Revisit the literature that set you free–or set you on fire!
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s
Complicity in Racism
Jemar Tisby traces the history of the Christian church’s involvement in practices of racism and the use of Christian theology to promote racist ideas in the United States. As a loyal son of the church, Tisby doesn’t pull punches. He lays bare many of the moments when Christians in the US collaborated with evil. He retraces instances in which they participated in oppressing Black and Brown citizens of our country, justifying the inequality among the races and punishing those who tried to work for equity.
Tisby warns his readers that this is difficult history. Many of us will think “that’s not real Christianity” and will resist equating these events with Christian complicity. Others will think “that’s not me or my people now, so let’s not dwell on it; it only causes problems.” One of his greatest contributions is the attempt to help readers wrestle with these objections.
What is especially vital about his book is that Tisby is not saying that we should reject Christianity because of its practioners’ complicity with racism. He calls for “courageous Christianity.” Further, Tisby outlines all the ways that Black Christians have made Christianity their own. They have used it to promote justice and human flourishing even as they spread the gospel. It is especially important to have books like this by strong faithful believers like Tisby. All too often those who are reminding us of these facts also think that Christianity must be rejected. They view Christianity as a colonizing religion that’s too corrupt to be salvaged.
When Baptism Didn’t Mean Freedom
Tisby starts with four chapters on the pre-Civil War era, tracing the challenges English-speaking Christians had with integrating people of African descent. Baptism didn’t confer freedom they decided. African people and Native Americans were the object of missionary concern, but never considered fully equal as Christians or ministers. The evangelical movement and religious revivals resulted in both Native American and Black converts, including enslaved people. The theology of evangelicals required them to believe in such conversion. Yet, some of these evangelicals called for the ending of slavery, but still no spiritual equality.
One of the most challenging chapters is “Defending Slavery at the Onset of the Civil War.” There, Tisby describes how Christians used the Bible and Christian theology to explain and defend racist ideas and slavery itself. Few White Christians argued scripturally for the equality of Black people. Still, many churches split over slavery before the Civil War.
After the war, during Reconstruction, it seemed as if Christian denominations would embrace Black sisters and brothers on equal terms. But, sadly, the institution of segregation and Jim Crow infiltrated most churches as well.
Fault Lines, and Where Fault Lay
Tisby breaks new ground in his revelation of the ways in which Northern churches were complicit in institutionalizing segregation and racial inequality. Too often Northern and Western folk in the United States congratulate themselves on not being like “the South.” However, throughout the 20th century Christians across our country resisted the hard work of integration and full equality within the Body of Christ.
Tisby takes the story through the Civil Rights era and the ways Christian moderates stayed out of the work of dismantling racist laws. After Jim Crow ended, White Christians fled integrated school systems in droves. They joined the cry for “law and order” which led to racial inequities in our justice and prison systems.
Say Amen, Accept It, and Share It
Tisby ends his book with observations on the current moment where many White Christians see the Black Lives Matter movement as an enemy. They may want to avoid conversations about social justice. He provides a list of actions and initiatives that he thinks are necessary for Christians in the United States. Many of these have become even more public conversations since Tisby’s book was published. Clearly dare his own speaking, writing and organizing ministry has contributed to putting these on the front row.
I first met Tisby when I invited him to be a plenary speaker at an undergraduate conference to speak on “The Historian as Activist.” His book was published four months later, and I had it on pre-order. I have benefitted from his ministry and scholarship and my students were profoundly transformed by the vision of a Christian who thinks about how their scholarship can bless the world.
So I’m not a neutral reviewer. But I have read few history books that cover this ground in as accessible a manner. This is difficult reading, but not because the writing is obtuse. It’s well organized and covers most of US history in a short volume. I recommend it to all who want Christianity to remain vital and engaged in the world we live in, and who are not faint of heart.