Nearly five-hundred years after Martin Luther awakened Protestantism with ninety-five theses, once again some are seeking to justify an influential truth: to be Protestant is to protest.
The resistance of injustice as a response to God's "justification by grace through faith" sparked the Protestant movement in 1517, and such a commitment to protest continued to function as a foundational and prominent organizational tactic. For example, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 - essentially an imperial parliament - the established order sought to reduce conflict by suspending the 1521 Edict of Worms, which had declared Luther as a heretic and banned his writings. Many Lutherans interpreted the 1526 decree as a victory, but after the Emperor annulled the Diet's decision of 1526, in 1529 a group of princes and representatives refused to accept the imperial revocation. Those allied with the new resistance movement, refusing to be bound by worldly authorities, became known as "Protestants".
When the Protestants collectively protested in the 16th century, not only did the newly born expression of faith flourish, but society as a whole received numerous benefits, and in doing so offered a religious and political roadmap for future generations of dissenters and conscientious objectors. For example, some argue that resistance theory, which considers the basis by which authority can be opposed, came to prominence in the period that followed the awakening of Protestantism. More specifically, underpinnings of resistance theory dwell in several groundbreaking legal opinions, constructed by those serving with the Electorate of Saxony and the Landgraviate of Hesse, following the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Additional Protestant-infused concepts surrounding resistance were included in the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argued that citizens of a society, when faced with a "supreme power" that is destroying "true religion", may engage in (what could now be described as) community organizing for the sake of civil disobedience. Altogether, while also filled with its own errors and abuses, Protestantism has served an important and positive social function for hundreds of years, both religiously and politically, by advocating for systems and structures that resist various manifestations of tyranny and promote diverse expressions of freedom.
There are currently about 150 million Protestants in the United States. These children of the Reformation possess the capacity to spark massive and life-giving social change if properly united and organized. While there are clear (and oftentimes conflicting) variations in theological and political belief (as was proven in our recent general election), that which does bind Protestants together is a common heritage of responding to God's grace with mass protest against injustice. This commitment to personal and public renewal is meant to benefit all people of good will, regardless of religious and political identity. So the question becomes: When existing authorities seek to reduce ethical constraints, misappropriate funds for personal gain, legitimize lies, and establish forms of hierarchical rule that exploit and conquer through dishonorable policies, will Protestants honor their heritage and serve their prophetic vocation in society? Five-hundred years after Luther bravely protested as an expression of faith, will the caretakers of his legacy now allow a world order that is defined by division and manipulation? Will Protestants be seduced by the most deceitful and dominant of our day and age, or instead resolve to "bring good news to the poor...proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free"?
In religion, politics, education, economics, and countless other facets of life, the mass protests of 1517 had a dramatic impact upon the past 500 years. This is most certainly true. Whether or not Protestants accept the responsibility of resistance in 2017 may come to define the next 500 years. For those of us who still dare to identify as Protestant, we take comfort in the belief that God will love and forgive us regardless of what we do. However, for those of us Protestants who also still dare to call ourselves citizens, we are challenged to know that history may not be so gracious.