by Mika Edmondson
On April 3, 1963, as Martin Luther King Jr. sat frustrated in the musky confines of a Birmingham jail cell, he took issue not so much with the hatred of the world but the apathy of the church.
King had just received a letter signed by eight concerned clergy that encouraged the Negro citizens of Birmingham to withdraw support from the non-violent protest movement and denounce it as extreme, unwise, and untimely. In a tone dripping with patient indignation, King responded, “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”
Over a half century later, King’s assessment remains mostly true among conservative evangelicals. For many, the Reformation has nothing substantial to say to racial and economic injustices.
THE REFORMATION & SOCIAL EXPLOITATION
However, the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we must not forget that the theological errors of Medieval Catholicism were deeply intertwined with economic exploitation. Take a look at the 43rd of Luther’s 95 Theses: “Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.” Moreover, his 45th thesis explains, “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.” From the very beginning, the Reformation represented a direct response not only to doctrinal errors, but also to the social exploitation and devastation which sprang from them. This alone suggests that perhaps Wittenberg has more to say to ongoing racial and economic injustice than we might have originally thought.
The problem of race in America is also deeply rooted in doctrinal errors that helped establish social exploitation. In her book, The Baptism of Early Virginia, historian Rebecca Goetz chronicles the way Anglican planters in colonial Virginia crafted the idea of “hereditary heathenism,” the belief that enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples couldn’t be converted to Christianity. She explains, “As they began to think of Indians and Africans not as potential Christians but as people incapable of Christian conversion, Anglo-Virginians laid the foundations for an emergent idea of race and an ideology of racism.”
HEREDITARY HEATHENISM & CATHOLICITY
Hereditary heathenism represented a direct repudiation of the doctrine of catholicity, a core theological tenet of the Reformed tradition that had been handed to the Virginia planters. As Anglicans, they regularly confessed with one voice, the words of the Apostles Creed, “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church.” Sixteenth-century Reformer Zacharias Ursinus explains that catholicity meant “the church is gathered out of all sorts of men, all states, kindreds, and nations.” Catholicity became a matter of Anglican (and Reformed) orthodoxy; it simply follows the redemptive promise that in the messiah “all nations shall be blessed” (see Genesis 12:3, 26:4; Galatians 3:8; Revelation 5:9).
Even as colonial planters laid the foundation for a racial caste system in America, they did it despite the theological tradition coming out of the Reformation. Imagine if the Anglican Planters had been faithful to this single point of the Reformed tradition handed to them. The entire tragic history of slavery and the racial caste system in America might have been different.
Mika Edmondson is the pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, a church plant in Southeast Grand Rapids. He recently earned a PhD in systematic theology from Calvin Seminary, where he wrote a dissertation on Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology of suffering.