In 2017 we will mark the half-millennium of the Reformation, and already the commemorations and academic conferences are taking shape. In light of recent trends, though, it’s reasonable to ask just what we are commemorating.

Nobody doubts the significance of Martin Luther, whose historic protest in 1517 sparked a religious revolution, one of the pivotal moments of Christian history. But we are today living through a different kind of revolution. The great centers of Christian population are not the European heartland but such countries as Brazil, Mexico, Congo, Ethiopia and the Philippines. Surprisingly, that global Christian world is also marking a series of critical anniversaries that take us back to Luther’s lifetime. As we remember the Reformation over the next couple of years, we should also recall its global context.

Even in Luther’s time, the Christian world stretched far beyond the regions of Western Europe. I like to illustrate this by pointing to the decisive Battle of Diu, a naval conflict that occurred off the western coast of India in 1509. The Portuguese fleet defeated a broad alliance that included the rulers of Muslim Gujarat and Hindu Calicut, the Ottoman Empire and the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt, as well as the Christian republics of Venice and Dubrovnik. Clearly, this was a world used to globalized power struggles, not to mention cynical alliances that transcended faith and ideology.