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The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism Paperback – January 7, 2020
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From the Publisher
Praise for The Color of Compromise
“My friend and brother, Jemar Tisby has written an incredible book. It’s powerful.”
— Lecrae, Grammy award-winning artist
“Jemar points courageously toward the open sore of racism-not with the resigned pessimism of the defeated but with the resilient hope of Christian faith.”
— Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor, Anacostia River Church
"The foundation of reconciliation begins with truth. Tisby encourages us to become courageous Christians who face our past with lament, hope, and humility. This is a must-read for all Christians who have hopes of seeing reconciliation."
— Latasha Morrison, author, Be the Bridge
"With the incision of a prophet, the rigor of a professor, and the heart of a pastor, Jemar Tisby offers a defining examination of the history of race and the church in America. Read this book. Share this book. Teach this book. The church in America will be better for it."
— Soong Chan Rah, North Park Theological Seminary
About the Author
Jemar Tisby (BA, University of Notre Dame, MDiv Reformed Theological Seminary) is the president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. He has spoken nationwide at conferences and his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, CNN, and Vox. Jemar is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi studying race, religion, and social movements in the twentieth century.
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“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice.”
Tisby makes his case by means of a historical survey of people and events from the colonial era to the late-twentieth century. “Not only did white Christians fail to fight for black equality,” Tisby quotes historian Carolyn DuPont in summary, “they often labored mightily against it.” Did you know, for example, that…
• George Whitefield—the famous evangelist — urged the colony of Georgia, which had been founded as a free territory, to allow slavery. A large part of his motivation was the financial viability of his Bethesda Orphanage, which could be run more cheaply with slave than with paid labor.
• Prior to the Civil War, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations split into Northern and Southern branches because of the issue of slavery. Leading Southern theologians, such as Robert Lewis Dabney, defended white supremacy and slavery on providential and biblical grounds: “Was it nothing, that this [black] race, morally inferior, should be brought into close relations to a nobler race?”
• According to historian Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000 ministers were members of the Klan, and these people were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people to join the Klan.” She’s referring to the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which began in the early twentieth century and spread throughout the North as well as the South.
• W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, spoke in opposition to desegregation at the 1956 South Carolina Baptist Convention. Desegregation was “a denial of all that we believe in,” Brown v. Board of Education was “foolishness” and “idiocy,” and anyone who advocated integration was “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” First Baptist was the largest Southern Baptist church at the time. For many decades, its most famous member was the evangelist Billy Graham, whose personal views were more moderate than Criswell’s but who stopped short of advocating civil rights for black Americans.
These are but four examples of white Christian complicity with racism, which I have chosen because of their relevance to white evangelical Christians. There are many other examples from across the spectrum of American Protestantism. It is sometimes forgotten, for example, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was written to mainline Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of white moderates, consider King’s words:
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”"
Of course, there were white Christians throughout American history who opposed racism. But Tisby’s disheartening survey suggests that they were exceptions rather than the rule. As a Pentecostal, for example, I am unaware of any leading white American Pentecostals who publicly supported the Civil Rights Movement during the crucial decade between the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
I don’t always agree with Tisby’s reading of the historical evidence. The closer in time he drew to the present day, the more I found myself saying, “That’s not how I would read that particular incident.” The value of Tisby’s survey is that he places those incidents in the light of larger historical forces, showing continuity between them and the past. As a white reader, I found this broader historical perspective forced me to go back and take a second look at how I had been interpreting those more recent events.
So, why bring up this history of white complicity with racism now? While great strides in civil rights have been made over the decades, racism still exists and disfigures American society. “History and Scripture teaches [sic] us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance,” writes Tisby. “There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.” The Color of Compromise tells a hard truth, but one necessary to hear if racial equity is to be achieved in the Church or in America.
Tisby closes his book with practical suggestions. I don’t agree with all of the particulars, but his thoughts about “The ARC of Racial Justice” are an “entry point” for those on a journey to racial equity. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. Become aware of the issues. Build relationships across lines of race and ethnicity. And commit to concrete action…such as reading this thought-provoking book.
For instance, David French and Russell Moore come to mind. They seem to be racially sensitive (French has an adopted daughter from Ethiopia, and both of them were under fire for their 2016 anti-Trump stand). Additionally, French and Moore are both genuinely and passionately committed to pro-life and religious freedom causes.
Tisby also would have benefitted from learning a whole lot more about conservative economic and political philosophy, say, from Thomas Sowell's Conflict of Visions. (Sowell happens to be African-American.) Like most in academia, Tisby exists in a liberal monoculture, and simply does not understand how conservatives think, or why they passionately hold some of the viewpoints that they do.
For instance, while Tisby's main axiom is "racism never goes away; it just adapts," he seems not to be willing to entertain the possibility that, perhaps, actual solutions to racism and racial disparities adapt over time as well. Could it be, that today's liberal ideas and policies are not always the most helpful at attaining either racial reconciliation or African-American educational, vocational, and economic advancement?
Meanwhile, it is all too tempting to attribute the rise of the Religious Right entirely to racism, and ignore other complexities. It was a big mistake for Tisby to have relied so heavily on Randall Balmer's deeply problematic narrative. For starters, if Southern Baptists didn't start out as uniformly pro-life in the early 70's, then that's because the SBC wasn't all that conservative back then. (The SBC's Conservative Resurgence began in 1979.) Also, Balmer is hardly an objective evangelical historian; rather, he was part of that cottage industry of paranoid books about America's "theocracy" after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. (Surely, Balmer would never, ever see left-wing religious involvement in politics as similarly "theocratic" but would only praise such efforts!)
Again, is it possible that some conservative evangelicals back in the 70's found Bob Jones' ban on interracial dating odious, but also found the idea of governmental meddling in Christian institutions frightening?
If so, then in fact, their fear wasn't unwarranted. Fast-forward a few decades after the 1983 BJU SCOTUS 1983, and - following identical legal logic - the U.S. Solicitor General in Obergefell (2015) realistically threatened the tax exempt status of every Christian church and para-church organization which attempts to faithfully teach and live out the church's 2000-year tradition of biblically orthodox, sexual ethics.
Tisby seems not to have engaged with any intelligent critics of the Black Lives Matter movement, such as Heather MacDonald. Although he does separate the organization from the hashtag slogan, he glosses over the fact that Michael Brown's supposed "Hands up! Don't shoot!" cry was a hoax that galvanized the BLM movement. He also doesn't mention that Michael Brown was violent (even if unarmed), and there appears to have been ample forensic evidence to have justly acquitted the cop, Darren Wilson. Eric Garner's death was horrific - and the NYPD cop on the scene who was in charge of the chokehold, Kizzy Adonis, is African-American. Half of the cops who were responsible for transporting Freddie Gray are African-American. Riots in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore have crippled the economy (including minority-owned businesses), and cops pulled back on their police work, which led to a significant rise in the homicide rate (also affecting black lives).
Tisby's description of the rise of "The Fundamentals" crowd in the early 20th c. also didn't smell right to me. Would I be shocked to find out that there was latent (or overt) racism within this movement? No, I would not. However, the main motive behind the publication of "The Fundamentals" was a reaction against higher biblical criticism in Germany, which led to a lot of skepticism about the reliability of the biblical text. Walter Rauschenbusch represented the heterodoxy that "The Fundamentals" intended to oppose. Therefore, since Rauschenbusch's "social gospel" was aligned with the heterodox Christian camp, and "fundamentalists" (today's evangelicals and fundamentalists) wanted to clearly stand for orthodoxy, the two camps parted ways.
(However, I would completely agree with Tisby: Christian conversion and participating in God's plan for His new creation - including a more just and fair world - never ought to have separated in the first place; they are two inextricably linked parts of the same Gospel.)
The most horrific part of the book was the graphic description of lynchings. However, after reading the book, it also occurred to me just how violent and grisly an act abortion really is.
How is it that Tisby - as part of a group of people who've been so devastatingly dehumanized and terrorized over the centuries in the U.S. - can't see how awful it is that we dehumanize human fetuses, and the utterly grotesque and unjust violence we perpetrate on these innocent human victims, as a result of denying them human rights? I can understand that abortion is a wrenching and difficult subject, and can genuinely sympathize with women who struggle with unplanned pregnancies. However, why can't Tisby even acknowledge that the pro-life view - treating the human fetus as worth far more than a glob of expendable protoplasm - is a genuine issue of conscience and basic human rights?
I agree with Tisby, that we white evangelicals would do well to learn (and keep learning) about our complicity with racism. I think our voting for Trump was a disgrace, and badly damaged the credibility of our Christian witness, as well as grievously harming our minority brothers and sisters in Christ. (Unlike Tisby, however, I do understand the pressures that led conservative evangelicals to vote for Trump, many of whom feeling that he was the best of two awful presidential options.)
Tisby obviously has a passion for racial justice and reconciliation, as all Christians should. There are so many racial wounds that need addressing, not least, within the evangelical church.
However, until progressives like him truly welcome conservatives to the table - as conservatives - and genuinely try to understand how conservatives think and what their cherished beliefs are, and why, there will be no racial reconciliation. Either inside or outside the church.
Tisby's book is, sadly, a missed opportunity.