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The Gospel According to John Luther

By Alexander Joenks | Think Pieces | May 23, 2013 |

By Alexander Joenks | Think Pieces | May 23, 2013 |

It is easy to dismiss “Luther” as just another in the long line of procedurals fitted around that specific character, that haunted copper who in his worst moments is no better than the thugs he hunts. Violence and red eyes glaring out of the darkness. The half-wild hound set among the wolves. The rough man standing watch on the walls so that the gentle people may sleep. But that’s not who Luther is, for all his anger at the low men.

The hint is right there in his name, though there will be more than a comment or two below scoffing at reading too many volumes between the lines. Zoe says it about Luther when forced to evaluate his core. That maybe if he’d read a different book at the right time he would have become a priest. Instead he became a policeman.

Martin Luther tore down the veil between man and god. And though the wave of Protestantism that came after broke in a hundred different directions, there was a theological heart to Luther’s rebellion that rings out in the ethos of John Luther. At the time, as we were supposed to learn in high school world history at one point or another, the Catholic church sold forgiveness. Sin had a price, one that allowed quite a profit. But this meant that the rich could buy their way to salvation, while the poor were forever shackled to the hamster wheel. The idea was based in the simple and morally logical point that good deeds should outweigh the bad. That the penance of good deeds could earn atonement. And of course with the perverse logic that leads every good road to hell, it was reasoned that if the church was good, then giving money to the church was good, and therefore must in and of itself be a form of penance.

But Luther was not content to simply rip down that loathed practice, not when he could take a battering ram to the entire theoretical edifice. Deeds don’t work. Penance earns us nothing. We are damned or saved by nothing but the grace of god, and there is not a single thing that we can do about it. The life of a saint will not bring a man one step closer to salvation if he has already been damned.

It’s a terrible theology at its face, a mockery of justice. But underlying it is a profound and liberating idea that in the ultimate of ironies marches in step with the central morality of atheism. In the words of the prophet, if nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do. If our salvation was already predetermined or not before we were a twinkle in our mothers’ eyes, then we have no motives of morality left. Our good deeds are pure. They are not tainted with the sin of the ulterior.

What this means in tangible terms is that the church no longer matters, not the rules, not the hierarchy. Every man is his own priest, standing naked before the blazing gaze of his creator. That is the death knell of Orthodoxy, that insistence as old as empires that all matters must be mediated through the central power, through the anointed ones. And the logical extension of this thought is the argument that Luther added about the separation of church and state for which we truly revere him today, although he only made the thought explicit after the papal arrest warrants. A cynical man might suspect that it was only added to win the protection of German princes who had little need for the man in the fancy hat down in Rome. But the seed is there in the original thought. If the church should be decentralized down to its individuals, then its link to the state, to that other leviathan, is vestigial.

And what does all this have to do with the television series? It was a frustration on my first watching of the show when John would get into trouble, when he’d go off on a tangent and not call in the rest of the department. When he would not simply trust the men and women he works with every day, and instead digs himself in deeper down a hole trying to do the right thing instead of the smart thing that would often lead to the same result.

You see, John Luther approaches sin like his name sake. There should be no intervention between a man and morality, no central authority that passes judgment. And thus John bypasses the structure of the police, punishing some murderers that would go to prison, letting off others that don’t. From a certain point of view, John Luther is a terrible police officer, but then it would be a mistake to have ever believed that John Luther set out to be a good cop in the first place. But he is also a terrible representation of the cliched lone wolf who enacts justice where the system fails. Look at who he decides to save, and who he decides to punish. Those decisions connect with the logical extremes of Martin Luther’s theology.

If everyone is either damned or saved already, before their actions, then after their actions is too late to exercise any meaningful judgment. There is no reason to extrajudicially punish Alice. She committed her crimes, and she will never feel any regret, and she is not an imminent threat to do any more harm. She is already damned, and nothing Luther does will change that materially. So it hurts nothing to be friends with her.

On the other hand, dropping the molester a few stories even knowing that the bastard will be going to jail is comprehensible in the same way. He will strike again. The difference between the two villains is simply that one still has sin in the future.

John’s attitude is not one of the stereotyped lone wolf who hunts down those who the system won’t touch. Instead, he is a closet classical Lutheran, dispensing not justice but prevention, and doing so with little concern for the hierarchy that claims the right to punish.

And he even got a nail through his hand for the trouble.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.