500 years of Church Segregation from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr.
When the sun dawned on Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther prepared to share his 95 theses with the German church — not knowing the day would eventually be pegged as the birth of the Protestant Reformation, and a day that fundamentally changed the landscape of Europe.
The parchment at hand had a laundry list of grievances against indulgence, a way to reduce the amount of punishment required to suffer for sin, as taught by the Catholic Church. In 1500s Europe, indulgences had become a practice that monetized salvation — for a monetary offering, the church would promise remission of punishment in purgatory. The gift of eternal life was turned into a late night infomercial: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Luther could no longer stomach a practice that fleeced peasants to fatten the pockets of clergies and finance St. Peter’s Basilica. He even directly called out the pope: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
The common narrative of Reformation emphasizes Luther’s recovery of biblical authority on which he established the doctrines of salvation by grace, and not by works. This is unfortunate, because it caricatures Luther’s social reform solely into a doctrinal dispute. But Luther’s main target was the church’s unjust practice of indulgence. He had to undo convoluted doctrines, haphazardly slapped together through centuries, that were needed to support this inhumane practice. So against the labyrinthine doctrines that were buttressing indulgence — including purgatory, authority of tradition, and infallibility of papacy because lies need more words than truth — Luther marshalled what we now know as the rallying calls of the Reformation: “Grace alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone.”
These were the times of peasant uprisings and church-centric social structures. “Grace alone!” was Luther’s “Black Lives Matter!” as he marched for a more just church and society.
The version of the Reformation as a doctrinal dispute — an internal affair of the church — is a safe version, blinding us from the injustices in our times that demand the same boldness and social awareness. It’s always easier to revere a hero than to follow in their footsteps.
Today, we also face an egregious practice in the American church, one that birthed doctrines as convoluted as the ones needed for indulgence: the practice of segregated congregations. Most American congregations are monocultural. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. denounced church as “the most segregated hour in America.” More than 50 years later, that is still true.
Segregated congregations aren’t the product of choice. We have white churches and black churches because, in America, we had white masters and black slaves. We are divided by design. Our segregated churches are direct descendants of the history of slavery and its racist ideology. Slaves worshipped in the fields and could not break bread with the white masters. After slavery was abolished, black people were relegated to gallery seats. In some congregations, if they became too numerous, they got kicked out.
There are at least three doctrines, played out differently in each denomination, that — directly and indirectly — uphold the racist practice of segregated congregations.
First is the doctrine of the “Curse of Ham”— one of the oldest doctrines justifying racism. This doctrine transmogrifies Noah’s judgment on Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, into God’s racial judgment, wherein God elects the white people and eternally damns the black people. Israel of the Old Testament used the story of Ham to justify its colonization of Canaan. Christians in America updated the story to justify putting a price tag on black bodies.
My Korean father taught this doctrine on his Wednesday Bible study classes, because he learned it from American missionaries when he grew up in Seoul. He read it in commentaries he used while studying in an American seminary. The “Curse of Ham” narrative has been denounced as meritless and bad scholarship, but for many American Christians, some without realizing it, it continues as a lens through which to understand race.
Second is the doctrine of “evangelism” — reducing salvation into a ticket for heaven, and a distorting fixation on the eternal life. This afterlife-centered view of salvation frees the convert from paying attention to the social ills of the day. Faith in eternal life means we don’t have to worry about life here on Earth. Trusting Jesus to take care of everything at the end of time means we are not liable for corruption today. This doctrine works well for those who are relatively privileged, benefitting from racist systems that work for them. When your worst concern is paying bills, and not bodily harm, the promise of a heaven with gold-paved streets is a useful coping mechanism. This version of evangelism also urges monoculturalism — reach out to people like you, or to change others to be like you.
Third is the anemic definition of the church as self-expression — you choose church for the image of yourself that you want to project. In the American church, where the right of the individual is sacrosanct, the ability to choose a church is protected with greater vigilance than the possible immoral consequences of that choice. The current segregation of congregations continues to be perpetrated and justified by the idolatry of choice.
We are in need of another Reformation to undo this division in Christ’s body. We must revive the practice of nurturing diverse congregations. We need to return to fundamentally biblical doctrines in order to dismantle false doctrines. By word and practice, we need the church to reclaim the following doctrines:
- Imago Dei: a constant reaffirmation that we are all created in the image of God, a truth to contradict the lies of all racial valuation.
- Salvation as Shalom: a constant reaffirmation that salvation is about restoration of a community, and not just the individual.
- Church as the family of God: a constant reaffirmation that church is not a choice, but a family we have been adopted to; that we belong to the church the way we belong to a family, without choice to leave but a choice to be faithful, and to love well those we find in that large family despite all differences.
Segregation in churches is due for reformation.