Practicing reformation

It’s almost October 31. And this year, Reformation Day is taking the spotlight from Halloween as it is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous “blog” post on the door of the Wittenberg church. He had 95 points, which (by today’s standards) is not a blog-friendly number (10 seems to be the sweet spot). Yet it went viral and caused a seismic shift in Europe. The tremors are still felt today. With the giddiness the number “500” creates, I’ve heard many call for a reformation for our generation. Timing is everything (almost), so it isn’t opportunistic but wise to rouse the church to a reformation on such a grand anniversary. Lot of movements, after all, piggybacked on such historical resonance (Good Friday on Passover, Christian Pentecost on Jewish Pentecost). But much of the rousing has been ephemeral simply because there wasn’t much content. Yes, we are due for reformation – anything 500 years old is bound to have deleterious accretion – but what are we being reformed from and for?

Luther and Calvin were not rebels without a cause. Luther’s blog went viral because his content hit home. The church was fleecing the poor, so he stood up for the poor. He attacked the egregious practice of indulgences, selling salvation to the starving poor by preying on their anxiety. Luther’s attack was effective because he didn’t hack at particular practices, but dirtied his hands by digging to the root. He uprooted the system of theology that supported the selling of salvation: that the pope can dole out indulgences because the pope is the vicar of Christ, and purgatory is real though it’s not in the Bible because tradition is as authoritative as Scripture. Luther’s rally call undermined every one of those fictitious claims: Sola Scriptura (over tradition), Sola Fide (and not money), Sola Gratia (and not works), Sola Christus (and not the pope), Soli Deo Gloria (and not the Roman Church). It was Reformation full of content because it was Reformation of concrete practices.

Our reformation call is in need of content. But it shouldn’t have such need. Because there is a great wrong our generation must confront. The American church is a segregated church and Sunday obdurately remains the most segregated hour. This must change. For our segregated worship is the direct result of churches refusing to accept people of color: from St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church kicking out Absalom Jones because he was a black man who came down from the “Negro” corner to pray in a white man’s pew in 1787, to Capitol Avenue Baptist Church that voted in August 1960 to bar African-Americans when it saw the changing demographics of its community. The American church has not only upheld but fostered the sinful practice of human valuing by skin color. The term “white” was not a category of people until the 17th century when the fiction was created to uphold racial slavery. The artifical was made absolute. “White church” and “White Christianity” sanctified a lie. We breathed life into a wood we carved out; and that dumb wood is the god that ruled, and continues to rule, America. We have sacrificed countless lives on its altar. Segregation in our churches is what is in need of reformation.

The usurpation is so complete that we don’t even see the way we are capitulating. I read the history and wonder how could anyone fall for a pope’s infomercial: that a coin can help a soul out of purgatory. So much fabrication has to be swallowed to get to that. Another generation ahead of us might look to our racialized churches and society and laugh at how we ever thought integration in our churches would weaken Christ’s church. If they do laugh at our current struggle, then we would have done our job. We would have lived in the supremacy of Christ and recognized our race-idol for what it was: glued-up wood pieces of our own making. We would have stirred the reformation needed for our generation. If we have not, then our children will continue to go to the segregated churches thinking God likes God’s people separated by colors.

I have failed in parenting in many ways, but there ia a moment I am particularly proud of because I felt like I did something right – though looking back, I can’t really take credit for it. We have just moved to a new city and want to experience different churches before settling down. One Sunday, we visited a church where the Korean congregation worships in a small chapel and the white congregation worships in the large sanctuary. While driving back home, my daughter said to me incredulously: “Dad, that’s just not right! Why are the whites worshipping upstairs and Koreans downstairs? Aren’t they worshipping the same God? Shouldn’t they be worshipping together?”

She grew up in a multiethnic church, so this segregation was odd. I was about to explain all the “adult” reasons why this is so (the language difference, the economics, the difference of worship style) and then I realized the flimsiness and artificiality of all my “adult” reasons for segregation. So I shut up and just joined in her disbelief.

SAMUEL SON works in the area of diversity and reconciliation for the PC(USA). He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.