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Luther’s hammer still echoing today Guest column from Switzerland

Along with Geneva and Wittenberg, Zurich is one of the three most important centres of the European Reformation in the sixteenth century. This was a multifaceted process with positive and negative sides to it and with a global impact. Its more emancipatory ideas have helped shape the concepts of individual human dignity and democracy as well as the spirit of enterprise, a canon of values, education systems, culture and mentalities not just in Zurich but throughout the Western world. Thus Zurich has written a piece of the history of human liberty that continues to be felt today. That must be commemorated, celebrated and intensified.”

– From the white paper of the Verein 500 Jahre Zürcher Reformation (500 Years of the Zurich Reformation Association)

“Martin Luther Nails his Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 (painting, 1872, by Ferdinand Pauwels) (Image: © epd-bild / akg-images).

Be it the blows of Luther’s hammer, the oath sworn on the Rütli or Christ’s birth in a stable: consciousness is not shaped by historical facts, but by their illustration in staged, vivid stories – however great the importance of honest historical research, jubilees and their size tell us more about the current consciousness of those celebrating them than they do about what happened in the past.

Democratic aspects from the outset

Huldrych Zwingli’s first Zurich sermon on 1.1.1519 can be claimed with some justification to be the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland. The “Reformed” movement later spread around the world via Geneva. The genes of Reformed thought are easier to detect in the DNA of Western political, economic and value systems than Lutheranism, which was disseminated by the princes, since the Swiss branch of the Reformation was characterised by a marked democratic element from the very outset. There are also more Reformists than Lutherans in the world today – not to mention the various offshoots of Anabaptists that also developed for the larger part in Zurich. Thus what began in Zurich has had no lesser impact than the “Lutheran” strand of the Reformation emanating from Wittenberg.

That in itself would be reason enough for a large Swiss celebration, one would think. But the “typical Reformist” has always been characterised by sobriety, plainness and pragmatism. A strong aversion to idolatry, pomp and prominent leaders makes it difficult for Swiss Reformed Protestantism and a people whose mentality has been influenced by centuries of Reformed thought to create an extravagant jubilee. Moreover, since all central decision making is reduced to a minimum here, with so much leeway for grassroots projects, it would be impossible to stage the jubilee via a single coordinated and collective national effort.

Jubilee to awaken new a dynamic

Plinth of the monument to the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) before the Wasserkirche (Water Church) in Zurich (Photo: epd-bild).

Hitherto, the Swiss government has considered the anniversary of the Reformation a religious affair and hence a matter for the cantons, since religion is governed differently from canton to canton. But even in Zurich, which until recent decades was Reformed through and through, for many people “Zwinglianism” has become synonymous with puritanical tedium. The Reformed Church of Zurich has reminded the city, the canton and the Zurich tourist board that an anniversary of the Reformation would have a bigger story to tell and would not be the preserve of the Church – with great success. The “500 Years of the Reformation in Zurich Association” (“Verein 500 Jahre Zürcher Reformation”) was founded as a collective organisational platform and efforts are being made on all sides to provide the resources necessary to mark the jubilee in the appropriate fashion. In today’s secular Geneva such an undertaking would be inconceivable.

Zurich’s Reformed Church was the state Church for four and a half centuries and at the height of its membership and property ownership was autonomous. Since then, numbers have been in decline; in recent years the impact has been felt in its finances. Not unlike the situation facing German churches, restructuring and budget debates have taken up a lot of energy. The transition to a minority steeped in tradition within a multi-faith society is marked by despondency and withdrawal as well as fresh ideas and new projects.

In this respect, the jubilee comes at a good time. It will certainly not be easy to reflect the myth of the Reformation in the self-perception of those celebrating it. Rather, the anniversary should alter this self-perception and be a source for the awakening of a new dynamic for transformation and regeneration. With church doors wide open, people can join once again to ask what kind of faith and Church is needed by the individual, society and the world in order to find life in abundance in peace, freedom and justice.

Martin Breitenfeldt is the director of the “Verein 500 Jahre Zürcher Reformation”.