NEW YORK -- The drama unfolds in a Gothic sanctuary in a limbo zone between heaven and hell.
In this new Off-Broadway play -- "Martin Luther On Trial" -- Lucifer requests new proceedings against the Catholic monk turned Protestant reformer, with St. Peter acting as judge and Luther's wife, former nun Katharina von Bora, as defense counsel.
The first witness is Adolf Hitler, who hails Luther as a "great German patriot" who saved Germany "by uniting all Germans against a common enemy -- the pope. … Luther's 95 Theses freed the German conscience from the clutches of Rome, creating space for a new moral system, one that would be distinctly German."
Luther's wife shouts: "Objection. Luther wasn't a nationalist. He wanted people to follow Christ first, nation second."
St. Peter sadly replies: "Overruled."
So the debate begins. Luther's defenders stress his struggles against worldly Medieval church structures, his work translating the Bible into German and his messages stressing that salvation was found through repentance and faith. It was a world-changing event when, on Oct. 31, 1517, the theology professor posted his 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany.
The Devil says Luther's goal was to "Reform the Christian church. His result: fracturing it into a thousand pieces." Luther's work also unleashed a violent storm of change in Europe. Facing public failure, as well as success, the aging Luther lashed out at Rome and the Jews in language and logic later recycled by Nazi leaders.
"There is the mad genius thing here. Not in the sense that Luther ever went mad, but there were times when he gave into his anger," said Chris Cragin-Day, who co-wrote the play with Max McLean, founder of the Fellowship for Performing Arts, which is producing "Martin Luther On Trial."
Certainly, a "big idea" of this play -- one of many cultural events worldwide marking the Reformation's 500th anniversary -- is that "not all heroes are infallible. Not only that, they are not heroic all the time," said Cragin-Day (who is one of my faculty colleagues at The King's College in New York).
"Luther was a tormented man, in the end. The Thirty Years' War was coming and he knew it. … He knew that many people would die because of what happened with some of his work. That's a heavy burden to bear, even for a genius."
That's the painful reality at the heart of "Martin Luther On Trial," which will run in New York through January 29, before a summer U.S. tour. The trial arguments rush by, driven by passages from Luther's many books -- yanked from a stack that dramatically towers to the stage's ceiling. The reformer's brilliant "Commentary on Romans" is featured, but so is "Of the Jews and their Lies."
At one point, the audience hears Hitler sing a verse from Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," before he condemns the theologian as a weakling "riddled with self-loathing" who ultimately rejected the scientific logic of progress.
"Faith is an unenlightened cop out," concludes Hitler. "Luther condemned the Jews because they rejected Christ. That's a stupid, ignorant reason. I killed the Jews in an effort to progress humanity. … Which is the higher calling?"
Other witnesses summoned to the trial include the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and, in one dizzying blitz, public figures ranging from Henry VIII to Steve Jobs, from Ayn Rand to Jane Austen, from Walt Disney to Kim Jong-il.
The final witness -- somewhat in a daze, since he arrives from the real world -- is Pope Francis, who defends Luther, in part, by stressing that leaders must learn to face their failures.
The Devil shouts back: "How the hell can you, of all people, sit there and defend him? … Martin Luther is the Roman Catholic Church's ultimate enemy!"
Pope Francis replies: "That would be you, actually."
St. Peter and Francis finally affirm the spiritual humility in Luther's last words on his deathbed, scribbled on a napkin: "We are all beggars, this is true."
No one condemned Luther's failures more than Luther, said Cragin-Day.
"Luther cried out for mercy," she said. "That word -- 'beggars' -- is so specific. It captures the fact that God's grace is completely beyond our control. For Luther, that was the final judgment."