Is Julian Assange the new Martin Luther?
The significance of the Protestant Reformation lies not so much in the proliferation of new, and non-Catholic, theologies: Early Christianity was a wild cacophony of conflicting views of Jesus. It took centuries for orthodoxy to emerge. For well more than a millennia this orthodoxy was maintained by use of censorship and institutional power. But the printing press changed all that. There could have been no reformation without the printing press. Access to the Bible in the vernacular made the competing versions of the truth possible. So if you worship in a Protestant church say a prayer of thanks for Johannes Gutenberg, who developed movable type in 1440.
Martin Luther gets all the credit for kicking off the reformation. When he nailed his 95 Theses to the door at Wirtenberg Castle in 1517, he sparked a revolution. Soon firebrands throughout Europe were demanding the right to interpret the Bible for themselves. These revolutionaries were armed with Bibles written not in Latin but in their national language. The very first Bible to be prepared on movable type was printed by Gutenbedrg in the 1450s.
I am reminded of Gutenberg, Luther and the power of ideas to change the world this morning by news that Julian Assange is expected to turn himself in to British authorities today. Ostensibly he is wanted for questioning by Swedish authorities over claims that he was a cad with a couple of jilted lovers. But in recent weeks he has become an international pariah because, like Luther, he spoke inconvenient truths to power. He exposed governments as liars, striking at the theology of deceit with theses accessible the world over. He used a technology even more powerful that the printing press; Assange and WikiLeaks used the Internet to tell truths governments would rather hide. For this, governments will seek to crucify him.
In recent weeks, one government after another has sought to shut down access to WikiLeaks so that these governments could control what is and is not capable of being known. Then big business got in on the act. Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard all joined ranks to deprive Assange of access to the world's most movable type. These later day Popes and Cardinals want a world in which they control access to the truth. But I suspect that WikiLeaks's tactics are here to stay. Go ahead, and crucify Assange, but the information reformation has begun.
About sixty years passed between the time the first Gutenberg Bible was printed and Luther's bold act of revolt. Things happen more quickly in our day and age. It has taken only several decades for the Internet to yield its Luther. Now that Everyman is a printer, there will be no stopping the free flow of ideas and information. Governments can try, but their efforts now lack legitimacy. When democracies committed to transparency and businesses proclaiming the value of open markets seek darkness and a censor's restraint, it becomes obvious that the reality of power and the facade of rhetoric are on a collision course. Ideas can be suppressed by power, but not forever.
"When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul to heaven springs," Sixteenth Century reformers quipped. They protested the Catholic Church's sale of indulgences, chits that could be turned in during the afterlife, as a means of making money. Luther turned a withering eye toward the practice. Where is that in my Bible?, he all but thundered. New generations of men and women learned to read a book that Guternberg brought them. They learned to interpret its signs and symbols for themselves.
Religion lacks the power and role in our society it once had. Church and state are separate now. The Bible lacks the power it once had to inform the entire sensibilities of a people. But we are still a people of texts, and we still live in the shadow of a government that makes a claim to power. Our secular Bible is the rule of law. Democratic leaders worship at the Church of transparency.
But now that Assange has nailed his own 95 Theses to each of our doors, how are we to forget, much less forgive, the lies our leaders tell us? If our governments are based on consent, where is it written that we have agreed to be led by liars and hypocrites?
"When a government by its spokesman speaks, suppression of the truth is what it seeks." That's a call for a new reformation. Where this one leads is every bit as open a question as was the remaking of Europe in the wake of the Reformation. The nation-state was but a fantasy when Luther first spoke. What shall replace today's parochial claims of sovereignty?
Julian Assange was, in retrospect, an historic inevitability. The truth cannot be made the property of Church or a Government. The prosecution of Assange is inevitable, too. Those who pretend to hold the keys to the kingdom of heaven rarely let go without a fight. So now the fight is on. Assange will be prosecuted and naked emperors will tell us they are cloaked in robes we have given them. But they know better; they know that WikiLeaks is less an organization than an inevitability. They know, finally, the words of an ancient prophet, who wandered the earth for a brief time before he, too, was crucified. His message was simple: The truth shall set you free. His message still resonates two thousand years later. Censors in suits and ties cannot kill it.
Julian Assange is a criminal in the eyes of power. To the rest of us, he is a martyr and a prophet. Welcome the new reformation.