Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Tough Love Is Friendship, Too: A Lesson from Luther

     In 1517, Luther famously rejected certain values of the Catholic Church which he believed interfered with righteously following Christian practice.  While his insistence on individuals’ ability to pursue religious truth self-sufficiently fomented a lack of serious Protestant attention to friendship, his initial intentions seem to have been to check imbalances of power in religious and secular life, in which at the time exclusive friendships played an outsized role.  His revolt, which began the sweeping Protestant movement, took place “in a cultural context of a waning medieval period in which friendship had been a core experience and key element of political life.”1  In other words, when Luther cautions against preferential friendships, at least as much as this is justifiable because preference is unchristian, it is also sensible because of a cultural linkage between friendship and the abuse of political power.  Thinking of nearby Republic of Florence in which Machiavelli still lived, a beacon of modern bureaucratic power games plagued with coups and intrigue, one can imagine that the moral corruption of political climbers using friendships to gain power and conversely the powerful overlooking friends’ misdeeds and overestimating their political worth was a very real threat to honoring Christian principles in Luther’s world.

     Ideas such as, “Possessions, honor, favor, and friendships are…the list of goods we must be willing to give up in favor of defending the truth” are certainly explicit in Luther’s writings.2  I hope here to show not only that these ideas were meant to redress a political system out of balance in the Sixteenth Century, but that they in fact Luther’s writing contains solid moral arguments for friendship as a political and moral tool which are urgently applicable to the present day.  The first step in doing this is to clarify the significance of the word “friendship”.  I have already suggested that the friendships Luther took issue with were relationships based on power, focused on status and personal gain, and blind to corruption.  But when Luther writes, “Although we are moved to suspicion and displeasure, we should beat these back and remember not to allow them to sever the bond of love and extinguish its fire; but we should cling firmly to our friendship in the face of them,” he is clearly not referring to the same selfish, preferential, power-ensuring relationships.3  In summarizing the “indefinability of friendship,” Evert van der Zweerde declares, “It is not accidental, nor our ‘failure,’ that we ‘circle around’ the precise nature of friendship—on the contrary, this is inevitable, since friendship itself is about ‘circling around.’”4  It is fitting that he himself uses an expression which has many possible meanings: encircling, repeating and coming back to, shielding, even dancing.  This aptly illustrates the truism that “friendship,” for the spectrum of which some languages have a dozen words and English, only the one, is a word which possesses myriad connotations and represents a diversity of relationships and attitudes in a diverse set of contexts.

     So it is not impossible for Luther to condemn friendship as a cancer of corrupt politics on one page and turn around and extol the virtues of loving thy neighbor and maintaining your friendship at all costs on the next.  If it is misleading, it is because written words are generally taken to have less nuanced possibilities than their spoken counterparts; one can be freer with speech because spoken inflection gives extra clues to words’ meaning and intent.

     Another reason why Luther might have seen certain qualities of friendship as an obstacle to church reform is that friendship is a tool of community-building and -maintenance.  In the modern world, with the immediacy of its contentions and divisions, this is one of the very qualities which most recommends adopting friendly mindsets and practices.  The meaning of “community,” however, has changed much since Luther’s lifetime.  In today’s Western world, with unprecedented mobility and long-distance technological connectedness, community is often positioned as a choice, who you choose to associate with, but in 1500s Germany community was for the majority of people a hard and fast matter of birth.  Being friendly with everyone in your town had a power it does not hold in the consciousness of the same parts of the world today.  If Luther was afraid that community friendships with non-Protestant Catholics would hold people back from being their best religious selves, it would have filled him with joy to see colonies of Protestants set out for the North American continent.  In their new communities there, he would not have warned them against friendship, rather he might have encouraged them exuberantly to “improve [their] love and friendship.”3  For friendship has a sacred place in Luther’s religious community: “political authorities, father and mother, indeed, even brother and sister and other such good friends are obligated among one another to punish evil where it is necessary and useful.”5  The wording here has a negative and even ominous tone, but when we take it to mean that friends’ and family’s most holy function is to keep and support one another on the righteous path, it seems a reasonable and altogether honorable social aspiration.

     And so we see in Luther’s writing really two distinct approaches to friendship, a misuse of the institution of friendship in corrupt politics and a good moral use in the correct duties of community and family members to one another.  When waves of Protestants left their native lands a century later to establish new communities, though they were cruel and ignorant invaders of others’ lands, they were heroes of a revolutionary narrative about cutting ties with those who do not support you.  They began a practice which was tremendous then but which in the present day is all too easy; with the internet and planes and trains, it is ever easier and more tempting to burn bridges, because not getting along with your geographical community no longer means isolation.  We may be in a situation very different from Europeans of the 1500s in terms of the status of friendship and the power of local ties, but the problem of giving up one’s morals out of fear of losing patronage is as strong as ever.

     On March 14th of this year, thousands of students around the United States rallied in coordinated walkouts to urge Congress to action on gun control.  Our dismay with lawmakers comes from evidence that their inaction is based on receiving campaign donations, significant sums of money, from the National Rifle Association.  In place of friendship, money and capitalist business dealings have come to inhabit the power-grubbing politics in which Luther saw dangerous unrighteousness, the abandoning of moral truth to play self-serving games.  In the face of this moral repugnancy, I think Luther in fact gives one of the most useful rallying cries for the moral place of friendship and community in such a moment, reminding us that friendship is not limited to the joyous and comfortable, to pleasing one’s friends, bettering their standing or using their friendship to better your own.  Friendship can and should be a pleasant thing, but it is not true, responsible, truly loving friendship if you cannot speak discipline and resistance to your friend.  In Luther’s ideal moral society, again, “good friends are obligated among one another to punish evil where it is necessary and useful.”  The word “punish” is harsh, but we should remember that Luther saw a distressing imbalance in the workings of powerful political systems in urgent need of redress.  We certainly have such an imbalance now, and it is worth drawing on all the tools and qualities friendship has, which include strictly and unyieldingly, unintimidatably holding each other accountable, as we ask ourselves what our ideal moral community looks like.

1Thomas Heilke, “Friendship in the Civic Order: A Reformation Absence,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 164.

2Thomas Heilke, “Friendship in the Civic Order: A Reformation Absence,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 174.

3Thomas Heilke, “Friendship in the Civic Order: A Reformation Absence,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 175, citing: What Luther Says, vol. 1, ed. Ewald Plass (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), lecturing on John 15:9, xxx

4Evert van der Zweerde, “Friendship and the Political,” in Friendship in Politics, eds. Preston King and Graham M. Smith (London: Routledge, 2007), 47.

5Thomas Heilke, “Friendship in the Civic Order: A Reformation Absence,” in Friendship & Politics: Essays in Political Thought, eds. John von Heyking and Richard Avramenko (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 176.

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