Review of The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
As I write this review, the United States is still experiencing
the aftershocks of the death of George Floyd at the hands of—or
rather under the knee of—Derek Chauvin.
Books about racism
and antiracism are topping bestseller lists, and protests
continue all over the country. Organizations and companies
that normally do not comment on political events or
racism are issuing formal statements of solidarity with the
black community in America, including support for Black Lives
Any issue that is sufficiently complex and emotionally charged
is bound to be at least somewhat controversial, and racism in
America is no exception. As with so many other issues, the
debate has become politically polarized. Within the
there is an additional dimension to the debate:
Are the secular voices that are loudly calling for change
promoting agendas that are consistent with the gospel?
Or are they driven by Marxist or other anti-Christian goals?
Does the church have a distinctively Christian perspective to
bring to the issue of racism?
Jemar Tisby’s book The Color of Compromise,
published in 2019, is a timely contribution to the conversation.
Subtitled The Truth About the American Church’s
Complicity in Racism, the book’s goal is to
tell the history of racism in the American church, and
to call the church to act immediately to end racism.
Progress is possible, but we must learn to discern
the difference between complicit Christianity and
courageous Christianity. Complicit Christianity
forfeits its moral authority by devaluing the image
of God in people of color. Like a ship that has a
cracked hull and is taking on water, Christianity has
run aground on the rocks of racism and threatens to
capsize—it has lost its integrity. By contrast,
courageous Christianity embraces racial and ethnic
diversity. It stands against any person, policy,
or practice that would dim the glory of God reflected
in the life of human beings from every tribe and tongue.
These words are a call to abandon complicit Christianity
and move toward courageous Christianity.
The greatest strength of the book is its thorough chronicling of
the sorry history of slavery and racism in the United States, with special
emphasis on the role of the American church.
Many of his examples will be familiar to those who have
read other books, such as
Divided by Faith
(which Tisby cites)
or Evangelical Does Not Equal
for example, Tisby discusses in some detail
Billy Graham and Bob Jones University.
However, Tisby relates countless other examples.
The first incident described in the book
took place in September, 1667, when the
Virginia General Assembly, made up of Anglican men,
was being pressured on the one hand by missionaries
who wanted to evangelize and baptize slaves, and on
the other hand by plantation owners who did not want
to lose slave labor. According to Tisby, “It
had been a longstanding custom in England that Christians,
being spiritual brothers and sisters, could not enslave
one another.” Yet the assembly decided that baptism
would not confer freedom upon slaves.
This was not an isolated incident. Tisby quotes a vow
that Francis Le Jau, a missionary of the Society for the
Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, would make
his African converts recite:
You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation
that you do not ask for holy baptism out of any design to free
yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your master
while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to
partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the Members of
the Church of Jesus Christ.
This same general attitude persisted through the Great
Awakening. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards both
owned slaves and did not push for abolition. Tisby
tells an interesting story about Whitefield that I was
previously unaware of. Whitefield founded an orphanage
called Bethesda, in Georgia. The orphanage faced
financial difficulties, but Whitefield thought he had
found a solution; he purchased a plantation and planned
to use the profits to fund the orphanage. Vital to this
plan was free slave labor, so Whitefield, previously a
moderate on the issue of slavery, began to lobby
actively to make Georgia a slave state.
Tisby describes the strain that the issue of slavery,
and the Civil War, placed on various denominations. I already
knew that the African Methodist Episcopal Church started
because Rev. Absalom Jones and other black
worshipers were forced to leave a segregated area of
St. George’s Methodist church while they were in
the middle of praying. I also knew that many denominations
split in the mid-nineteenth century. But I did not know
that Methodists split over whether a bishop could own
slaves, that Baptists split over whether missionaries
could own slaves, and that Presbyterians split over
the Gardiner Springs Resolutions, which “called
all Presbyterians to pledge their allegiance to the
federal government and, by implication, to its stance
Perhaps the most sickening passages in the book are the
graphic descriptions of the lynchings of Luther and Mary Holbert
and Mary Turner. Though Tisby does not claim that the church
actively promoted lynching, he does say that “the practice
could not have endured without the relative silence, if not
outright support, of one of the most significant institutions
in America—the American church.”
Tisby is careful to document that during the Jim Crow era,
racism was a nationwide phenomenon and was not limited
to the South. He quotes
Linda Gordon, “It’s estimated that 40,000
ministers were members of the [Ku Klux] Klan, and these people
were sermonizing regularly, explicitly urging people
to join the Klan.“ The Pentecostal movement,
which experienced a remarkable revival on Azusa Street
in Los Angeles, experienced pressure to segregate.
The Church of God denomination initially promoted
integrated gatherings. Eventually, at the request of
a black minister and his supporters who desired more
autonomy, the denomination permitted a separate black
General Assembly so long as it was overseen by a white man.
Even Charles Parham, [William] Seymour’s erstwhile
mentor, began to sharply criticize Seymour and the
Azusa Street revival. He disdained their meetings
“because of their ‘disgusting’
similarity to ‘Southern darkey camp meetings.’ ”
By the time leaders had gathered to form the Pentecostal
Fellowship of North America in 1948, not a single
predominantly black Pentecostal denomination was
invited to join. Although poor whites and blacks
continued to mingle in more rural areas, the nationwide
Pentecostal movement had become divided by race.
Turning to more recent history, Tisby records the backlash
that the famous Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka
Supreme Court decision received in certain Christian quarters.
For example, G. T. Gillespie, the president emeritus of a
Christian school, Bellhaven College, gave a speech to the
Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1954 on a
“Christian View of Segregation.” In it, he
gave a natural law argument, saying that “segregation
is one of nature’s universal laws.” He quoted the
passage from Leviticus about not mixing different types
of seed, cattle, or fabric, and concluded that “the same
principle would apply with even greater force with respect
to human relations.”
Many more examples could be cited from Tisby’s book,
far too many to list in a review. He is careful
to get his facts right, and strives to be even-handed.
Let me give three examples where I think Tisby is more careful
than many other authors who write about similar topics.
But Tisby is not only concerned with recounting facts.
He is deeply concerned with calling the church to action.
This is highly commendable; I have found that many Christians
who are otherwise “theologically correct” seem curiously
phlegmatic when it comes to taking any concrete steps to fight racism.
So what is it that Tisby wants the church to do?
- He takes the time, on page 84, to address the claim that
the Bible permits slavery. In a nutshell, Tisby argues that
the slavery of the ancient Near East was qualitatively different
in several ways from the slavery of the American South. Most
other people condemn Christians for using the Bible to justify
slavery without ever bothering to address the plain fact that
the Bible does indeed never condemn slavery.
Though he criticizes Billy Graham, he does acknowledge that
‘at a crusade in 1953, Graham personally took down ropes
segregating black and white seating in the audience.
“Either these ropes stay down, or you can go on and
have the revival without me,” he said.’
- He gives an accurate account of Michael Brown’s
death, saying, “A Department of Justice report released
in March 2015 indicated, however, that all the shots had
hit Brown from the front and that he likely did not have
his hands up when this happened.”
In Chapter 11, “The Fierce Urgency of Now,”
Tisby introduces what he calls the “ARC” of
racial justice, which stands for Awareness, Relationships,
and Commitment. Increasing your personal awareness of racism and
building relationships with people from different racial
and ethnic backgrounds are, or should be,
uncontroversial activities. The third step,
commitment, is potentially more controversial,
but even here, Tisby’s recommendations at the
individual level are hard to argue with, e.g.,
write something about racism, do a Sunday School class,
host a forum, support an organization that advocates for
racial justice, speak with political candidates about their
views on racial justice, and vote. It is when Tisby makes
broader recommendations at a community or national level
that he really ventures into controversial territory.
Here is a list of the section headings in Chapter 11.
Again, some of these items are more controversial than others, but
my concern here is not to go through them one by one and state whether
I agree or disagree. Instead, I would like to take a step back and
view what Tisby says
through the lens of three questions that I have been learning to ask
when reading or listening to Christian books and videos about racism:
- 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
- Faith without works is dead
Tisby makes some effort to avoid coming across as politically partisan.
He is aware that he criticizes the administrations of Nixon, Reagan,
and Trump, and not of any recent Democratic president,
but on page 156 he explicitly states,
“This emphasis on the Republican Party should not be construed
as tacit support for the Democratic Party.” He also shows some
sensitivity to the question of whether to support a particular
organization when it is a mixture of good and bad. On page 184, he writes:
- Is the discussion politically partisan?
- Is the discussion thoroughly grounded in the Bible or does it
simply follow what secular voices are saying about racism?
- In particular, does the author draw a clear line between what
the Bible teaches and what so-called “critical race theory”
Many Christians may agree with the principle that black lives matter,
but they still wonder whether they should get involved with an
organization that espouses beliefs contrary to their religious
convictions. There is no single answer that will fit every person’s
situation. … Ultimately, the organizations with which one
chooses to affiliate in the cause of antiracism is a matter of
conscience. The only wrong action is inaction.
On the other hand, in his discussion of the Reagan administration
on page 169, Tisby says:
Yes, there were some positive signs, but overall Reagan’s
advocacy of black civil rights was less than enthusiastic. Whatever
their intentions, when the Religious Right signed up to support
Reagan and his views, they were also tacitly endorsing an administration
that refused to take strong stances toward dismantling racism.
Here we see further complicity with institutional racism as conservative
Christians chose to support certain elements of the Republican platform.
In this passage, Tisby does not seem to leave room for a Christian
who sees good and bad in both the Democratic Party and the Republican
Party but who chooses, on the basis of conscience, to support the
Republican Party as the lesser of two evils. Instead, a Christian
who supports “certain elements of the Republican platform”
is automatically guilty of “complicity” with a political
party that is not sufficiently antiracist. But wouldn’t
a Christian who supports the Democratic Party be complicit in a
different set of sins (or even the same sin—perhaps the
Democratic Party would also have been insufficiently antiracist)?
Tisby never brings this up. Being complicit
with racism is the only sin of complicity discussed in the book, and
there is no discussion of other institutional sins that one might
be complicit with. The tacit implication is that there is nothing
else as important as racism and if you are complicit in racism then
you are necessarily on the wrong side.
What about basing his recommendations on a thoroughly biblical
theology of justice? Here Tisby, in my opinion, is very weak.
There is hardly any attempt in Chapter 11 to justify any of his
recommendations biblically. The most he does is quote a few
Bible verses in his discussion of reparations. For someone who
has an MDiv from Reformed Theological Seminary, this omission
is rather surprising. One might expect at least a general
overview of biblical justice, even if there is no blow-by-blow
prooftexting of every specific policy recommendation. But
there is nothing of that sort in the book.
As for “critical race theory,” I should first explain what I mean
by the term.
There is a vocal contingent within the evangelical church that is
sounding the alarm about a certain ideology that goes by various names
such as cultural Marxism or critical theory and
The topic is complex and this review is not the place to explain it in detail;
instead, I will just point the reader to
a concise and thoughtful discussion by Kelly Hamren
and a strong warning against critical theory
by Neil Shenvi.
(See also my review of White Fragility.)
My own view is that there are some valid concepts
in these theories, and I do not believe that they are as categorically
incompatible with Christianity as people like Shenvi maintain;
at the same time, I do believe that
Christians who are unfamiliar with critical theory are in serious danger of
slipping into theologically questionable territory if they are not careful.
It is therefore important to draw a clear line between
a biblical view of justice, and
attractive-sounding but anti-Christian views coming from critical theory.
So is Tisby unduly influenced by critical theory?
There are certain telltale phrases and claims that tend to betray such influence.
For example, there is the startling claim
that only whites can be racist. The study guide
published by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) says,
“When blacks harbor prejudice against whites, or
Latinas/Latinos are bigoted towards Asian Americans,
this cannot be accurately called racism because it is
Other telltale terms include white fragility,
hegemony, and internalized oppression.
Tisby’s book does not contain any of these indicators
of more extreme forms of critical theory.
On the other hand, Tisby does adopt some
more moderate language that is often
associated with critical theory, such as the term antiracist,
the claim that
race is a social construct (page 27) or the use of
the term white supremacy to mean not just the Ku Klux Klan
but, as Wikipedia puts it,
“a social system in which white people enjoy structural advantages
(privilege) over other ethnic groups, on both a collective
and individual level, despite formal legal equality.”
More subtly, some of the actions recommended by Tisby are
also enthusiastically pursued by hardcore supporters of critical theory.
On page 211, Tisby writes:
Publicly denouncing racism should also include disassociating
with racists. If someone has been called out for racism,
and they refuse to accept responsibility for the harm they
caused—whatever their intent—then that person should
not enjoy continued credibility and attention. Refuse to go to
their conferences, buy their books, quote them on social media,
or share their work. All of this can be done without rancor
but with conviction.
Although this kind of behavior is radical, I can see it being
justifiable in certain cases. However, in contemporary American culture,
which is strongly influenced by critical theory, there is a serious
danger lurking here that might go unnoticed if one is not careful.
First of all, critical theorists define racism in such a way that
virtually everyone is a racist. (Even though only whites can be
racist, someone who is ostensibly not white can be considered white
if they are suffering from internalized oppression.)
On top of that, notice that Tisby does not say,
“if someone is a racist”; rather, he says,
“if someone has been called out for racism.”
Nowadays, just about anyone is
vulnerable to being called out for racism.
Tisby further emphasizes that the perpetrator should be punished
whatever their intent,
and does not make it clear how to establish whether harm has
really been caused when the accused disputes the facts.
What if someone is “called out for racism” baselessly?
Disassociating with someone who has been wrongly accused of racism
is itself an act of injustice.
In today’s world, that is not at all a far-fetched scenario.
If Tisby is recommending behavior that can so easily cross the line
into injustice, then it behooves him to issue a warning,
but he does not do so.
This general lack of caution about the potential dangers of
following secular culture down wrong pathways,
rather than any specific recommendation,
is what concerns me most about Tisby’s book.
Despite this major caveat, The Color of Compromise is still on
my list of books that I would recommend to other Christians.
A thorough knowledge of the history of racism in America, and the role
that the church has played, is essential for every thinking Christian.
Moreover, I agree with Tisby that action is needed, and that most of
his recommendations are at least worth discussing seriously.
Even if one disagrees with Tisby’s specific suggestions,
I believe that it would be
a serious mistake to regard racism as being a thing of the past,
and that there is little if anything that the church needs to do today
to combat it.
The present time is a crucial moment in history when racism is
occupying the nation’s attention, and now more than ever,
it is vital for the
church to stand up for biblical justice.
Posted August 2020