Dr. Benjamin J. Williams
Review: The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
I've come to appreciate the voice and work of Jemar Tisby. While he and I would not agree on every point of our culture's recent social arguments, I admire how Tisby combines a Christian sensibility with concern for issues of race. Reading Tisby reminds us all that the question of race does not reduce to a choice between "conservative vs. liberal" or "secular vs. Christian." Seeing the book endorsed by such conservative Evangelicals as Thabiti Anyabwile reinforces the point.
The primary argument of Tisby's text is that Christian people have been consistently complicit in the structures and behaviors of racism throughout American history. The first seven chapters outline the United States’ racial history and highlight Christian contributions to the unrighteous racial norms. The unintended consequence of Christian historians who have emphasized America's "Christian heritage" is that it makes that same Christianity responsible for our history’s sins as well, especially in the case of slavery.
Tisby is fair in mentioning a few standouts who fought the racial norms without giving up his overall case. George Whitefield "excoriated enslavers" (47), whereas Jonathan Edwards seemed "to accept slavery, so long as masters treated with enslaved persons with dignity" (50). John Wesley "found slavery appalling," but other Methodists disagreed, resulting in a split in the General Conference of 1844 (76-77). Baptists and Presbyterians had a similar history, with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) being formed explicitly to include slave owners (78). Tisby acknowledges that thousands of Christians died to end slavery in the Civil War, but also that thousands of Christians died to protect slavery in the South in that same war (70-72).
Tisby's overview of race and Christianity will be more controversial in the twentieth century, simply because people still living will offer disclaimers on Tisby's account. In the case of Billy Graham, Tisby asserts that Graham was superficial in his words on race, expecting race relations to improve locally and personally without any national action or policy changes (134-135). Graham desegregated his crusades, but in Tisby's view, Graham crafted his message with a moderation aimed at keeping his white audience.
Even more controversially, Tisby argues that the rise of the Religious Right developed with the agenda of maintaining racism without acknowledging it openly. "Since the late 1960s, the American church's complicity in racism has been less obvious, but it has not required as much effort to maintain. Nowadays, all the American church needs to do in terms of compromise is cooperate with already established and racially unequal systems" (160). Tisby argues that the Religious Right converted its racism into innocent-sounding code language, like "law and order," "accountability," and "individualism."
Tisby adds a good assessment of the Black Lives Matter motto and movement at this point. As a slogan, BLM acknowledges the image of God on every person and laments the inhuman suffering of Black Americans. Tisby acknowledges:
"The Black Lives Matter organization does not identify itself as a faith-based organization ... As a result, many evangelicals have distanced themselves from or even opposed both the Black Lives Matter organization and the phrase. But the American evangelical church has yet to form a movement as viable and potent that addresses the necessary concept that black lives do indeed matter" (180).
This assessment mirrors recent comments from my friend, Jeremie Beller: "Why is it that people put so much trust and faith in political systems and organizations like Black Lives Matter? It’s because the church has not been the voice God sent us to be."
According to Tisby, the success of the BLM social outcry should not frighten the church; it should shame us. Our failures created this mess, and we cannot ignore that culpability by scapegoating others. Our silence on race issues created a vacuum that others have filled, others who are motivated without all the church’s specific values.
Assessment & Critique
Without any disclaimer, we ought to note that Tisby is largely correct about the historical record of Christian complicity in racism. It is simply too well documented to be contested.
If anything, in some instances, I think Tisby underplays the point. Christian language was used to justify racism. Christian institutions were some of the last holdouts to give up on formalized racism. Christian people participated in the violent legacy of lynchings. These things happened, all more recently than we'd like to admit.
As a white Christian, I should be careful not to thrust myself into this debate until I have spent some time reckoning with this reality. Like Daniel of old, we must grieve and repent of the sins of our forefathers (Daniel 9:3-19). Consequently, despite the critiques which follow, I recommend this book to you for reading. It is a timely gift for the white person trying to understand how we got into this mess in the first place.
However, as a philosopher, I am troubled by one of Tisby's main premises. "Race and racism are social constructs. As society changes, so does racism" (19). I would wholeheartedly agree here, but he continues: "History demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts" (19). Tisby bases his reading of our recent history on the premise that racism must be a permanent feature of our culture. Even when he acknowledges the absence of a "'smoking gun - explicit evidence that connects the American church with overt cooperation with racism" (160), the absence of such evidence does not alter his conclusion. Racism is permanent; therefore, the historian needs only look until he finds it in "subtler forms" (155).
I agree that thus far racism has been a permanent feature in American history. Still, I am suspicious of a historical approach committed to its existence with or without evidence in a specific era. Worse, what does this premise say about our current situation? If racism is a permanent feature of our culture, then no policy shift being advanced by even the most radical social justice advocate would be able to change this. It seems like fatalism to conclude that no matter what changes, racism remains. I don't think this is Tisby's point, but it may be implicit in his premises nonetheless.
My question for Tisby would be, "Can you imagine and describe a society without racism?" I hope he would answer, "Yes," and share Martin Luther King's dream of a better day for all God's children. If the answer is, "No," then what is it we hope to accomplish here? If race and racism are social constructs, why then could we not reconstruct society? Even in that hypothetical scenario, would we be obligated to examine this new society until we uncovered racism, believing it must have adapted into more subtle forms than ever before?
It is precisely at this point that the common accusation of Marxism raises its head, and perhaps now you can see why. Tisby anticipates this objection (21), and I will agree with him that "Marxism" is a word used too casually by conservatives to paint anything they dislike. However, Marxism contains the premise that class warfare and class enmity are a permanent component of human history. For Marx, only a violent revolution from the bottom up can resolve the otherwise permanent conflict.
Tisby never advocates a violent response in this book, and I would like to believe that we can talk about racial reconciliation without Marx (who was himself a racist).
But when we speak as the gospel speaks, we speak of restoration and reconciliation. We speak of God triumphing over evil, not of a specific evil's perpetual and unwavering existence. It is the language of the permanence of class-based evil that shifts the conversation away from the gospel and back toward Marx, and it is this shift that gives a lot of Christians pause in their consideration of Tisby, whether warranted or not.
Additionally, while I generally agree with Tisby's assessment of the Black Lives Matter movement and slogan, I would note that he is not consistent in using his own argument in other applications. Tisby speaks candidly about the BLM organization, which he acknowledges has a "strong platform advocating for gay, queer, and transgender rights, a position that is contrary to a conservative evangelical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman" (180).
He explains why the motto lives on in churches anyway:
"Although opinions about the organization vary widely, the phrase itself resonated at a deep-level with numbers of Americans across the nation, and in particular it spoke to black people who sensed those words addressing a deep and painful longing - the longing for others to recognize their full, unqualified humanity. Sady, many white Christians did not realize this, and they responded with opposition" (180).
Speaking only for myself, I agree with Tisby's observation up to this point. For most black people, the organization presently co-opting the BLM motto is a non-issue. If anything, in recent history, the African American community has been more reluctant than either whites or Hispanics to trend in favor of same-sex marriage or other related goals of the LGBTQ crowd. In a 2014 Pew survey, 70% of African Americans say that homosexual behavior is a sin, compared to only 47% of white Americans (see also here). The idea that every black person - or even a majority - using the BLM motto is also advancing the LGBTQ agenda is simply and demonstrably false.
However, Tisby is inconsistent. In a previous chapter, he argues that "law-and-order" slogans were a subtle appeal to white voters, especially those with racial bigotry in their hearts. He is not wrong in this, and he predictably provides a source from the Nixon administration who acknowledged this strategy ("the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to," 160).
Still, I would counter that if I am to take BLM at face value rather than being overwrought about the political movement co-opting the motto for their agenda, then I would have to apply the same logic to "law-and-order" mottos. Certainly, many people used that language as a covert assault on the civil rights movement, but I cannot affirm that everyone did or that the language is inherently racist. Likewise, I don't argue that President Trump's "America First" is an inherently racist slogan just because it has been used so often by white supremacists. It seems that if we are going to be generous toward some slogans, then we have to be generous to all slogans.
We should always strive to be aware of the origins of mottos and words, but we cannot assume that every use of a motto carries the meaning of either its roots or the most radical application of the motto. Christians should approach all slogans with a little bit of skepticism and a whole lot of grace.
Finally, I was somewhat disappointed in Tisby's list of practical actions for the concerned Christian. I should know by now that there are no easy answers, but I was hoping he had a few. I reached the end of the book all fired up for action, but Tisby's final chapter didn't give me as much useful guidance as I had hoped.
Tisby's primary initiative is what he calls the ARC of racial justice: Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment (194). To develop greater awareness on the topic of race, Tisby recommends diversifying your social media intake and watching pertinent documentaries. To create relationships, talk candidly with people you already know about their racial experiences, as well as finding new places to hang out to broaden the scope of your relationships. In terms of commitment, Tisby suggests writing a blog post, authoring a book, or hosting a forum. While a few of these last suggestions will extend beyond the average person's reach, they are still useful. So far, so good.
From here, Tisby's suggestions become more difficult to discuss and implement:
Take Down Confederate Monuments
Learn from the Black Church
Start a New Seminary
Host Freedom Schools and Pilgrimages
Make Juneteenth a National Holiday
Participate in the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement
Publicly Denounce Racism
Start a Civil Rights Movement ... Toward the Church
I'm going to pass on discussing reparations at this point, though not for lack of interest. Tisby has a brief discussion of the biblical case for reparations (197-200), but I suspect that argument is discussed at greater length and in greater depth elsewhere. Items 3, 7, and 9 are too vague to be helpful, in my opinion, but I'd be willing to hear more. Item 4 made me laugh as I pondered how many readers of this book had it within their ability to start a seminary of any kind. Instead, items 2, 5, 6, and 8 are the most promising for the average person to engage, but even these seem like such small steps for such a large problem.
If every confederate statue came down (2) and every church made a public declaration against racism (8), would we change anyone's mind? I'm not sure, but perhaps it would be a start. Would one more national holiday (6) move the needle? Maybe, if only by making the African American story a more significant part of our calendar year. I wonder if there is any way to measure the impact of MLK Day on the national conscience.
For me, the most useful concept in this list is some version of item 5: the call for better racial and social education at the local level. Churches already have a considerable infrastructure for small groups and classroom education. We certainly can do much better at articulating the gospel's message in the area of race. We can take the lead in teaching our members how to productively engage issues of race and justice in our communities.
Our silence has contributed the most both to the perpetuation of racism's evil and the rise of questionable voices in this debate. The best solutions for regaining that moral voice today are bigger than personal choices and smaller than national policy. Churches fit into that category very neatly. Thus, Tisby gives us some hope that churches, so long the culprit in racial inequality, could now at long last be God's voice in our troubled world.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.