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Learning from Martin Luther About Technological Disruption

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther used the printing press to spur debate on the Church's practice of "indulgences." The fact his efforts kicked off one of the most divisive periods of European history should serve as a reminder that while technology can support constructive debate, it can also fuel violent conflict.

GENEVA – Five hundred years ago this week, a little-known priest and university lecturer in theology did something unremarkable for his time: he nailed a petition to a door, demanding an academic debate on the Catholic Church’s practice of selling “indulgences” – promises that the buyer or a relative would spend less time in purgatory after they died.

Today, Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” posted at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany (he simultaneously sent a copy to his boss, Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg), are widely recognized as the spark that started the Protestant Reformation. Within a year, Luther had become one of Europe’s most famous people, and his ideas – which challenged not only Church practice and the Pope’s authority, but ultimately man’s relationship with God – had begun to reconfigure systems of power and identity in ways that are still felt today.

What made Luther’s actions so momentous? After all, calls for reforming the Church had been occurring regularly for centuries. As the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, the two centuries before Luther featured near-constant challenges to papal supremacy on issues of philosophy, theology, and politics. How did the concerns of a minor theologian in Saxony lead to widespread religious and political upheaval?

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