Luther Gasoline 300x168 Being on Gods Side without Knowing It

Luther: "So many times I’ve tried to help people by doing things that I shouldn’t have done, and it’s only made it worse."

Over at the website for Comment magazine, run by the fine folks at the Canadian think tank Cardus, I have a piece on the BBC drama “Luther,” which focuses on the trials and travails of DCI John Luther (played by the very talented Idris Elba).

The point of departure for the essay, “Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther,” is, well, just how Lutheran DCI Luther is. I don’t mean that in any straightforward way. There’s little religiosity in the series, although as with any good fiction it does deal seriously with the realities and messiness of the moral order and the permanent things.

No, John Luther is “Lutheran” in the very unconventional sense that he fulfills a kind of sacrificial calling, not toward salvation in any ultimate sense, but certainly in at least a temporal and transitory way. One of the taglines for the series is: “What if you were on the devil’s side without knowing it?” By the same token I wonder: “What if Luther is on God’s side without knowing it?” Beyond the traditional Lutheran formula of simul iustus et peccator, I have another reason for inverting the question this way.

It’s said that the first meeting between Karl Barth and the younger Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in the context of a seminar that Barth was conducting. Barth took notice of Bonhoeffer when the latter quoted Luther’s dictum: “God would rather hear the curses of the godless than the hallelujahs of the pious.”

Well, it was a creative paraphrase, in any case. What Luther really said (LW 25:390-91) was,

For our God is not a God of impatience and cruelty, even toward the ungodly. I am saying this for the comfort of those who are perpetually troubled by thoughts of blasphemies and are in great anxiety; since such blasphemies, because they are violently extorted from men by the devil against their will, they sometimes sound more pleasant in the ear of God than a hallelujah or some kind of hymn of praise. For the more horrible and foul the blasphemy, the more agreeable it is to God, if the heart knows that it does not will this, because the heart did not produce it or choose it.

So at least one of the analogues in Luther’s own work isn’t about the “godless” at all. But for a long time I have struggled with Bonhoeffer’s paraphrase.

I think in DCI John Luther we see an aspect of what Bonhoeffer’s paraphrase might be taken to mean. Even the godless fulfill God’s purpose, and indeed, especially in the case of the civil authorities, are tools God uses to maintain order and punish evil. For Bonhoeffer’s ethical thought, the idea of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung) is central. In DCI Luther, we see a secular image of what a broken and impartial reflection of such action might look like.

This aspect of the series reminds me of the “scapegoat” motif that can be found in such contemporary works as The Hunger Games trilogy. As Rev. Robert Barron noted in that context, “at the heart of Christian revelation is God’s utter identification, not with the perpetrators of violence, but with the scapegoated victim. The crucified Jesus is hence the undermining of the dynamic that has undergirded most civilizations and that continues to beguile the human imagination to this day.”

Even the godless, then, who curse the injustice they see in the world and sacrificially work against it in their own small, imperfect, and incomplete ways, might in some limited way be on “God’s side without knowing it.”