This train of thought originated in the juxtaposition of an encampment in the downtown park blocks in sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement, with a bland and evasive sermon I heard in the Lutheran Church I attend, which carefully skirted any mention of the groundswell of public opinion in this country against escalating social inequity, or of the social justice message in the lectionary readings. I mentally pictured Martin Luther, whose preaching included strong condemnation of usury, reliance on foreign trade at the expense of domestic industry, and amassing wealth through unearned income, showing up in full sixteenth century garb and nailing his 95 theses to the courthouse door or the portals of First National Bank.
The ninety-five theses, however, deal exclusively with the sale of indulgences, and so at first glance look irrelevant. This practice of the Roman Catholic Church – of selling licenses that relieved individuals of means from penances imposed by the church for wrongdoing – at first seems foreign to our day and age. Luther did not, in fact, dispute that the church had the right to waive its own penances, though he questioned whether it was in the true Christian spirit to raise revenue by requiring more actual sacrifice from the poor than from the rich. His biggest complaint was the implication, reinforced by indulgence sellers, that one could buy divine forgiveness, and that money could substitute for genuine contrition.
I see our local governmental bodies selling the first type of indulgence on a regular basis as a means of raising revenue. Every time a fine is levied, which is a mere annoyance for a well-to do person, a severe burden for a working family on a tight budget (including children who did not participate in the wrongdoing), and means prison for the person who absolutely cannot pay, the government is committing injustice in the name of justice. There is a direct parallel with the first and less objectionable type of 16th century Papal indulgence.
I have observed a practice, which seems to be becoming more prevalent, that approaches the second type of indulgence, and that is allowing a criminal conviction to be expunged from a person’s record once all of the imposed penalties have been discharged, but only upon payment of large sums of money either to the criminal justice system or to agencies that are closely connected to it. I work with recovering alcoholics and frequently see situations where an old drunk driving conviction for which the person has paid fines and attended court-mandated education or treatment, remains on the books, a barrier to employment and getting a commercial driver’s license, as well as a felony making people subject to enhanced sentences should they re-offend. If you can pay enough, you can make that conviction disappear. In essence, society is basing its level of forgiveness not on visible signs of contrition including paying the original penalties and avoiding wrongdoing going forward, but on the ability of the offender to enrich the town coffers.
I have the sneaking suspicion that Martin Luther would be outraged.