The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
The Color of Compromise
WHO: Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and cohost of the Pass The Mic podcast.
HE SAYS: “History and experience teaches us that there can be no reconciliation without repentance. There can be no repentance without confession. And there can be no confession without truth.”
THE BIG IDEA: In order for racial reconciliation to happen, this book reveals the church’s tendency to avoid facing the hard parts of America’s racial history. It also directs readers to racial realities that have gone unexamined.
This book takes a historical overview of the church and racism. Through 11 chapters the author discusses key events and figures in American history as an entry point to a deeper study of lesser known people and stories with significant historical and social impact. The church’s complicity in racism is unflinchingly examined.
“Ultimately, you cannot read your way, listen your way or watch your way into skillful advocacy. At some point you must act. Go forth not in fear but in faith that even your mistakes will increase your capacity to disrupt racism.”
A CONVERSATION WITH JEMAR TISBY
What inspired you to write this book at this particular time?
A combination of events inspired me to write this book. First, issues of race and justice had once again ascended to the level of national conversation through events such as the Ferguson uprisings, the murder of the Emanuel Nine, Charlottesville and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. In the midst of this dialogue, I observed that many white evangelicals resisted the idea of racial justice or had very flawed notions about it. As a result, any efforts at racial progress found limited success.
Second, I was frustrated by the lack of urgency I sensed from many evangelicals. As I read history books in my doctoral program, the issue of racism and Christianity kept cropping up. People of faith were guilty of horrible crimes against other image-bearers and, in light of the scope of the problem, relatively little has been done to materially address the past and present problem of racism. I wanted others to feel the burden I felt and be moved to act.
I wrote The Color of Compromise to help the American church recognize the depth and breadth of the problem of racism, as well as the church’s complicity in racism, so that we could move toward more effective ways to address the dilemma. It’s a book that talks about the past in order to impact the present.
What is the number one misconception the white evangelical majority church has about racism today?
White evangelicalism tends to be hyper-individualistic. A personal relationship with Christ translates to personal piety and personal initiatives to love one’s neighbor. This is not bad, it’s just not sufficient. White evangelicals tend to think of racism only in interpersonal terms—one person not liking someone else of a different race. Therefore, the solutions tend to be interpersonal as well: Grab a cup of coffee with someone who looks different, individually donate to a charity, make sure you never use the n-word (at least not in public). But again, those responses are necessary but not sufficient. And individualistic view of race and racism does nothing to dismantle the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality. White evangelicals must understand racism as it relates to powers it works out in systems and institutions, then commit themselves to provide correction and repair.
What are some steps pastors and ministry leaders can take to make their churches have an inclusive environment?
Diversity is not enough. Getting people of different races and ethnicities in the same room is only a beginning, not an end. Pastors need to work on equity, which means power gets shared across racial and ethnic groups so that all groups, especially minorities, have a say in what happens at the church or organization.
Christian institutions cannot merely celebrate racial and ethnic minorities for their presence, but value them for their perspective. Additionally, leaders must work on inclusion—making everyone feel that they count and they are welcomed, not merely tolerated. Christian leaders must also learn about the history or race in America. The Color of Compromise is merely an introduction to a vast world of research that believers should access in order to correctly understand the issue of racism in America. If you’re looking for more great resources that describe the problem of race in America, the footnotes are your friend.
In addition, racial justice means letting minorities lead the way on racial justice. Many white evangelicals have never had a pastor, professor or authority figure who was not white (or male!). It is an adjustment for many to read books by, listen to sermons or take suggestions from racial and ethnic minorities. Leaders will also have to learn from secular sources. The reality is the church lags behind much of society in efforts to pursue racial justice. Academic historians, sociologists, and leaders of other sectors from sports to entertainment have been engaged in this work a long time. It behooves Christian leaders to learn from them.
Lastly, Christians must address racial justice on a policy level. This means learning about issues such as mass incarceration, public education, voter suppression, health care and immigration in order to advocate for laws and practices that lead to human flourishing. As part of that process, white evangelicals will have to critically evaluate the almost one-to-one association between white evangelicalism and the Republican party. I’m not saying everyone should change their political affiliations, but they need to challenge elected officials from their party to enact better policies for the poor and people of color. Only when Christians demand that power be used on behalf of those who Jesus called “the least of these” will our collective Christian witness have integrity in the rest of the nation and beyond. We are “good news” people. Let’s show it not just by what we say but by what we do.