Monday, November 20, 2017

Whose Jerusalem? Whose Land? The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians and Muslims

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky/Emet Prize photo
Some people have all the luck when it comes to living a purposeful life. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky [1] was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1924. Frankfurt at that time was a vibrant place, Jewishly speaking. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) [2] founded a school for adult learning Lehrhaus Judaica. Martin Buber [3] taught there; so did Gershom Scholem, Leo Loewenthal, Benno Jacob, and Shmuel Y. Agnon. Thus, Werblowsky emerged from a vibrant modern, assimilated, Jewish culture in Germany that was so bitterly stamped out starting in the 1930's. 

As a teenager Werblowsky studied in Yeshivas in Jerusalem. During the war he studied in London, receiving his B.A. in 1945.  Post-war, Werblowsky worked in an orphanage in the Netherlands where he helped to prepare survivors of the Holocaust to move to Palestine/Israel.  

He obtained a PhD from the University of Geneva and commenced an academic career in comparative religion at the University of Leeds. 

In 1956 Werblowsky moved to the new state of Israel, where he was a founding member of the Department of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University. He rose to serve as Dean of Faculty of Humanities 1965-1969, and he remained at Hebrew University until 1980.  

Werblowsky founded the Interfaith Committee in Jerusalem in 1958. He also worked at UNESCO serving as vice-president of the International Council for Philosophy and the Humanities.  He was the primary editor of the premier journal on comparative religion, Numen [4]. He also co-edited the encyclopedia of Jewish Religion.  He died in Jerusalem in 2015. 

From his perch atop the world of comparative religion, Werblowsky was in a unique position to recognize and describe some of the contradictions, dilemmas, and pitfalls faced by the new state of Israel. One example is his insights regarding Jerusalem and the relationship that each of the three monotheistic traditions have to confront with respect to that city.

Three Conceptions of Jerusalem

In 1978 Werblowski published a book The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.[5] He summarized the thesis of his book in an article recently handed to me by Rabbi Peretz Wulf-Prusan, Whose Jerusalem? Whose Land? The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. [6]

One way in which people have experienced and crystallized their sense of holiness, said Werblowsky, is in relation to space. There are holy lands. For example, said Werblowsky, there is a temple in Benares, India, in which the object of worship is a map of India.  We might look to similar spaces in American Indian religions [7]. There are holy places, as distinct from land, where the holy became manifest. And there are holy cities. Some cities are holy because they possess a shrine or holy object. When it comes to Jerusalem, the city is part of a holy land for the  Jews, it is a holy city for Christians because of things that happened there, and it is a holy place for Islam because tradition holds Muhammad ascended to heaven from that location. 

1. Islam

For Muslims, Jerusalem is Al-Kuds (the holy one). The holy status of Jerusalem in Islam, says Werblowsky, is derived in part from Judaism and Christianity. As best as historians can tell, Muhammad never set foot in Jerusalem.  But Muhammad looked to Judaism and Christianity for some of the core ideas of Islam. For example, the ideas of monotheism, judgment day, and man’s moral responsibility for his actions all were derived from the earlier religions. The Koran adopts and accepts the stories of the patriarchs as handed down by Judaism and Christianity. This inheritance necessarily brings Jerusalem into the picture. 

Sura 17:1 says “Praise be to Allah who brought his servant at night from the Holy Mosque to the remote Mosque.” This has been interpreted, from early days of Islam, as a miraculous journey by Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem . . . . and it was from there he made his ascent to heaven. The capture of Jerusalem by Kalif Omar in 638 was instrumental in the development of this belief and tradition, and it was consolidated with construction of the Dome of the Rock in 691 CE and the Al Aqsa mosque in 705 CE.  Over time, the Al Aqsa Mosque became identified as “the remote mosque” of Sura 17:1, said Werblowsky. 

For Islam, then, the city of Jerusalem is holy because it contains a shrine, a holy place where--according to tradition--Muhammad ascended to heaven. 

2. Christianity

Christianity has facts on the ground in Jerusalem: the last supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection of Jesus. Jerusalem is holy because of what happened there. But, significantly, Christianity also developed a heavenly abstraction of Jerusalem. Christians focused on a Platonic form of Jerusalem in heaven, which served to relegate the earthly Jerusalem to a kind of memento, said Werblowsky. 

Werblowsky refers to a story about the pilgrimage of Philipp from Lincoln in 1129. Philipp did not get very far on his pilgrimage. He made it as far as Clairvaux (half-way between Paris and Switzerland). From there the bishop of Lincoln (on the east coast of England between Nottingham and Hull) received a letter from the Abbott of Clairvaux. The letter said:  “Philipp has entered the holy city and is no longer an interested onlooker but a devout citizen of Jerusalem. But this Jerusalem is Clairvaux. She is the Jerusalem united to the one in heaven through whole-hearted devotion, by conformity of life, and spiritual affinity." In other words, said Werblowsky, the true home of the Christian, according to the medieval conception, is the heavenly Jerusalem. Not that the good Christian must despise the terrestrial Jerusalem, but the true terrestrial Jerusalem “which is united to the one in heaven” is wherever the perfect Christian life is lived! 

St. Augustine promoted this deterritorialization of Jerusalem: in John 7:37 Jesus said “let him who thirsts come to me and drink,” and St. Augustine wrote, this means not a pilgrimage to a physical place, but to wander with the heart (on a spiritual journey).  The abandonment of concrete historical eschatology in the centuries between Revelation and St. Augustine, said Werblowsky, resulted in a Christian vision of the heavenly Jerusalem that is purely spiritual.  

Christian hymnology, notes Werblowsky, is almost exclusively heavenly.  For mainline Christians, to the extent Jerusalem has a terrestrial geographic location, it is mainly as a memento of holy events that occurred in certain places.

But the tendency to worship the place(s) and the tendency to de-territorialize have always been in conflict in Christianity, notes Werblowsky. Some Christians after St. Augustine re-focused on Israel as the holy place where all these events transpired, and where further things must happen before the second coming will transpire.  For example, evangelical pastor John Hagee and his followers [8][9] take a literal territorialist view of Jerusalem, as do American evangelicals in general [10]. It's what makes them staunch supporters of Zionism. 

3.  Judaism

The Jewish tradition is very different from St. Augustine's spiritualized Jerusalem.  

Jerusalem, of course, is not part of Jewish stories from Abraham through the Exodus; it was David who first turned Jerusalem into a cultic and religious center, and who made it a symbol of the national unification of Israel. Jerusalem became the symbol of transition from peoplehood to nation state. 

But Jerusalem was never completely identified with the state during temple times, said Werblowsky, so when the state ceased to exist (in 70 CE) Jerusalem survived as a symbol of importance for the Jewish people. “Jerusalem consciousness” continued into rabbinic Judaism. Jerusalem was the city God had chosen and the city became as much a part of the covenant with his people, as the covenant with David and his seed, said Werblowsky.

In the Talmudic vernacular, Jerusalem and Zion became synonymous and they came to mean not just the city of Jerusalem but the land of Israel as a whole, and the Jewish people as a whole. City, land, and people became one in a grand symbolic fusion.  Zion/Jerusalem is the “mother” says the Talmud, and upon the destruction of the second temple, the “mother” is widowed and orphaned and longs to rejoice one day upon the return of her children.

Rabbinic Judaism did take up a pale version of the Christian notion of a heavenly Jerusalem. For example, in midrash Tanhumah, section Pequday, said Werblowsky, there is a Jerusalem above. But in this rabbinic conception, God made himself a Jerusalem in heaven for sheer love of the earthly Jerusalem.  In other words, in this Talmudic conception the earthly Jerusalem does not reflect a heavenly archetype, but the other way round! The Jerusalem in heaven is a snow globe to remind God of the real thing.  

In rabbinic Judaism, piety, religious symbolism, and messianic hope are directed first and foremost to the earthly Jerusalem.  A definite strand of this-worldliness permeates all of normative Jewish religion, says Werblowsky. Jerusalem and Zion became geographical terms beyond geography, but not without geography.  It’s an existence that for religious Jews has religious dimensions, and that could be reformulated by secular Jews for Zionism.

Al Aqsa, Dome of the Rock and Western Wall Plaza at left/
photo Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia 

A Troubling Legacy and a Challenge for the Modern State

This historical and living symbolism that Jews have about Jerusalem--and that is supported by evangelicals--is troubling in the context of the modern state of Israel, notes Werblowsky.  Religious or secularized symbols drawn from mythological roots too easily become catch-words at odds with the needs of a modern and just nation state. 

This traditional Jewish symbolism of Jerusalem and Zion, drawn from mythological roots, said Werblowsky, is of dubious vitality as justification for a modern nation state. Can Israel engage in constructive and morally responsible politics by making itself a prisoner of symbolisms, no matter how venerable and hallowed? he challenged. These are questions not easily answered, suggested Werblowsky, because symbols cannot always be dismissed by a mere wave of the hand. 

Sometimes symbols are the conscious and unconscious repository of life-giving truths to a community. Nevertheless, concluded Werblowsky, all those who love Jerusalem and seek peace must not forget that part of the meaning of Jerusalem was expressed two and a half millennia ago by the prophet Isaiah (1:27) “Zion will be redeemed by justice and its inhabitants by righteousness.” 

He leaves it to the reader to ask himself or herself: if Judaism's ancient mythologies and religious symbolisms interfere with the creation of a Zion that is just and righteous, what has to change? How do Jews negotiate these symbols handed down to them in order to achieve a state redeemed by justice and righteousness?  


1.  EMET Prize biography: R. J. Zwi Werblowsky 
2.  God in the Age of Reason, My Jewish Learning
3.  Martin Buber (1878-1965), Jewish Virtual
4.  Numen on JSTOR
6.  R.J. Zwi Werblowsky, Whose Jerusalem? Whose Land? . . . 
7.  Native American Netroots: American Indian Sacred Places
9.  Hagee's organization Christians United for Israel is reported to have 1.8 million members; his Global Evangelism Television is said to have "several million" viewers. 
10.  According to Pew Research, 31 percent of Americans believe scripture should be read literally--which would be incompatible with a "purely spiritual" Jerusalem; one in four American households identifies as Christian evangelical.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Friday, November 17, 2017

Sexual Harassment from Lin Farley to Al Franken

Roy Moore
Tarana Burke started the #metoo meme a decade ago after hearing a troubling story of sexual abuse from a young girl. Burke felt horrible that she was unable to comfort the girl who came to share her story, "at a time in my life when I really wasn't equipped to handle it." She referred the girl on to someone else after five minutes. "I couldn't even say me too," said Burke.

Burke is the real deal. She helped found a non-profit in 2006, Just Be, Inc. [1], to help empower young girls of color, and to help young girls of color overcome issues in the aftermath of sexual abuse and trauma. She has made it her life's work. Interviewed by Hari Sreenivasan on the PBS Newshour this Tuesday [2], she said "I think it's a mistake for us to keep creating boogeymen." Ultimately, it's about the systems in which people operate that make abuse possible, she suggested. 

Women Enter the Work Force in Large Numbers

After World War Two millions of women entered the workforce in North America. Initially they were largely kept in low-paid and low-status positions. My mother, an accomplished and powerful woman, tells a story from when she was a new immigrant, working as a waitress at the Steadman Motor Inn in Kamloops, British Columbia.  She had managed a major hotel back in Switzerland, and was looking to move into a management position.  When she approached the manager of the hotel to submit a resume, he rejected it, saying "We don't believe in women in management here." Sexual harassment came with the job and was expected. 

In 1975 Lin Farley headed an early women's studies department at Cornell. She and others there gave sexual harassment a name and a definition: "unwanted sexual advances against women employees by male supervisors, bosses, foremen or managers." [3] In 1981 Time Magazine reported that in the prior two years 18 million women had been sexually harassed at work, even as Phyllis Schlafly asserted that "virtuous women are seldom accosted." [4] 

By 1977 three court cases had established that women who were sexually harassed at work could sue their employers under the Civil Rights Act, which had established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1964. 

The Anita Hill Hearings

Anita Hill worked for Clarence Thomas as a newbie lawyer when he was at the Department of education in 1981. She moved with him to the EEOC in 1982 and quit in mid-1983. She was interviewed as part of the Thomas vetting process for his appointment to the Supreme Court and she reported that, while he was her boss, he harassed her with sexually explicit stories, describing the scenes of pornographic films, and once asking "Who left the pubic hair on my coke can?" 

During the hearings, her memo, gathered by the FBI and the Senate Judiciary Committee, was leaked to Nina Totenberg, legal affairs correspondent for NPR at the time.  Anita Hill recounted her testimony in a three day hearing that riveted the nation. It was an ordeal. Joe Biden mishandled the hearing. [5] Her credibility was drawn into question, she was sharply cross-examined, and at the end of the process Clarence Thomas's nomination was affirmed.  

Have we made Progress since 1991?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein expose in the New York Times [6] countless women latched onto the #metoo meme to tell their stories of harassment in the work place. Most of these stories did not name names, but some did. Collectively they are powerful evidence that,  sexual harassment in the workplace remains prevalent. 

In my law firm in Oakland I did not see it. We employed up to 50 people and we had the usual office politics, frictions, and personality clashes, but no sexual harassment as best I could tell.  Which is not to say we did not have sex. Over my twenty years with the firm we had the janitor stumble across an associate having sex with a client in his office after hours, we had another associate sleep with the office manager, and we had some folks download pornographic images from the internet. All of these incidents were dealt with discreetly, and I thought well. 

The EEOC reports fewer than 13,000 sex-based harassment charges filed each year (2010-2015). [7] Even if 75% or incidents go unreported [8] this suggests a number in the range of 52,000 possible sex-based harassment charges.  But these numbers seem like guess work.  In a 2016 study, the EEOC said that 25% to 85% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace! [9] That's a remarkably vague number--tantamount to "we haven't a clue."  

So we are left to evaluate and respond to the current Sex Panic [10] anecdotes largely without meaningful data. 

Vilifying Moore

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal thousands of women have come forth, responding to the #metoo meme to tell their stories. Nine women [11] have accused 70-year old Roy Moore who is running for the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions as having inappropriate sexual relations when they were teenagers, and he was a county prosecutor in his 30's.  One of the women says she was 14 years old when Moore picked her up near her house, drove her to a remote location in the woods, plied her with alcohol and removed her pants and shirt and had her touch his penis through his underwear. Another alleges Moore offered her a ride home after her waitressing shift ended when she was 16 years old, but instead of driving her home, Moore drove behind the diner, locked the door, attempted to remove her shirt, grabbed her neck and forced her head down towards his crotch. 

Like Mitch McConnell, I believe these women. But how are we to think of these 35 year-old allegations against Roy Moore? 

First, we must note that Roy Moore is unfit for office independent of his past sexual transgressions.  There is his ignorance of the U.S. Constitution as a judge[12],  there is his rejection of the rule of law (Moore disobeyed a federal court order to remove the 10 Commandments from the courthouse, and he ordered his probate judges to continue to refuse gay marriage after this was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), there is his belief that Christianity should order public policy, there is his leadership in the nutty "birther movement," there is his opposition to the voting rights act, etc. All of these things make Moore unfit to serve.  Yet the Alabama voters and the GOP leadership in Washington were and are o.k. with all of that. 

But now Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is afraid that these sexual allegations would negatively impact GOP races next year. Steve Bannon continues to stick by his man. Mitch McConnell wants him gone--but it has nothing to do with advancing the goal of reducing sexual assaults on women. It's all about next year's elections. In Washington, Moore's alleged sexual transgressions, more than three decades in the past, are about party politics, not about his ability to serve, and not about protecting women. 

We must not confuse the politics with the sex. That was true for Clarence Thomas. The Anita Hill memo would not have been leaked, and she would never have been pressured--not by Democrats anyway--if Thomas's politics were the politics of Thurgood Marshall. Anita Hill, who only reluctantly testified, would never have taken the stand. The Anita Hill hearings turned into a partisan circus, and the same is true for Roy Moore. Does that matter? I think it matters to this extent: if we expect that politically motivated disclosures against politicians will result in meaningful reform of any kind, we are fooling ourselves. 

The Passage of Time

Does it matter that all of these incidents alleged against Roy Moore, except one, date to when Moore was in his early 30's--he is now 70 years old. Moore married a 24-year-old in 1985 when he was 38 years of age, violating the Franklin Rule[13], but it worked out. The couple has now been married for 32 years, they have four grown children, and his wife vouches for him. "He is the most gentle, most kind man I have ever known," she told CNN [14]. We have no more reason to doubt her than to doubt the stories of the accusers. Only one of the accusers who have come forward ("he grabbed my buttock as I left his office", 1991) post-dates his marriage.  

These women who accuse Moore are in their 50's today. Seven of the incidents are likely not crimes, two would certainly be if proven. But this is not about criminal accountability. All of the women who have come forward are now in their 50's and any applicable statute of limitations has long run its course. 

The reason we have a statute of limitations for crimes is we recognize that with the passage of time memories fade, memories change, they conform to imposed narratives. Proving a case or offering a defense becomes more difficult as time passes: corroborating or exculpating witnesses disappear or they forget crucial details. To give great credibility to a victim's story, and no credibility to the accused, when an accuser first comes forward after 35 years is problematic. This is especially true with sexual encounters where everything depends on the nuance of the situation. 

These accusations of old transgressions are certainly relevant to Roy Moore's character. They are appropriate and important stories that should be considered by the voters. If the voters elect Roy Moore, I'm not sure the Senate has any business not to seat him. 

Deterrence and Punishment

Criminal statutes typically have two purposes: punishment and deterrence. 

The #metoo campaign aims to have a deterrent effect. But must we really live in fear for the duration of our natural lives that, should we ever become famous, we may be humiliated and shamed with any sexual transgressions, missteps, awkwardness, or misunderstandings we ever had with the other sex? Will such a fear realistically affect our behavior? Will this be any more effective than the deterrence effect of the death penalty? I'm skeptical.  

Harvey Weinstein is different. He was a sexual predator in a position of power. The point of the women who finally managed to go on record about him was not deterrence of future behavior; the point of telling these stories was about accountability for current behavior.  But that is not a  #metoo campaign, that is about victims stepping forward and making their complaints stick. That takes courage, and is hard. Will the #metoo campaign make it easier for women to step forward against their current tormentors in the future? As Tarana Burke suggests, only to the extent procedures and systems are put in place to handle such complaints. 

Due Process as a Value

Some who are coming forward with these #metoo stories are after something other than the public good: revenge. When a man becomes a celebrity, like Moore, these women who have been sitting on their secrets for 35 years are suddenly in a position of power. In a moment such as this they have an opportunity to inflict pain on a past harasser. 

Revenge, however, is not something we should encourage as a matter of policy. It brings to mind the Marcel Ophuls film, The Sorrow and the Pity, [15] and the revenge and persecution in post war France of perceived collaborators. What public shaming as revenge lacks is any due process. Along with the deserving, people get hurt who are innocent, and some who may not be innocent get hurt in ways that are disproportionate to the offense.

In the case of public figures like Roy Moore, the allegations do the damage. The mere allegation results in punishment without trial. Punishment without a fair hearing.  One of the element of the #metoo campaign is to believe the victim. We turn the traditional "innocent until proven guilty" on its head and we say, "guilty as charged until proven otherwise." Such suspension of the need for proof, such a Gadarene rush to judgment by a gullible public will surely encourage unscrupulous accusers to take advantage.  The power of social media to spread slanders and falsehoods should make us think twice whether we want to rely on #metoo campaigns to achieve the betterment of mankind. 

Garish Carnival Entertainment

As Larry Derfner noted on his facebook page, one of the things driving this present #metoo moment is we love to see big men fall: men like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill O'Reilly, etc. It is tabloid entertainment. We can't avert our eyes at the grocery check-out. It's a salacious public shaming of big-shots. We don't want it to stop. 

When there's blood in the water we come swimming and we join the frenzy. As Masha Gessen asks, when does a watershed #metoo moment turn into a sex panic? [10] We may just have crossed the line with Al Franken. 


1.  Just Be, Inc. about page
2.  PBS Newshour, Hari Seenervasin interview with Tarana Burke
3.  Wikipedia, Lin Farley
6.  New York Times (10/18/17) How the Harvey Weinstein Story has Unfolded
7.  EEOC data.
9.  EEOC  Report, Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (June 2016)
10. The New Yorker, Masha Gessen (11/14/17) When Does a Watershed Become a Sex Panic?
11.  Washington Post (11/16/17) A Complete List . . . 
12.  Jonathan Adler, On Roy Moore's Constitutional Ignorance (11/15/17)
13.  Benjamin Franklin, I understand, had a rule of thumb for taking up with younger women: no younger than half your age plus seven--26 years old when Moore married.
14.  CNN (11/16/17) Who is Kayla Moore . . . 
15. Marcel Ophuls (1969), The Sorrow and the Pity (Shaming of women scene)

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

National Identity for the Modern World: Fluid, Open, and Many-Layered

[Note: all references are in footnotes with links at the bottom; it’s an experiment. A drawback of links in the text is it’s often ambiguous which links you might want to explore. So let me know if you prefer this, or links in the body of the text]

Irish Fest in Chicago/credit Patty Wetli
In Brexit’s Irish Question (NYR, 9/28/17)[1] Fintan O’Toole writes of the importance of maintaining our modern, complex, multi-layered conceptions of national identity. It’s what our ever shrinking, but ever more populous world needs: to deal with shocks such as global warming, economic displacement, refugees. It’s what we need to coexist peacefully. Brexit, and other atavistic nationalist movements on the European continent, in the Middle-East, and in the United States are headed in the wrong direction. The blood and soil nationalism of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump won’t do.

In order to end their thirty years conflict known as The Troubles, the Ulster counties of Northern Ireland made a necessary shift in their identity and in their nationalism: they abandoned blood and soil nationalism and adopted a sovereignty of the mind that is fluid, open, and many-layered.

The Troubles—which began in 1968 and ended with the Good Friday Accords in 1998—reflected “a territorial conflict, not a religious one,” says the BBC [2]. “At its heart lay two mutually exclusive visions of national identity and national belonging.” The Troubles were sparked by competing British and Irish nationalisms. In order to resolve the conflict, the Republic of Ireland relinquished its territorial claim to Northern Ireland, and Britain, too, relinquished its territorial claims over Northern Ireland. Both gradually embraced things that nation states generally do not like, says O’Toole: ambiguity, contingency, and multiplicity. Anyone born in Northern Ireland was left to forge their own identity: they could apply for a British passport, they could apply for an Irish passport, or both. The Good Friday Agreement made residents of Northern Ireland British, or Irish, or both, as they each individually chose. Territory was no longer destiny with respect to your national identity.

Such a fluid, open, and contingent national identity for Northern Ireland was enabled, in part, by the European Union. Ireland and Britain entered the EU together in 1973. With Britain and Ireland partners in the EU, the residents of Northern Ireland—no matter which identity they chose—would still come together as citizens of the EU. This belonging to a greater whole made a fluid sub-grouping of identities much easier. Within a greater whole, national identities can have many different dimensions and guises.

Englishness, notes O’Toole, has for centuries been wrapped up in different dimensions and guises. Englishmen (and women) were citizens of Great Britain, subjects of Empire, and more recently (1993) citizens of the EU [3]. Now that the Empire is long gone, and England is losing its grip on Great Britain—Scotland is becoming more and more its own country, and the hold on Northern Ireland has been relinquished—the Englishmen (and women) who opted for Brexit were asserting a much older, inward looking English nationalism: an atavistic blood and soil nationalism.

For these reasons, says O’Toole, the question of Northern Ireland lies at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. As Britain leaves the EU, will the parties reimpose a hard border across the island? Can the ambiguous, fluid, and contingent nationalism of the Good Friday Agreement survive Brexit?

It’s important that it does, suggests O’Toole, but it will be devilishly difficult.

In the United States, we’ve always had an ambiguous, fluid, and multi-layered national identity. Pilgrims arrived on these shores for religious freedom. Thirty-five million of Irish ancestry—4.5 million arrived between 1820 and 1930 [4]—account for more than 10 percent of the population [5]. They brought a rich tradition of music, poetry, and writing that harkens back to Ireland; they retain a special bond with that island. Millions are eligible for or are dual citizens, and through their Irish dual-citizenship, these Americans are also citizens of the European Union. The fluid and multi-layered tapestry of American citizenship is further enriched by all those of Italian, German, French, Polish, etc. ancestry. Many of these are dual citizens and have their own ties to the old countries and to the EU. They all bring their special traditions to create our multi-layered identities.

Six million Jews in the U.S. have a strong identity with Israel as well as America, and more than all of them—e.g. non-Jewish spouses too—can become overnight citizens of Israel anytime they should choose to.

Some of these national identities are contingent. Eleven million, mostly from Central America are undocumented, living and working and raising families in the United States, their identities more American than Mexican or Honduran or Nicaraguan, paperwork or no paperwork.

Thirteen percent of the population (43 million) is of Black or African ancestry [6]. Just ask Ta Nehisi Coates [8] what layers this introduces for national identity.

Nearly six percent of the population is of Asian ancestry, and what tremendous contributions they have brought.

It’s the American melting pot. We come together around an idea—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Our national identity, like that of Northern Ireland is more of the mind than of the soil. Our identities are fluid, open and multi-layered; and as in the case of the undocumented, contingent. We are all immigrants, free to love guns, God, apple pie, and the flag.

I am twice an immigrant. I was born in Switzerland, Berner Deutsch as far back as anyone has figured out. I remain a Swiss citizen to this day. My family emigrated to Canada when I was 12 years old. Canada treated me well. I became a citizen at 18 years of age. Canada provided me with an education. It provided state support for my ambition to become a triple jumper. It taught me philosophy. I was also a British Columbian. I competed for B.C. in the Canada Games. I received my five BC shares [7]. And I emigrated a second time, south, to Washington State, then California: to the United States. Washington educated me in the law, and I started my career in the King County Prosecutor’s Office in Seattle. There I passed the bar exam, got my first law job, and became a U.S. citizen all in one week in 1983. California offered her roads for bike riding, her tennis courts and squash courts, her mountains, and her law courts for a career in construction law.

Today, shocked and appalled by Trump, I am as fervently American as any Trump voter. Here I will take my stand and do my duty as a citizen if authoritarianism comes. But, like all Americans, my identity is fluid, ambiguous, and multi-layered, based on the ideas of freedom, individual rights and individual responsibility. Our world is far too global and integrated to allow for national identities based on blood and soil.

The Kurds, the Catalans, the Brexiters, the Israelis, and Donald Trump all have the wrong idea. If we are going to live in peace with each other, productive, with justice and opportunity for all, we need fluid, open, and many-layered conceptions of national identity, not a blood and soil identity. We need more of the UN, not less. We need more multilateralism, not less. We need more internationalism, not less.


2.  BBC History, The Troubles.
4. Library of Congress: Irish immigration
5. Wikipedia: Irish Americans
8. Ta Nehisi-Coates: Between the World and Me.

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Mortgage Interest Deduction: Not an Evil in Itself

Jim Schutze/Dallas Observer
Our love for deducting home mortgage interest from our federal income taxes is like our love for guns: passionate, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.

A Meaningful Benefit for Very Few

At heart, the mortgage deduction benefits primarily those households earning from $200,000 to $500,000--roughly 5 percent of U.S. households, or ~6.3 million. [There are about 126 million households in the U.S.]

Approximately 64% of U.S. households own their housing, yet fewer than 25% of households take advantage of the home mortgage deduction. This is not surprising. A rule of thumb for "how much house can I afford" is 2.5 times your household salary. In 2016 the median U.S. household income was just $59,039.  The upper reach of affordability for half of U.S. households, therefore, is a house that sells for less than $150,000.  This does not result in a lot of interest to deduct (relatively speaking). On a $150,000 mortgage a homeowner pays less than ~$6,000/year in interest, which means most are better off claiming the standard deduction of $12,700, rather than itemizing mortgage interest along with other deductions.

Indeed, according to the NYT (11/2/17) fewer than three percent of mortgages exceed $500,000.  A household needs approximately $200,000 in income to qualify for such a mortgage. A $500,000 mortgage would yield a deduction of ~$20,000 with current interest rates. The savings would be equal to the amount that this deduction exceeds the standard deduction ($12,700) times the marginal tax rate, which at $200,000 of income would be 28%--so a household's savings is 28% of $7,300, or $2,044.00. It's not nothing, but not much compared to the tax breaks enjoyed by some our wealthy real-estate developer friends.

For those lucky few (doctors, lawyers, accountants, expert consultants of various stripes, etc.) able to afford a $1 million mortgage, the benefit is more substantial.  The amount a mortgage interest deduction of $40,000 exceeds the standard deduction of  $12,700 is $27,300--and applying the top marginal tax rate of 39.6%, the savings is  $10,811/year.  Multiply that by 15 or 20 years and you're talking real money. All other itemized deductions would add to this, of course.  For the lucky six million in the $200,000 to $500,000 range of annual income the home mortgage deduction is a perk; a consolation for bearing a large chunk of the nation's tax burden. It's not determinative of where or how this group will live.

This $40,000/year savings on a $1 million mortgage happens to be the maximum amount of the mortgage deduction.  So for those really lucky ones earning in excess of $500,000/year, it's the maximum they will be able to deduct no matter how big their mortgage.  Those captains of industry, moguls of real estate, sporting stars, entertainers, and top flight professionals with multi-million dollar incomes--and multi-million dollar houses--the $10,811 deduction is pennies lying on the ground.  Not a benefit that makes any difference.

So Why Do We Have this Deduction?

Our income tax code dates to 1913, when the states ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution allowing for an income tax. From 1913 until 1986 all interest on debt was deductible. In 1986 Congress eliminated the interest deduction for most consumer debt, including auto loans and credit cards, but maintained the deduction for interest on debt used to buy, build or substantially improve a home. The following year Congress limited the amount of the mortgage deduction on a first and second home to $1 million, but also allowed deduction of up to $100,000 on home equity loans--effectively reintroducing the deduction of some consumer debt. 

To this day corporations get to deduct all interest payments. We tax corporations on their profit left over after all business expenses, including debt service on machinery, equipment,  and buildings. In 1913 most people did not have consumer debt--credit cards did not come into general use until the 1950's. 

From the inception of banking in the United States (1781) until the early 20th century, mortgage lending went mostly to farms. In 1790, ninety percent of our population worked on farms. In 1920 a majority of Americans still lived in rural areas and worked on farms. Today, only two percent of the population works on a farm. 

Cass County North Dakota,
protest against farm foreclosure 1930's/photo
In 1920 outstanding farm mortgages ($10.2 billion) was similar to urban real estate debt ($12.1 billion). But by the end of World War 2, outstanding farm debt had dropped to $5.1 billion, while urban real estate mortgages had climbed to $27.3 billion.  A dramatic change. 

In the midst of the Great Depression, Congress passed the Federal Housing Act and created the Federal Housing Authority with a key goal of making house ownership and mortgages more affordable. The federal government began to insure mortgage debt; the 30-year mortgage was born. 

Post-war, we built the federal highway system, automobile ownership expanded from one in five people owning a car (1950) to more than two cars per household (1990), and we built the landscape of the American suburbs. Home ownership rose from ~45% of households pre-war to a historic norm of ~65% home ownership from the 1960's through today. 

Ronald Reagan, for one, equated home ownership with good conservative values: "A husband and wife who own their own home are apt to save," he said in a speech in 1961. "They have an interest in the advancement of a social system that allows the individual to store up the fruits of his labor. . . . The love of home is one of the finest ideals of our people," he said. 

Politically we preferred homeowners over renters.

Who wants it?  

Home builders and the construction industry lobby heavily against removal of the mortgage interest deduction. They believe the deduction promotes construction of slightly larger houses, and more expensive houses.  That $40,000/year deduction makes a real difference over a decade of mortgage payments.  

The 31.5 million households that take advantage of the mortgage deduction currently depend on it; it makes the selling of a residence easier and it raises the sales price, perhaps as much as 10%-15%, according to the National Association of Realtors. Good for sellers, not so much for buyers. Eliminating the home mortgage would affect the savings, college funds, and overall wealth of existing homeowners. 

We should note, here, that the home mortgage deduction is not the only tax benefit enjoyed by homeowners. Homeowners also benefit from the deductibility of residential property taxes on owner-occupied homes ($31 billion), and from the exclusion of tax on the first $250,000 ($500,000 for joint returns) of capital gains on housing ($50 billion).

And everyone likes a tax perk, or the idea that they or their children might benefit from this perk someday. 

Who wants it gone? 

In an op-ed at The Hill law professor Ilya Somin (George Mason University, adjunct scholar at Cato Institute) argues that we should drop the mortgage deduction. It would serve the interests of equity and efficiency, he promises. 

First, he says, the mortgage deduction program "costs the federal government $77 billion in revenue per year, making it one of the five biggest tax deductions." It is a tautology, however, that any tax not levied means there is less revenue. If the government collects an additional $77 billion in taxes from homeowners every year, the government would have $77 million more revenue . . . So?  We could say the same thing about an 80% top marginal tax bracket. It does not go to the question whether the government should levy this tax. So let's set that argument aside. 

Second, Somin suggests the home mortgage deduction "produces limited benefit for all that cost." I object to the terminology. The Republicans are correct, I think, that money we earn is ours in the first instance, and government should have a good and equitable reason to tax it.  The trick is to come up with rationales to justify a tax; not with rationales not to tax. 

Third, says Somin: "The deduction subsidizes the purchase of relatively expensive houses. As a result, it artificially skews the real estate market toward utilizing more space for large, single-family homes, and less for multifamily rental housing of the kind needed by the working and lower-middle class."  Again, I object to the word "subsidy." When you are robbed on the way to the theater and the robber takes $20 from your wallet and kindly leaves $80, the polite robber does not "subsidize" your outing to the theater.  The government is not a thief, but when the government refrains from taxing you--for anything--it does not "subsidize" your activities. 

Fourth, Somin argues that the mortgage deduction--which predominately makes a difference for the wealthy--artificially skews the housing market towards using more space for large, single-family homes, and less for multi-family rental housing of the type needed by working and lower middle class. In looking at good and equitable reasons to tax income, we do need to look at the rationales behind taxing decisions.  We all need a place to live. Is it fair to give a tax deduction for the cost of housing for homeowners and none to renters? 

As a factual matter, however, it is not clear to me why a mortgage deduction enjoyed by homeowners, and mostly by wealthy homeowners, would have any impact on the construction of housing for working and lower middle-class housing?  Perhaps without the mortgage deduction the McMansions of the $200k to $500k crowd would be slightly shrunken, but so what?  How would this affect the construction of lower-middle class rental housing?  It would, of course, if the government eliminated the mortgage deduction and invested the $77 billion of revenue to subsidize the construction of low-middle class rental housing!  Like all things taxes, this is a political question.  

The fact that the mortgage deduction allows the $200k to $500k crowd to purchase slightly larger McMansions, suggests Somin, "makes our real estate less efficient and exacerbates an already serious problem: the high cost for lower income households."  In Latin I think they call this a non sequitur. 

"Artificially inflated housing costs are not only problematic in themselves," says Somin, "but also one of the main factors making it difficult for the poor to move to areas with greater job opportunities."  And it's true, the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco and other booming urban areas is a problem. But eliminating or limiting the mortgage deduction for the $200k to $500k crowd--i.e. those for whom it makes a tangible difference--will not result in more affordable housing for the lower middle class.  Less restrictive zoning, allowing higher density apartment construction in more places, subsidizing affordable housing construction will make a difference.  And the funds for such subsidies, of course, can come from anywhere--e.g. by raising the top marginal tax rates, by taxing corporations, or (if we want) from eliminating the mortgage deduction for the $200k to $500k crowd. 

What the mortgage deduction does not do

As Somin points out, the mortgage deduction does not increase home ownership.  Places like Canada and Australia and Switzerland, who have no mortgage deduction to their income tax have similar or higher rates of home ownership. And since the mortgage interest deduction primarily benefits the $200k to $550k crowd, those folks can afford to purchase housing with or without the mortgage interest deduction.  

We should also note that not having a mortgage interest deduction does not assure adequate housing.  Vancouver, Canada, where they have no mortgage interest deduction has one of the most acute housing shortages in North America. 

Reagan's vision of the moral benefits of home ownership is not promoted through the home mortgage deduction. 

What about the renters?

We all need a place to live, we all need food, we all need health care, we all need basic transportation. It may make some sense to go back to the old farm model and tax income only to the extent income is "profit" over and above these basic necessities.  Some people, e.g. Derek Thompson in the Atlantic (2010) reference the idea of turning the mortgage interest deduction into a credit: let all homeowners keep a portion (e.g. 20%) of their yearly interest, no matter what tax bracket they're in. That plan would leave most homeowners better off while raising effective tax rates on the rich. In addition, this would lend itself to include renters: renters could keep a portion (e.g. 20%) of their rental payments. 


Like guns, we like our mortgage interest deduction. The mortgage interest deduction does a lot less harm than our flooding the country with 330 million guns, some of them equipped with bump stocks.  Could we improve our tax policy around housing to incentivize more construction of affordable housing?  Sure.  Could the government subsidize the construction of more affordable housing? Sure. Could we take some additional revenue for these goals by reducing or eliminating the mortgage interest deduction.  Sure.  

It's all politics.  

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How not to Respond to Constructive Criticism: Luther's Crie de Coeur Against the Selling of Indulgences

Martin Luther's 95 Theses,
Wittenberg, October 31, 1517
The Roman Catholic Church claims trusteeship of a surfeit of merits earned by Christ and the saints in their lifetime through good works. As trustee, the church can bestow this surfeit of "merits" on others at the discretion of popes and bishops in order to discharge the wages of sin during the lifetime of a sinner--as opposed to purgatory.

Power corrupts and the church is not immune to this maxim. Thus during the early 16th century the church encouraged the practice of selling indulgences to guilt-ridden sinners to raise money for the construction of St. Peter's basilica in Rome. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was provoked to protest this practice by the excesses of Johann Tetzel, a particularly aggressive huckster. On October 31, 1517 the 34-year old Luther published 95 theses against the practice of selling indulgences by affixing them to the church door of the Wittenberg castle, or perhaps by distributing them discreetly to some ecclesiastical authorities.  Luther's protests were written in Latin, and thus surely not intended as a populist pamphlet. Nevertheless, Luther's theses were soon translated into German and distributed widely, providing the spark to the Reformation.  

So what were these 95 theses, or principles? 

Here is the preamble: 
"Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen."
The first four theses affirm the centrality of repentance. It's a bitter vision Luther puts forth. You have to be a self-hating Christian, he seems to suggest. "Repent for the kingdom of of heaven is at hand," said Jesus. (Mt 4:17). And don't think that a simple confession to your priest does the trick, suggests Luther; no, you need "outward mortification of the flesh," and "self-hatred ... till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven." 
  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. 
  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy. 
  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh. 
  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
The next nine theses take a strong stance against the selling of indulgences in broad terms. Only God can remit sins, said Luther, not popes and priests. And if you think you can buy your dead loved ones' way out of purgatory--forget about it!
  1. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons. 
  2. The pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven. 
  3. God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest.  
  4. The penitential canons are imposed only on the living, and, according to the canons themselves, nothing should be imposed on the dying. 
  5. Therefore the Holy Spirit through the pope is kind to us insofar as the pope in his decrees always makes exception of the article of death and of necessity. 
  6. Those priests act ignorantly and wickedly who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penalties for purgatory. 
  7. Those tares of changing the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory were evidently sown while the bishops slept (Mt 13:25). 
  8. In former times canonical penalties were imposed, not after, but before absolution, as tests of true contrition. 
  9. The dying are freed by death from all penalties, are already dead as far as the canon laws are concerned, and have a right to be released from them. 
Luther goes on in the next nine theses to articulate some arguments why the selling of indulgences is ineffective. If we don't unthinkingly and reflexively believe in Jesus Christ as savior at the point of death, says Luther, . . . well! we have reason to fear. Despair, fear, and assurance of salvation are to man as hell, purgatory, and heaven. And these indulgence preachers--those scoundrels--they can not save you from purgatory any more than they can save you from fear, he said:
  1. Imperfect piety or love on the part of the dying person necessarily brings with it great fear; and the smaller the love, the greater the fear. 
  2. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, to say nothing of other things, to constitute the penalty of purgatory, since it is very near to the horror of despair. 
  3. Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation. 
  4. It seems as though for the souls in purgatory fear should necessarily decrease and love increase. 
  5. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love. 
  6. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it. 
  7. Therefore the pope, when he uses the words ``plenary remission of all penalties,'' does not actually mean ``all penalties,'' but only those imposed by himself. 
  8. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences. 
  9. As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life. 
If remittance from sins could be granted--which it can't--Luther goes on, well, it would only be to those "most perfect" (i.e. to those who committed no sins in the first place and so don't need no remittance from no indulgence selling charlatan). The pope may be able to intercede, speak up on your behalf, but he can do you no good by selling you a piece of paper. 
  1. If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few. 
  2. For this reason most people are necessarily deceived by that indiscriminate and high-sounding promise of release from penalty. 
  3. That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish. 
  4. The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them. 
  5. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. 
  6. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone. 
And what makes you so sure your dead relatives want to be released from purgatory, anyway, Luther challenges. Don't waste your money: 
  1. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend. 
  2. No one is sure of the integrity of his own contrition, much less of having received plenary remission. 
  3. The man who actually buys indulgences is as rare as he who is really penitent; indeed, he is exceedingly rare. 
It is folly! If you have such hubris as to think an indulgence letter will save you, or anyone, you will be eternally dammed. So be ware of these indulgence sellers, warns Luther. True contrition and repentance, in this life, is all that can save you, he says. 
  1. Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers. 
  2. Men must especially be on guard against those who say that the pope's pardons are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him. 
  3. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man. 
  4. They who teach that contrition is not necessary on the part of those who intend to buy souls out of purgatory or to buy confessional privileges preach unchristian doctrine. 
  5. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters. 
  6. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters. 
"I am not against all remittances," says Luther. He is not disputing or going against the Catholic doctrine of indulgences. "If you are truly contrite and seek and love to pay a penalty for your sins--perhaps like mortifying the flesh?--have at it." But indulgences cannot be a shortcut to good works of love, works of mercy, giving to the poor, or release you from fear of God. A papal indulgence without such good works and true contrition is of naught. Therefore, take care of your families needs in the here and now--don't shortchange them by purchasing indulgences for you or your departed dead from corrupt hucksters. It only garners God's wrath, says Luther. 
  1. Nevertheless, papal remission and blessing are by no means to be disregarded, for they are, as I have said (Thesis 6), the proclamation of the divine remission. 
  2. It is very difficult, even for the most learned theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the bounty of indulgences and the need of true contrition. 
  3. A Christian who is truly contrite seeks and loves to pay penalties for his sins; the bounty of indulgences, however, relaxes penalties and causes men to hate them -- at least it furnishes occasion for hating them. 
  4. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love. 
  5. Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. 
  6. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences. 
  7. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. 
  8. Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God's wrath. 
  9. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences. 
  10. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded. 
  11. Christians are to be taught that the pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money. 
  12. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them. 
In his strongest challenge to authorities, Luther in effect says "To hell with the pope and his construction of St. Peter's basilica; and to hell with this preaching for the sale of indulgences instead of the word of God in church:"  
  1. Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. 
  2. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money. 
  3. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security. 
  4. They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others. 
  5. Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word. 
  6. It is certainly the pope's sentiment that if indulgences, which are a very insignificant thing, are celebrated with one bell, one procession, and one ceremony, then the gospel, which is the very greatest thing, should be preached with a hundred bells, a hundred processions, a hundred ceremonies. 
The true treasure of the Church, suggests Luther, is its open access to all. It's most holy treasure is its gospel open to the meek and poor. It makes the first to be last. The key is the treasures of the gospel, not the wealth of rich men. 
  1. The true treasures of the church, out of which the pope distributes indulgences, are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ. 
  2. That indulgences are not temporal treasures is certainly clear, for many indulgence sellers do not distribute them freely but only gather them. 
  3. Nor are they the merits of Christ and the saints, for, even without the pope, the latter always work grace for the inner man, and the cross, death, and hell for the outer man. 
  4. St. Lawrence said that the poor of the church were the treasures of the church, but he spoke according to the usage of the word in his own time. 
  5. Without want of consideration we say that the keys of the church, given by the merits of Christ, are that treasure. 
  6. For it is clear that the pope's power is of itself sufficient for the remission of penalties and cases reserved by himself. 
The true treasure of the church is the gospel and the grace of God, says Luther. And he alludes to a parable of a vineyard owner who hires day laborers at different hours, and pays the ones who worked an hour the same as those who worked 10 hours (Mt. 20:16):  "It makes the first to be last."  I suppose the parable means the church (and God in his grace?) accepts the sinner the same as the virtuous. Through the treasures of the gospel, says Luther, the church used to fish for "men of wealth;" by contrast, through the purchase of indulgences, says Luther, the church fishes for the wealth of men. Such indulgences, given to promote financial gain for the Church, yield the most insignificant of graces, says Luther. 
  1. The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. 
  2. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last (Mt. 20:16). 
  3. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first. 
  4. Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. 
  5. The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men. 
  6. The indulgences which the demagogues acclaim as the greatest graces are actually understood to be such only insofar as they promote gain. 
  7. They are nevertheless in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross. 
These hawkers of papal indulgences are more apt to look out for their personal gain than the glory of God or the church, suggests Luther. In fact these indulgences "cannot remove (even) the very least  of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned," says Luther. 
  1. Bishops and curates are bound to admit the commissaries of papal indulgences with all reverence. 
  2. But they are much more bound to strain their eyes and ears lest these men preach their own dreams instead of what the pope has commissioned. 
  3. Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed. 
  4. But let him who guards against the lust and license of the indulgence preachers be blessed. 
  5. Just as the pope justly thunders against those who by any means whatever contrive harm to the sale of indulgences. 
  6. Much more does he intend to thunder against those who use indulgences as a pretext to contrive harm to holy love and truth. 
  7. To consider papal indulgences so great that they could absolve a man even if he had done the impossible and had violated the mother of God is madness. 
  8. We say on the contrary that papal indulgences cannot remove the very least of venial sins as far as guilt is concerned. 
  9. To say that even St. Peter if he were now pope, could not grant greater graces is blasphemy against St. Peter and the pope. 
  10. We say on the contrary that even the present pope, or any pope whatsoever, has greater graces at his disposal, that is, the gospel, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, etc., as it is written. (1 Co 12[:28]) 
  11. To say that the cross emblazoned with the papal coat of arms, and set up by the indulgence preachers is equal in worth to the cross of Christ is blasphemy. 
  12. The bishops, curates, and theologians who permit such talk to be spread among the people will have to answer for this. 
The selling of these indulgences, all this money grubbing, Luther goes on, undermine the credibility of the Church. It makes it difficult to "rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from ... shrewd questions." 
  1. This unbridled preaching of indulgences makes it difficult even for learned men to rescue the reverence which is due the pope from slander or from the shrewd questions of the laity. 
  2. Such as: ``Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?'' The former reason would be most just; the latter is most trivial. 
  3. Again, ``Why are funeral and anniversary masses for the dead continued and why does he not return or permit the withdrawal of the endowments founded for them, since it is wrong to pray for the redeemed?'' 
  4. Again, ``What is this new piety of God and the pope that for a consideration of money they permit a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God and do not rather, because of the need of that pious and beloved soul, free it for pure love's sake?'' 
  5. Again, ``Why are the penitential canons, long since abrogated and dead in actual fact and through disuse, now satisfied by the granting of indulgences as though they were still alive and in force?'' 
  6. Again, ``Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?'' 
  7. Again, ``What does the pope remit or grant to those who by perfect contrition already have a right to full remission and blessings?'' 
  8. Again, ``What greater blessing could come to the church than if the pope were to bestow these remissions and blessings on every believer a hundred times a day, as he now does but once?'' 
  9. ``Since the pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money by his indulgences, why does he suspend the indulgences and pardons previously granted when they have equal efficacy?'' 
  10. To repress these very sharp arguments of the laity by force alone, and not to resolve them by giving reasons, is to expose the church and the pope to the ridicule of their enemies and to make Christians unhappy. 
If indulgences were preached according to the true spirit and intent, then fine, but they are not. they are corrupt. And Luther cites to Jeremiah 6:13-15 (God railing against Jerusalem): "For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely, they have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush." 
  1. If, therefore, indulgences were preached according to the spirit and intention of the pope, all these doubts would be readily resolved. Indeed, they would not exist. 
  2. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ``Peace, peace,'' and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14) 
  3. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ``Cross, cross,'' and there is no cross! 
  4. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell. 
  5. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
Notably, Luther's theses do not repudiate Catholic doctrine or the Catholic Church. They are a protest against a most egregious abuse of a minor part of doctrine--the granting of indulgences. From an institutional standpoint, the correct response would have been to acknowledge the corrupt practice and to put Luther in a leadership position to reform it.  

Instead, like corrupt autocrats everywhere, the pope and bishops did not accept this much needed constructive criticism. Instead they sought to crush Luther. They caused factions to form around Luther in opposition to the Church. It enabled, if not encouraged, the development of alternative doctrines to grow outside of the church, and in opposition to it.  

As so often happens, the cover up (or rejection of criticism in this case) was of far more consequence than the original crime (corruption). The response of the Catholic Church to Luther's criticism enabled and encouraged the Reformation that lead to 100 years of religious wars.  

Some travels of Luther