In 1517, Martin Luther, Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. This was a common method of initiating scholarly discussion.
By doing so, Luther wanted to challenge the authority of the church to introduce innovations against the original teachings of Christianity.
It was a bold step by the young professor (who had no political support) to oppose the most powerful institution of Christianity.
However, Luther was not the first to point out corruption and mismanagement of the church. Previously, the reformers attempted to revive the purity of religion and curtail the authority of Pope. But all such attempts failed while the church decided to consolidate itself.
Some reformers were excommunicated and burnt at stake while others were declared heretics and forced to silence.
In the medieval Europe, the institution of church was very strong with the Pope being the spiritual and temporal power and an unchallenged authority. As he had the power to excommunicate, the rulers of Europe were afraid to defy the authority of the church. Those who dared to challenge it paid a high price by either having to apologise or by accepting punishment.
Therefore, when Luther exposed the corruption of church and its deviation from the Christian teachings, he risked his life. The Vatican took notice of his objections and asked him to appear before the Imperial Diet and explain his position. Afraid that he might be arrested, Luther hesitated to appear until he was assured that he would not be arrested and he had 24 hours to save himself.
Luther decided to appear before the Diet at Worms and during his long journey, he was surprised to see that people from the nearby villages and towns lined the roads to welcome him. As he passed through the villages, people applauded and encouraged him. This was beyond his expectation because he was not aware that people favoured his religious ideas. The warm reception by people gave him confidence.
When he appeared before the Imperial Diet, he was struck by its grandeur as there were emperors, princes of German states and the Prosecutor from the Vatican present. Luther belonged to a peasant family and was unfamiliar with such etiquette and decorum.
As all eyes were fixed on him, he became nervous. The prosecutor pointed out to the table where all his published books lay and asked him to confirm that he was the author of those books. After seeing the books, Luther confirmed that the books were written by him. The prosecutor asked him whether he was ready to recant his religious ideas written in those books. At this point, Luther kept silent. Observing this, the prosecutor gave him 24 hours to think and return the next day to express his opinion.
Luther retired to his room but could not sleep the whole night. He thought about what to say next day. He remembered the people who came from different villages and towns to welcome and applaud him for his courage to challenge the church and its corruption. They were simple people and hoped that his action would bring a change in their lives. This helped him reach his decision.
The next day he appeared before the Imperial Diet and refused to recant his religious views. His refusal changed the course of history. A man with no political power broke the most powerful institution of Europe.
Can an individual change history alone or does he need the support of people and social and political forces to fulfill his agenda? The predecessors of Luther failed to reform the church because they were either alone or supported by a minority. In case of Luther, he was not only supported by the people but had the blessings of the German princes as well who wanted to get rid of the Pope’s control.
In Pakistan we pray for a leader to deliver us from chaos and disorder. However, the problem is that the Pakistani people are not ready for a change and reject any voice which challenges traditions and values. A leader cannot be successful unless the society is ready to get rid of its outdated customs, institutions and ideas.