.

16 Luther, in Lenker, 3: 321.

17 Luther, “That These Words of Christ, ‘This is My Body,’ etc. Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics,” Luther’s Works 37:57.

18 Luther, the Weimar Ausgabe 23.134.34, as cited by Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 129.

19 In a presentation to the United Nations PrepCom for the World Summit on Social Development Plus Ten, New York (February, 1999).

20 Luther, “The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ-Against the Fanatics,” in Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 321.

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda holds a joint appointment in ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Church Divinity School of the Pacific.