This election year Martin Luther's catechism could save our souls.
You know the 8th Commandment. That’s the one banning “false witness” against a neighbor. We honor it, if we are honest, probably more in the breach than in fact. But it is out there: No lying on your neighbor.
Every catechism I’ve looked at over the last week has some way of talking about it. Still, despite my converted Catholic heart, I always liked the way Martin Luther handled it in his Small Catechism. Luther began his 1529 catechism as single-page pamphlets, gleaned from sermon series he had preached the year previous. Printers sold them for a couple of pennies each.
They proved immensely popular, and by mid-year 1529 printers collected them into a handbook. Luther added a preface, plus instructions to pastors on how to use it. Other sections were added over time: morning and evening prayers, table blessings for use in the home, when and how to cross oneself.
It was different and it was a best seller. Catechisms prior to Luther covered the same material — there are only so many chief parts of the Christian faith, after all — but most did it with a view to avoiding God’s wrath and securing salvation. The Small Catechism put emphasis on what God has done and the promises he has already made. Written for basic Christians, adult and child, it is brief, concise, and kind of snappy.
The nearest thing to it for Catholics wasn’t until Cardinal Bellarmine’s catechism of 1597, called the Short Catechism, mostly to distinguish it from the — wait for it — Long Catechism. (Since I brought it up, yes, Luther’s Small also had a Large to go with it.)
When I was catechism kid in the early 1960s, we were required to memorize and recite Luther’s catechism in all its parts and the explanations. Students were examined in detail on these points prior to confirmation. Huge swaths of it remain indelibly lodged in my memory.
It was the single most influential instructional tool Lutherans ever had. What the Baltimore Catechism (with clear influence from Bellarmine) did for young Catholics, Luther’s Small Catechism did for Lutherans, shaping the faith and directing it. (You can find all three online, by the way.)
Then in the 1960s the Small Catechism was largely abandoned, as was the Baltimore. Simple memorization of the Q&As was supplanted or augmented or “up-graded” as parish education went through the same “learning innovations” then gyrating through American education. Memorization was out; “enhanced learning environments” were in; and today nobody can recite a catechism.
Luther’s innovation, back to the Eighth Commandment, wasn’t just about false witness, a proscription. He included a prescription. His explanation to the commandment says:
“We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead [my emphasis], we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
Two things here: 1) our motivation to obedience is lodged in our devotion to God, our “fear” (awe) and “love” of God. We love God enough to avoid slander and gossip against our neighbor; 2) in further devotion, we must equally speak well of the neighbor always “in the best possible light.”
Confronted with the annoyances of life, that can be a chore. The garbage worker breaks a bag and strews trash at the end of your driveway; what will you say about that, putting on the best interpretation? The woman who jumps your right turn? How’s that going to work out for her when you tell the story? It becomes more serious — I’d guess the ex-spouse is a neighbor, yes?
Move to our political language. I am not speaking of the candidates speaking of each other; that’s their problem. I am asking how we speak of our neighbors who are candidates. The words simply take wing of their own, don’t they? Liar, corrupt, insane, dangerous, dangerously insane — there isn’t anything beyond the boundaries because, effectively, all the boundaries seemingly have been breached.
Here’s a test for your political soul this election year. Pick the candidate you personally cannot stand; choose more than one if you need. Pray for him or her; critique policies, sure, but pray for the person, for the neighbor.
Pray as if you can easily speak well of him, and interpret her speech and actions in the most charitable way. Repeat as necessary. It may not do much for the candidate, mind you, but it may do wonders for you.