“If ever the book which I am not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of “the World” will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.” ~C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
As a child I was taught by my Christian community that chattel slavery and racism are objective evils. I heard sermons to this effect, and watched movies, and read books. Even so, I was not exposed to the full extent of the American church’s complicity in systemic racial injustice. As I talk more about race in my social circles and listen to the stories of other white and black evangelical Christians, I have come to believe that my experience is closer to the norm than the exception.
In this respect Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise offers a much-needed salve. From colonial times to Reconstruction, to Jim Crow and civil rights, to Black Lives Matter and the election of Donald Trump, Tisby traces the church’s complicity in racism throughout key epochs of American history. Complicity, in fact, is too kind a word. More often than not, the white church resisted black equality with malicious vigor, or fell silent when it should have been a prophetic voice and partner in the cause of liberation.
In some ways the history which Tisby sketches is a history of two entwined forces: economics and rhetoric. The settlers of the New World looked for cheap labor to meet the European demand for raw materials such as cotton and tobacco, and this became the driving incentive behind the capture and forced transfer of millions of black human beings through the so-called Middle Passage. Though many of us learn about this in history lessons, Tisby’s harrowing description of the process—the kidnapping, the sundering of families, the rape and child molestation, the physical torment, the cramming of humans in filthy dark confines for months at a time—still seems like something only the devil’s imagination could conjure.
How could white European Christians possibly condone such a brutal and sickening practice? What words did they use to justify what they knew was profoundly evil in every way? This is in large part where rhetoric comes into play. Tisby takes us back to the time of Christopher Columbus to see how the seeds of racism were sown in linguistic terms. In one of his earliest letters concerning his encounter with indigenous tribes, the notorious explorer wrote: “[They] should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion” (28). What this reveals is that an imperialistic attitude was alive among Europeans well before the African slave trade began—an attitude which asserted that darker-skinned indigenous peoples were not social equals but rather to be valued primarily in terms of their potential economic output and amenability to religious conversion.
The rhetoric of white European superiority did not directly give way to chattel slavery, at least not at first. Tisby notes that in mid-17th century in North America, some Africans were treated as indentured servants, and others were entitled to earn money and learn skilled trades (34). Unfortunately it was not long before sheer avarice lured the settlers to something far worse. To meet the growing market for goods like tobacco, it was more cost-effective to own slaves for the long term rather than to subjugate indigenous natives or hire other white Europeans to work the land. Life-long slavery thus became institutionalized, along with a whole system of governing rules and regulations. And wherever there are rules and regulations, there is rhetoric.
Tragically, the large majority of white American Christians either buttressed the system of slavery or utterly failed to challenge it, and the rhetoric they used to justify their complicity took many shapes. As one example, Tisby describes how in colonial times certain white Christians felt it was their duty to proselytize African slaves. But rather than challenge slave owners to grant their slaves both spiritual and physical freedom, the missionaries invented the message that “Christianity could save one’s soul but not break one’s chains” (38). The idea is well captured in a vow that one missionary had the converted 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 sole and to partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Note the uppercase use of “Duty” and “Obedience”—euphemisms which have the veneer of biblical truth, but conveniently sidestep verses like Galatians 5:1, 1 Corinthians 7:21, or Philemon 1:15-16—to say nothing of the bible’s narrative arc of freedom from bondage in both the literal physical and spiritual sense. Tisby shows how this narrow-minded emphasis on obedience would form the core of pastoral rhetoric for years to come.
Interestingly, during the 18th century revival known as the Great Awakening, it seemed as though something might change. Two of the American evangelical church’s greatest theologians, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, affirmed the spiritual equality of all persons. Yet Tisby points out how neither confronted slavery as a gravely unjust institution. Whitefield found he could not resist the economic incentive of cheap slave labor to cultivate a plantation he had purchased in order to fund his orphanage in Georgia. And, like most of his white peers, he perceived black people as “dangerous and brutish,” a perception which Tisby says could never be separated from the economic motive behind slavery (48).
Edwards owned slaves as well, and did not criticize his slave-owning congregants on the matter. Partly this was because it would be inconvenient, although Tisby highlights yet a deeper force at work. One feature of American evangelicalism growing at the time was an emphasis on personal salvation as distinct from a responsibility to challenge social systems. “Evangelicalism focused on individual conversion and piety,” Tisby writes. “Within this evangelical framework, one could adopt an evangelical expression of Christianity yet remain uncompelled to confront institutional injustice.”
One fumes and squirms to read of how the rhetoric grew worse during the Civil War and later in the Reconstruction period and the Jim Crow era. Some of the most infuriating passages in the book are the summaries of the debates between abolitionists and slavery advocates, the latter of whom put forward detailed expositions of scripture to sanction their bigotry. Many pro-slavery Christians held the view that the bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, but rather assumes its reality and explains how to regulate it. Having studied rhetorical theory both as an undergrad and in graduate school, I was interested to know how the abolitionists replied to this shoddy interpretation. In this I was rather disappointed. While Tisby gives some information on the topic, there are only brief sketches, and one is left with the sense that the abolitionists did not do a very good job. Is this a flaw in Tisby’s book? Perhaps not; an examination of abolitionist rhetoric is not his focus, and I doubt many readers would have the same interest in it as I do. Yet it leaves a burning question on my mind: if the abolitionists did such a poor job in their rhetoric, how did the tides turn just enough to result in a Civil War over the issue? Maybe the question is the wrong one, or maybe it is impossible to answer because there were so many complex, interrelated factors.
At any rate, Tibsy’s most illuminating analysis is how the white evangelical church’s rhetoric of racism operates today. He is forceful in his conclusion that racism hasn’t disappeared from the church, it has simply adapted and become more subtly insinuated in the way that Christians vote, comment (or fail to comment) on current events, or shy away from social activism. For instance, although modern white evangelical Christians passionately denounce racism, Tisby shows that there is often an equally passionate resistance to calls for racial reconciliation and social justice in the church (a resistance which, I am pained to say, is consistent with my own experience). It is common for white evangelicals to argue that racism is not so much a problem of social structures but a problem of the heart; therefore the solution is to transform hearts by the gospel. Tisby quotes a line from Billy Graham that is representative of this sentiment: “[T]he evangelist is not primarily a social reformer, a temperance lecturer or a moralizer. He is simply a keryx, a proclaimer of the good news.” This view isn’t wrong per se, but it is woefully incomplete, and Tisby uses historical analysis to demonstrate again and again how the church’s failure to boldly confront racist systems at the institutional level often directly contributed to incalculable violence and oppression against black communities, and prolonged the black struggle for equality. By the end of the book I was inclined to agree with his conclusion:
Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are ‘divisive.’ It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. […] Although the character and specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain.” (191)
No doubt skeptics will dismiss Tisby’s book as yet another source of white guilt, or charge him with seeking to import a Marxist narrative into Christian circles so as to steer traditionally conservative believers toward particular stances on politics and social justice. Others will interpret it as nothing more than church bashing, for the church is not portrayed in a flattering light. Or rather, the white American church is not. Tisby shows that even as the white church committed atrocious acts of racism, the black church was generally fulfilling its vocation to show care and love to its members in the face of extreme suffering and violence. (It is also worth noting that where applicable, Tisby highlights the encouraging [yet still all-too-few instances] where the white church took a courageous stand.) The Color of Compromise is a case study in how the church is itself guilty of committing egregious sin and severely damaging its own witness in the process; and yet—paradoxically, miraculously—it is also bulwark, a bastion of hope for victims, a place to worship and organize resistance. Thus Tisby is careful to argue that the injustice committed by Christians does not, in the end, damn the Christian faith. If anything, the hypocrisy of the church underscores what Jesus and the New Testament writers have known since the very beginning: the church is not Jesus, the church needs Jesus. Or put differently, the white American church did not commit injustice because it was Christian but precisely because it was not Christian enough.
Tisby contends that the white church must therefore repent of its moral failure and be reconciled to those it has wronged, and that the central message of Jesus—the gospel of grace and forgiveness—is what can and must empower this reconciliation to happen. Like a prophet of Israel calling his people to radical repentance and change, Tisby loves the church enough to document its illness and offer remedies.
We need to talk about the truth of racism in the American church’s past, not to tear down the church, but in order to build it up. The Bible talks about speaking the truth in love for a purpose—that the body might grow, and be mature, and be strengthened—and the body is the church. And so we talk about racism and the American church in order that the body might be healthy.
The final chapters of the book discuss practical actions that churches and individuals can take to find the healing and reform that Tisby envisions. Here’s a small sampling:
- Increase your awareness of racial injustice through reading and study
- Develop interracial relationships
- Create something (art, writing, music, etc.) on the topic of race
- Join a non-profit that fights racism (or make regular donations)
- Talk with others in your church about reparations (a highly controversial topic, yes, though it is noteworthy that Tisby distinguishes between “civil” and “ecclesiastical” reparations, and that an example of the latter could be for the church to pool resources towards a debt-forgiveness program for black families)
- Study and learn from the black church’s theology, teaching, music, etc.
- Make Juneteenth a national holiday
To be sure, Tisby’s proposals will bother certain white evangelicals who, like the early 20th-century Christian fundamentalists, are wary of social justice rally cries as the summum bonum that comes at the expense of inner transformation and personal relationship with Christ. Such wariness is not without warrant. It is possible to focus so exclusively on justice that the call to follow Jesus with all of one’s heart and mind is lost, and the biblical vision of holiness gets downplayed or even replaced by a new, almost blood-thirsty legalism wherein salvation is achieved through your social activist resume. Tisby does not discuss this possibility in his book at length, at least not that I recall. That does not mean he would contradict it, or that its absence negates his call to action; but I think it would have been helpful for him to address it, if for no other reason than to nuance and challenge the diagnosis with his own perspective.
One other way Tisby could have strengthened his book, and particularly his closing chapters, would have been to delve further into the challenges of interracial relationships. People do not naturally get along with people who are different than them, and this barrier is so complex and difficult to overcome that it can feel as complicated as institutional reform. Tisby argues that fear and apathy are two of the biggest hindrances. I couldn’t agree more, though I would add a few more items to the list: laziness and self-interest. Laziness is of course related to apathy; but whereas apathy usually has to do with lacking certain emotions, laziness has more to do with a commitment to exert consistent drive and energy once the appropriate emotions have been cultivated. I have known white churchgoers who feel strongly about the importance of racial diversity and rightly criticize how their church lacks it, and yet when a very doable and practical solution is presented—such as befriending the black Christians in their midst or starting to sing worship hymns borrowed from predominantly black churches—they give it some initial effort and then abandon it because they “don’t have much in common with that person” or they just “prefer a different style of music, you know?” There is both laziness and sense self-interest here in that people want to be seen and heard as woke, but stop short of the hard work it entails.
At any rate, Tisby would surely say that the dichotomy between inner transformation and social action has always been a false one. When it comes to any widespread social evil, not least one as vile and longstanding as racism, it is plain from scripture that to preach the gospel and pursue justice were never intended to be separated (one thinks of verses like Micah 6:8 and James 1:27). In the case of racial injustice, it is necessary for the church to take personal responsibility for its sins, and at the same time to confront prejudice and engage in the hard work of reform.
The good news is that neither process needs to end in guilt and despair. The message of Jesus is that regardless of the depths of one’s sin, God forgives, loves, and accepts us; and this love, rightly received as the radical gift that it is, motivates a genuine desire to seek change on both personal and institutional levels. Tisby is not to be counted among the nihilists who study racism and conclude that there is no hope for positive change. He believes there is hope—but of a kind that is not of this world.