In 1521, Martin Luther was summoned before the Diet of Worms and ordered to recant all his works. But what if Luther were retried today? And what if his greatest crime was not heresy but the unforgiveable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Furthermore, what if such an “unforgiveable sin” were given a postmodern twist and equated with Anti-Semitism?
This is the plot of “Luther on Trial,” a new play which held its world premiere at the Landsburgh Theatre in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2016. It is the latest production by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts, based in New York City and led by actor Max McLean, which aims to produce “theatre from a Christian worldview that engages a diverse audience.”
At this new trial, the devil serves as the prosecutor, Luther’s wife Katie takes the role of defense attorney, and St. Peter is the judge. Throughout the trial, various witnesses are brought forth to condemn or exonerate the defendant, including Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King Jr., and Pope Francis. Hitler views Luther as a great German patriot, but nevertheless sees him as a pitiful character who depended on an allegedly fictitious God rather than his own strength. Sigmund Freud chalked the entire Reformation up to Luther’s neuroses and his attempts to resolve them through a novel theology of justification. Martin Luther King defended the reformer, concentrating on Luther’s contribution to the Christian understanding of grace, while down playing his anti-Semitic writings. But the dialog with Pope Francis was probably the most powerful. Francis was robustly questioned by the devil, who tried to elicit a condemnation of Luther based on his Protestant theology. But Francis refused to take the bait, noting that the division in the Church was due to the machinations of the devil himself, who constantly sought to divide it. It was Satan, and not Luther, who was the common Christian enemy.
Interspersed throughout the trial were flashbacks of Luther’s life and ministry. Most notable of these flashbacks were the heartwarming scenes of Luther and Katie’s engagement (she proposed to him!); Staupitz’s surprise plan to move Luther out of the monastery (where he had confessed his sins obsessively, often about made-up sins) to take up a professor’s role at Wittenberg; and Luther’s tower experience, where he discovered a new interpretation of justification by grace after reading Paul’s letter to the Romans. But probably the most powerful moment of the play was the final debate between the young Lucifer and St. Michael over whether they should rebel against God. In that debate, Lucifer reveals the basis of all sin: a desire to be the Lord rather than serve Him.
“Luther on Trial” suffers from a few historical mistakes. One scene portrays a meeting between Luther and Josel of Rosheim, a sixteenth-century rabbi and defender of the Jews in Germany. In that encounter, Luther naively asks for an immediate conversion of the Jews. After Luther’s offer of Christ is rejected by the rabbi, Luther asks Josel to leave his home. Problem? There is no historical evidence that such a meeting ever took place. Other little errors pop up as well: Luther’s father is referred to as a coal miner rather than an owner of copper mines, and Katie is constantly playing the role of “conscience” to the passionate and ill-tempered Luther, a role which cannot be historically substantiated. Perhaps this kind of poetic license was used to further dramatize Luther and Josel’s correspondence, or to emphasize presumed interactions between Luther and Katie as husband and wife, but in the end, at least to this historian, they proved to be distractions.
But these brief stumbles can be forgiven in light of the overall power and message of “Luther on Trial.” The play’s dialog was very funny, yet poignant, and the performances were brilliant. The play was also accessible to ecumenical audiences. It was careful not to offend Catholic viewers, yet it did not shy away from an accurate portrayal of the abuses of the sixteenth century. It was also suitable viewing for non-believers as well, fulfilling the Fellowship for the Performing Arts’s goal of engaging those who know nothing of the Luther story, or even Christianity. Above all, it stressed the heart of the Christian message of salvation through God’s grace, by ending with Luther’s final words: Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Bettler—“This is true. We are all beggars.” Beggars for the love, grace, and salvation of Jesus Christ.
Dennis Di Mauro is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Virginia, and teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.