The Momentous Impact of Quiet Acts
I remember the moment I learned Martin Luther may not have tacked his 95 Theses onto the doors of All Saints’ Church. It was a surprising revelation because I, like many other kids, learned in school that Luther hung the Theses up for all in Wittenberg to see. Instead, it turns out that this emblematic image may exist only in the imagination: Quite possibly the monastic Luther addressed his objections to the Archbishop of Mainz, sent them off by mail carrier, and left things at that, thinking that he was beginning an academic disputation with his superior.
But the notion of Luther sending out the 95 Theses and going to lunch, anticipating a long wait for a response, seems anticlimactic compared to the vision of him marching to the church with stolid expression, dramatically nailing the document to the doors, and departing as crowds thronged to read it, their minds and hearts so suddenly ablaze that the Protestant Reformation exploded in that very moment.
It’s the glamorous stuff of movie scripts.
Yet Luther was not famous at the time. He was not known as a great theologian. No throngs followed him about. He consistently claimed that he was not interested in inciting controversy, though Rome perceived the Theses otherwise, with prominent Roman Catholics vigorously objecting to Luther’s arguments, calling for him to be tried and even burned for heresy. All because of one letter sent to an Archbishop.
Why do we cling to this image of Luther hanging the Theses on the church doors? Perhaps it is because we so love to dream big. We love dramatic flair, and we get an emotional high from visions of the momentous. But an addiction to spectacle sets up disappointment: Life is not often grand even at its grandest moments. No fireworks went off when Einstein discovered his theory of relativity. No soundtrack swelled when Gutenberg got the printing press to work. A tiny mouse click delivers that long-sought college acceptance, and a handshake solidifies the job promotion. Even milestones like births and deaths are marked not by fanfare but by quiet, unassuming simplicity. Sometimes it is the smallest actions, the quietest ones, not the grand ones, that carry the greatest impact.
Luther’s document, no matter how it was delivered, was quietly produced with solitary quill and parchment, yet triggered a revolution. One can imagine the labor of dipping the pointed feather into ink, then writing with the measured, prayerful calligraphy of a monk who knew that each letter formed a word and each word mattered. It’s almost possible to feel the burn of an error in theology or rhetoric that might have caused him to scrap a page and pen a new one – and the satisfaction he must have felt when looking at the completed work.
Ninety-five pointed protests, none more than a couple of sentences. Ninety-five objections to the status quo. Five short of reaching 100. For all Luther’s labor, the finished product is not long – it cannot compare to The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series – but its small size made for an enduring legacy no one could have predicted.
We say Luther inspired a theological revolution. He created fissures and new denominations and rocked theological assumptions held for generations. But when one thinks about the 95 Theses themselves, with all their incisive brevity, one realizes that all that momentum began with something quite small. I see Luther’s legacy reflected in the ways that many Protestants practice their faith today: Small actions compose much of ministry. They are embodied by the minister who says a prayer over a stranger who comes to her office; a seminary professor who grades a paper in silence, then puts it on top of a pile and picks up another; a school chaplain who meets with concerned parents; a clergy group that marches together in a protest. Each action is small, but its impact – its impact transforms faith, instills wisdom, inculcates calm, and models bravery.
Some believe portions of Protestantism are in an unstoppable tailspin. Yet I see the impact of the Protestants that I know and love as they take to the streets to resist discrimination, craft sermons that name injustice, speak truth to power by meeting their political representatives, or tell stories and write books and volunteer with underserved populations.
They continue to protest because that is part of their theological heritage. They continue to undertake small actions because they know they can have enormous impact.
Martin Luther transformed the model of Christian leadership when he questioned assumptions about theological truth. As Protestants continue to name the unspoken, resist unjust assumptions, and confront power, they are manifesting Luther’s legacy.
Danielle Tumminio ’03 B.A., ’06 M.Div., ’08 S.T.M. is a professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. She has taught at Yale and Tufts and is the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale (Unlocking Press, 2010) and Expecting Jesus (Morehouse, 2014). She is a member of the YDS Alumni Board and an Episcopal priest.