From Wittenberg to WikiLeaks: The Parallel Paths of Martin Luther and Edward Snowden

On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, scholars, theologians, and laymen alike yearn to understand and perceive the drama of Martin Luther’s mallet on the Wittenberg Church door. A common temptation in seeking contemporary moments analogous to the dynamics of 16th Century Germany consists of limiting the range of observed events to the pews and the pulpit. However, the religious climate of the 21st Century bears markings drastically different than those five hundred years prior. In Luther’s day, the Church acted as Europe’s most powerful political institution as well as the paragon of education and intellectualism. Very few institutions exist today with power so pervasive in social, economic, political, and religious aspects of life, and certainly the church is not one of them. In fact, where the dominant political force of the sixteenth century was the one, holy, Catholic church, the only analogous modern institution is the one unilateral global superpower: The United States of America. Therefore, if our scope of vision widens beyond the ecclesial realm, we can find a modern drama which fits the pattern of the Protestant Reformation in the 2013 WikiLeaks scandal of Edward Snowden. This recent event offers uncanny similarities to the case of Luther, the position of the actor, the nature of the action, and the effect of that institution acted upon.

Five hundred years of reflection has granted academia the luxury of hypothesizing that the Protestant Revolution resulted as an effect of the media revolution initiated by the printing press. The practice of pattern recognition allows us to perceive the WikiLeaks scandal as of the same breed in less than four years. Media revolutions generally follow this same four step pattern: (1) A radical person of influence acts as the catalyst. (2) Said catalyst enlists a new medium for distribution of the message. (3) This message inherently forces controversy, which in turn disseminates knowledge monopolies. (4) Schism ensues. Indeed, the fundamental political means and message of the WikiLeaks scandal of 2013 precisely mirrors the politics of the Protestant Reformation nearly five hundred years prior.

A good American Protestant may possess apprehension in comparing a man whom many condemn with the title of “traitor” to their proverbial forefather. Allow me to ease this tension. This argument inhabits neither the realm of ecclesiology nor theology; it addresses not the political right nor the left. While moral judgment and ethical implications follow closely behind, the following paragraphs primarily address the technical and structural similarities of each revolution due to the pervasive cultural conditions created by the emergence of new media in their respective times. In other words, the similarities between Martin Luther and Edward Snowden avoid conversations of ideology and engage in conversations of ecology. Let the reader proceed with this in mind.

Radical Influencers and Catalysts

Neither Luther or Snowden could escape the far reaching effects of new media in their respective centuries, in fact, both were born into media climates that shaped their radical views and enabled them to enlist the new media in powerful ways. Martin Luther was born in 1483. By this time, the printing press had been stamping letters onto parchment for just over forty years but the world’s first mass medium was still in its infancy stage. As Luther grew up, the printing press spread, becoming available in more and more common spaces, although it was still primarily of service in the worlds of academics and clergymen. Yet, because he was born during the spread of the printing press, not before or after it, Luther possessed traces of both the pre-printing press worldview (i.e. the worldview of the 15th Century Catholic Church) and of the worldview that the printing press bestowed upon mankind (i.e. subjectivism, individualism, and interpretation). He was a child of both worlds. He walked along a dangerous line, maintaining a foot in each camp. The crossing of the printing press and the reformation was not simply a moment in time that swept away Luther into the pages of history, nor was Luther just a wily manipulator of the medium who opportunistically used this new form in order to push his own agenda. Instead, he acted somewhere in the middle; a character created by the climate of the medium who understood the medium as the most powerful tool for promotion of his agenda.

Edward Snowden, five hundred years later, was born in 1983. He was quite literally raised in an Internet age by the people of the television. Like Luther, he grew up under the old cultural assumptions, while being fed the worldview of the new medium. Just as the printing press convinced Luther that texts and literacy should and could be accessible to the laymen, the Internet taught Snowden that the distance between an individual and infinite information was only defined by the space between his fingers and the keyboard. As both men grew into adulthood, they occupied space within the establishments of the old medium while reaping the benefits of the privileges of the new one. The professional positions of influence each of these men possessed make this fact abundantly clear. Snowden formerly served in the military and showed promise in government work through his employment by the CIA; working in an organization based on the electronic era in the field of computer science. Luther, on the other hand, enjoyed the positions of a Catholic professor and priest; working in the establishment of functional orality, holding the rare position of literacy. Luther was a bad Catholic and Snowden was a bad American; each operated as a radical opposition from within.

New Media and Monopolies of Knowledge

But status alone does not shatter foundations. In both the cases of Luther and Snowden, their positions as disgruntled insiders would prove irrelevant if either man had been ineffective. Yet, as history proves, both men relied on new communication technologies to enforce their ideologies on preexisting political structures. After all, both men lived under, and were employed by, the great Western superpower of the day. The political prowess of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church proves profoundly important to this argument. As Jacques Ellul points out in his essay, Current Signification of the Reformation, “the grand medieval hope was to make the world adopt the laws of Christian morality.” The institution of the Catholic Church pervaded politics to promote said morality, and indeed, achieved this status with resounding triumph. In other words, the Roman Catholic dream, in medieval era, was the political codification of Christianity. Therefore, considering the political implications of the Reformation not only provide the tentative Protestant with evidence against maintaining concern for the audacity of this argument, but also illuminate many similarities between Luther’s conditions and Snowden’s. From our viewpoints 500 years removed from the event, modern man may tend to believe that the most dramatic claims  of Luther’s Reformation had to do with doctrine, and not knowledge monopolies, but it is this very distinction that leads Protestants to venerate Luther as a theologian instead of denouncing him as the primary actor in the church’s greatest split, as well as the initiator of the secularization of the western world. However, by shifting power away from Rome, Luther did precisely these things. In Snowden’s case, one may see much more clearly the ways in which the United States acts as a political powerhouse, and the ways Snowden stood in opposition to this power; even the very documents which Snowden released possessed a political nature (the same is not necessarily immediately apparent to the modern observer in the case of Luther). Yet, on this understanding balances the true nature of these similarities in full. In fact, without understanding that each of these circumstances operate purely within the realm of politics (in the most basic sense of the word), the similarities between these two movements simply serves anecdotal purposes.

Let us consider politics to mean the allocation of resources. If then, these movements operate primarily as political, what resources do they allocate? Due to their historical positioning in proximity with the invention of new communication technologies, both the movements of Luther and Snowden center around the allocation of information. Each superpower — relative to its respective century — operated with full control of their knowledge monopolies. The pre-Reformation Catholic Church thrived in the limited literacy of the Dark Ages. The laity and congregants knew that which the Church desired them to know and remained ignorant of that which the Church desired them to not know. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, and the promise of printed Bibles in common vernaculars (even if mass literacy was not achieved for another hundred years), decidedly smashed the barrier between commoner and clergy; their access to the information promised equality. Snowden encountered this same phenomenon in 2013. Under print and electronic conditions, much government work remained unknown to the public by nature of the mass media of the day; telegraph and television simply present no feasible way to transmit the extensive catalog of classified and unclassified information from the hands of One World Superpower to its citizens. The Internet, however, gave life to the possibility that this data could be shared and find its way into the hands of the public; the promise of the precipitation of the power of privileged information set the cards for Snowden’s success. Neil Postman’s conception of shame as outlined in The Disappearance of Childhood (which discusses the dissemination of the knowledge monopoly of parents’ “adult secrets” before children) presents a helpful framework for understanding the drama of these moments. When an individual, organization, or institution possesses more, or exclusive, access to or knowledge of a medium, the messages of said medium cultivate shame in those without access. That is, some information remains unknown and only can be known by revelation from an institutional power. In the same way that the technology of the printing press promised to shatter the knowledge monopoly of the Catholic Church, the Internet promised to shatter the knowledge economy the 21st Century American government. The key component in the political actions of both Luther and Snowden is their making use of new technology to spread information previously unavailable to the public; the Sacred Scriptures in the case of Luther and top secret files in the case of Snowden.

Inherent Controversies

Understanding this, the self-evident controversy in these historical moments becomes even more elucidated. If the politics of each event have to do with allocation of information, the old adage, “knowledge is power” sheds some light on the inherent controversies. While this idea certainly offers some insight, and should not be ignored, I suppose most readers can deduce the ways in which the equal share of information loosens the hold on power for an institution that previously chose what to disclose or not. Therefore, perhaps these pages are better suited to discuss the controversy of conscience. It seems that, at least in these two circumstances, the emergence of new communication technology serves as an enabler for one’s perceived integrity; it is no coincidence that both men attributed their acts as convictions of their conscience. Luther proclaimed this explicitly on April 18, 1521 when he said, “it is neither safe nor right to go against one’s conscience” in his final defense at the Diet of Worms where he found it impossible to recant.  Snowden, on the other hand, found himself tip-toeing through the minefield of moral subjectivism that dominates America today. Yet, his appeal to the constitution, after all, appears to be the same rhetorical move of Luther’s appeal to conscience. Essentially, by appealing to the constitution, Snowden states that his own private interpretation of the text (i.e. his interpretation via his conscience) displaces the established institutional interpretation, just as Luther claimed that his reading of scripture displaced the doctrines of Catholicism. Furthermore, both interpretations mandate that everyone else receive the same freedom to interpret as well. In fact, Snowden went so far as to explicitly make this claim in a 2013 interview, stating “All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.” This is a nearly perfect mirror image of Luther’s implicit rhetoric in translating the Bible into the vernacular German. He may as well have said, “All I want is for the public to have a say in how they interpret Scripture.” Certainly, Luther’s appeal to conscience made identical claims as Snowden’s. Therefore, one may see that the controversy of these statements revolves not only around the power dynamics inherent in the allocation of information, but also in the appeals to conscience, as it stands in direct opposition to the established understandings of the institution (whether American or Catholic).

Schism

Unfortunately for these men, the pattern of new messages conveyed by the new medium comes to fruition only by means of schism and exile. Both Snowden and Luther had taken action against the most powerful institutions of their day, and by threatening this power, both put their livelihood and reputations at risk. Therefore, the excommunication of each individual from their respective cultural powerhouses is not entirely surprising. The out-casting of the pioneer, in a new media event, seems to echo the final cries of the regime of the old medium to assert cultural dominance. Yet, if the actors in these controversies truly are children of the medium, cultural dominance has already shifted to the new morality and even in their exile, the actors lack the characteristics to be considered a villain in mainstream culture. Because their actions instituted new moral realities, the old institutions, which held power under the moral realities of the old medium were fighting a losing battle against the shift of culture. Excommunicating Martin Luther would do nothing for the inevitable mass production of Bibles, translated and printed into hundreds of languages. The avalanche of the new medium had already subjected the public to hold the accessibility that the printing press provided in the highest regards. In the same way, declaring Snowden as a traitor to the United States could not stop the public from demanding increasing amounts of information from their government. It is only under conditions where the public already believed this, or was primed and ready to be told to believe this, that a mere three years later, the most hotly debated topics in the 2016 Presidential election would revolve around candidate Clinton’s private emails and candidate Trump’s private conversations. Both Luther and Snowden were poisons to the institutions of power because they took the public morality, shaped by the new medium, to its farthest conclusions under an old regime.

Conclusion

The victories of both Luther and Snowden, in some ways, were hollow or one-dimensional. After all, the Catholic Church remains the world’s largest religion, and America remains world history’s only unilateral global superpower. The victories of Snowden and Luther cannot be measured by the impact they had on their oppositional institutions; this would actually primarily paint both revolutions as failures. Instead, these revolutions accomplish feats of ecological acclaim. Their impact stems from the ways in which they shaped and crafted the world around their respective institutions and forced them to adapt to the laws of information under conditions of the new medium. Moments such as the ones described happen in times of transition. A new medium introduces a new morality. New morality is widely internalized and accepted by the people of a society before it is accepted by its institutions or written into the fabric of law. For an institution of power to accept a new morality, there must be a firebrand. There must be a mouthpiece for the medium that will speak the new morality in a specific moment. But these actors are by no means passive. One cannot spark conflict of this magnitude, with this sort of lasting impact on cultural mindset, without having some knowledge of the drama of the situation.

This brief comparison claims, by no means, to be exhaustive. The above argument, in its current state, only outlines the broad, big picture similarities for the purpose of providing a framework for understanding the drama of the moment of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses. Both historical events are unique and possess nuances not discussed here, and contain parallels that are yet to be explored. Yet by understanding the shared overarching themes of both events, one gains acute insight into the power of media to disrupt and reorient knowledge monopolies as well as a heightened understanding of the social implications of both Luther’s and Snowden’s actions.

 

References

Akbarzadeh, Ali (Producer). 18 October 2014. Killswitch. Akorn Entertainment. USA.

Ellul, Jacques. (2017). Current Signification of the Reformation. Unpublished.

Gellman, Barton. (2013). Edward Snowden, after months of NSA revelations, says his mission’s accomplished. The Washington Post.

Pettegree, Andrew. (2016). Brand Luther. New York, New York: Penguin Random House LLC

Postman, Neil. (1982). The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Random House Inc.

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Comments

  1. Good insights. Snowden, yes, but perhaps the catalyst must include Greenwald, The Guardian, WaPo, and a free-press in general.

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