Complicit Christianity vs. Courages Christianity: ‘The Color of Compromise’

Jemar Tisby's historical overview of the American church's complicity in racism, The Color of Compromise, will help provoke dialogue, but we face significant challenges, still.

The Color of Compromise
Jemar Tisby
Jan 2019

The church in America, generally speaking and across denominations, prefers to not talk about race. Bringing up race-based topics can lead to accusations of being “political” and “divisive” and distracting from the gospel. However, given the race-based events of the recent past (taking the killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012 as a starting point), the public conversation has finally begun to change. America’s divisions today are not greater than they were since the time of slavery, but finally, wherein it has largely remained silent, the church is beginning to have some serious conversations, both publicly and internally, about racism.

Author, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, and scholar Jemar Tisby provides a valuable resource for beginning this long-overdue conversation. His new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, offers a historical overview of exactly what its subtitle promises. As Tisby acknowledges, the book surveys that history quickly, with no intent to be definitive or comprehensive. Even so, his lucid work examines enough material to support his challenging claims, all presented in a manner that should encourage further thought and dialogue.

Tisby clearly sets out both his central premise and his reason for writing. “Historically speaking,” he says, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity” (17). Over hundreds of years, the American church has compromised its values for a number of reasons connected to race, and it has done so both through silent complicity and through active work “in creating and sustaining a racist society” (17).

This “complicity” is difficult to face, and Tisby recognizes that his writing may generate conflict. Tisby doesn’t intend to divide, but he works from the perspective of someone within the church who loves the church and has concerns about its health. He explains, “The goal is to build up the body of Christ by ‘speaking the truth in love’, even if that truth comes at the price of pain” (19). “Speaking truth in love” rarely goes easy, and while Tisby writes with a cool, non-inflammatory tone, his book, by the very nature of its content, will spark some flames with those who may take umbrage with its arguments.

The first half of the book is necessary but relatively innocuous to wary readers. Tisby traces the history of the early slave trade (including the Middle Passage), legal decisions connected to race and slavery, and the nature of race in the colonial era and the antebellum period. Up to the Civil War, the history here, while horrifying, won’t surprise readers. The church comes off poorly, as when Virginia Baptists dismisses slavery as just a “civil concern”, or when evangelist George Whitefield acquires slaves at least partly out of financial concerns. Tisby writes clearly through this section. His conflation of “casualties” with “deaths” at the Battle of Gettysburg will raise some eyebrows ,however. He notes that “51,000 combatants perished”, but the actual number, according to The Washington Post (“Gettysburg: The battle and its aftermath” by Joel Achenbach, 29 April 2013) is under 8,000; the number 51,000 refers to casualties from the battle, with over 30,000 wounded and many more missing (71). That sort of error is rare, and Tisby’s historical clarity on the church’s complicity in America’s institutionalized racism makes for a valuable foundation.

His sharpest writing begins once the book reaches the Jim Crow era (late 19th – early 20th centuries). As we move closer to the present, his telling of racist violence overall becomes less explicit (but still not just implicit), but silence on the part of the church becomes more of an indictment. Tisby tasks himself with unveiling nonexistence – the church’s complicity lies in its non-participation more than in its activity (though, again, there’s activity aplenty, and throughout his book Tisby includes information on writings on God’s will to keep races separate, work for unjust legislation, or even practicing lynching). Tisby writes, “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 social systems” (160). That is; we don’t want to rock the boat and we don’t want any dramatic changes.

By the time Tisby gets to the rise of Black Lives Matter and the 2016 US presidential election, he’s made a compelling case that the church has too often supported or ignored racism, in individual moments and – more pressingly – in systemic practices. Much of the church may not want to accept his findings for a variety of reasons. Acceptance would require an admission of guilt and facing difficult truths. It’s too easy to trot out counterexamples (like the Christian role in the abolition movement), ignore the broad history, and retreat to status quo. However, The Color of Compromise stands as a book that clergy and congregations should not only read, but also engage with. Tisby has written an introductory text on the issue, and it should serve as source of debate and a guide for educating the church-going populace.

Reader resistance – whether through prejudice, misunderstanding, or honest disagreement on complex issues – will likely really pick up on his suggestions for moving forward. The book’s motif that we had a choice at various points in history to go in a better direction offers hope that we can, at least, choose properly going forward. Tisby notes repeatedly that the US chose its path, constructing race as an idea, and choosing its brutal legislation. As he writes, “if racism can be made, it can be unmade”, hence the options presented near the end of the text (39). Some ideas – like “Do an internet search about a particular topic instead of always asking your black friend to explain an issue to you” – shouldn’t raise much debate (195). Others, like taking down Confederate monuments, are already part of the national debate. Many of the suggestions require a little personal risk. We might need to have arguments with family or church members and face some fallout. Mostly, Tisby just asks us not to be idle. He’s not calling for full-blown activism as we might traditionally conceive it so much as doing something, anything, but beginning with learning and conversation.

One suggestion has already been raising hackles in the public discourse. As Tisby writes, “Perhaps the only other ‘r-word’ more controversial to American Christians than racism is reparations” (197). Talk of reparations circles around every so often in the US media, usually brought down with the same criticisms. For example in June 2014, cultural critic Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations“, sparked considerable conversation across the nation, with conservative columnist David Brooks revisiting that article and the concept of reparations in a positive light (“The Case for Reparations“, The New York Times, 7 March 2019). Recently, Christian author, activist, and Freedom Road founder Lisa Sharon Harper, too, made a strong case for reparations on her Twitter feed. The value in her writing, as in Tisby’s, is the effort to reframe the conversation, to move it away from the sense of individual guilt and recompense and toward a nation-wide act of reconciliation. Tisby points to the specific material losses and draws on pastor and author Duke Kwon‘s work to consider both the principles and practices that would be involved, as well as the various forms available, such as civic or ecclesiastical, in beginning reparations.

All of this writing on reframing remains necessary in a society dedicated to the individual (in terms of rights, values, etc.), over the collective. Reparations are not about payment simply for past attitudes or casual grievances. In this way, we might want to consider the gap between ideas of “prejudice” (as the internal beliefs of a person, or their localized expression) and “racism” (as the systemic mode in which one group of people are oppressed based solely on the color of their skin). Reparations aren’t owed because your great-great-great-grandfather owned slaves; they’re owed because one group of people caused clear damage to the well-being and livelihood of another. They’re part of the writing of a historic wrong with continuing fallout.

Consider this analogy: if you break my window, I can forgive you, and you and I can get along again, but I still don’t have a window, and our friendship might be hindered with my cardboard pane keeping out the sunlight. Reparations help put that right. Tisby’s study on discrimination in education, real estate, shows the way that a race-based wealth gap developed in the US due to systemic racism. For just one example, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation used the practice of redlining to keep black citizens from buying homes. One group of people (mostly clearly considered here as the US government) has taken materially from another (most clearly considered here as African-Americans). Reparations seek to address not just a historical legacy but a continuing injustice resulting from centuries of injustice. Simply saying sorry or blaming previous generations doesn’t repair our society. The damage and division, as well as a related lack of trust, remain present without action that moves beyond simple apologies.

Furthermore, the idea of reparations is not simply a matter of economic reparation; it’s a matter of community reconciliation. With outstanding damage and an ignored history (the still-broken window, in a sense), two groups are unlikely to be restored or even brought into initial true community. Reparations can help bring that about through financial restitution, open conversation, and a visible systemic move toward reconciliation. The sort of work Tisby suggests – including not just reparations but also starting schools, hosting freedom pilgrimages, removing Confederate monuments, and more – ties in to our history by matching new movements to past injustices in a natural way. For example, given that blacks were denied education, churches could “fund educational opportunites”; since redlining and racist real estate practices continue to affect black home buying and wealth accumulation, churches could help with “down payments on houses” (200). Civil reparations could function similarly.

No one suggests that this process is simple or has easy answers, but the church acknowledging its complicity and desiring conversation and understanding makes for a long-overdue first step. Tisby’s work makes the church’s history of racist complicity clear and accessible as he builds a strong argument for church engagement in community building for all members of society. He knows the all-too-common rebuttals he’ll face, but his work stands up to those. He’s not focused on ascribing guilt, but on healing. For the church to participate in that healing, it’ll have to have an open heart and heed that call to “courageous Christianity”.

RATING 7 / 10