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 Matter.

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 Christian church, 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 Republican…or Democrat; 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 on slavery.”

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?

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: 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:

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 intersectionality. 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 Facing Racism 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 not structural.” 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

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