Mr. Jemar Tisby is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and a PhD candidate in history at The University of Mississippi. This is his first book, an excellent first effort in my judgement. The full title is “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism“. It seems to live up to its title and delivers a large helping of humble pie to white American evangelicals. I believe it does us good to eat up, though I will offer some brotherly critique later in this review.
The book offers a broad coverage of the ways in which white Protestants mostly tolerated, participated in, and/or defended racism in the context of American chattel slavery, beginning in the colonial period and ending in our present moment. His prose is easy to read, though the stories themselves often aren’t. He contrasts complicit and courageous Christianity, depending on whether believers swam down or up the cultural stream.
One of the tragic elements of the story is that there were several points at which the story could have taken a different turn and been better than it was. I will summarize some of these points to illustrate the shape of the narrative.
The first tragic compromise with worldly interests happened when the colonies decided that Christian baptism did not necessarily lead toward emancipation for African slaves. He explained why even people who were interested in the spiritual well-being of the slaves could support their lifelong servitude: they feared that slave owners would not allow evangelism if slave conversion would lead to the loss of their investment. The evangelists reasoned it was better for a slave to serve all of his days if he were at peace with God than to leave some or even many everlastingly beyond the reach of the gospel. This was a violation of divine law, as will be noted later.
The War for American Independence raised hopes in the slave community that black emancipation might follow from the Declaration’s “self evident [truth], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That argument’s merit was recognized by some, but, sadly, those hopes were dashed. Business was to continue as usual.
On the other hand, by the time of the Constitutional Convention, 10 out of 13 states had already banned the importation of slaves and some leaders would have thrown out the institution altogether, but the states who depended economically on slavery would not ratify the Constitution with any kind of ban. Several compromises were struck, among which were, first, that further debate on a total ban on slave importation would be deferred until 1800, and, second, that for purposes of determining the number of representatives a state would send to the House, only three fifths of slaves would count toward the state’s population. Tisby represents the “Three Fifths Compromise” as being of one piece with the project of dehumanizing blacks, but he does not comment on the fact that slave states actually wanted them all to count because this would have given slaveholders more political power, further establishing black oppression.
The antebellum period was a time in which partisans both for and against slavery developed their cases. Abolitionists argued against slavery in terms of the brotherhood and equality of all men. Defenders of slavery noted that slavery was regulated, not forbidden, by Scripture, and that many of the fathers of the faith had owned slaves without receiving any word of condemnation from God. An impasse was reached with equal justification felt by both sides.
It was with profound relief that I heard Tisby say that the best arguments against Southern slavery conceded the lack of a Scriptural ban, but appealed to the difference between contemporary slavery and that in Biblical times. Most damning, divine regulations were not at all respected with respect to kidnapping with intent to sell into slavery (Ex. 21:16), limitations on discipline (Ex. 21:26, 27), prohibitions against returning runaway slaves to their masters (Deu. 23:15), and mandatory emancipation for covenant members (Ex. 21:2). The problem, Tisby reflects, is that this argument was more subtle than the plain yea or nay that both sides wanted and required the use of some extra-Biblical sources for historical context, which was easy for some to reject out of hand. Sometimes the truth is more nuanced and subtle than either side in a conflict wants to admit.
After the Civil War, slaves were freed by the passage of the 13th amendment by a radical Republican Congress and given the rights of citizenship by the 14th amendment. What Congress could not bring about was peace or affection between whites and blacks. In fact, Northern whites were not, by and large, any less racist than Southern whites. (Tisby quotes Lincoln in one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates to the effect that he did not wish to bring about legal and social equality of blacks with whites.) After a wave of reconstruction legislation that may have had more interest in rubbing defeat in the faces of the seceding South than in elevating black people, political winds blew another direction and America continued to be unkind to its black citizens. What followed was a regime of written and unwritten laws designed to “keep the Negros in their place”. In the South, it was called Jim Crow. I am not yet equipped to say much more about this now, but I would encourage people to read the accounts given by Tisby and other reputable historians.
The Civil Rights Movement up through the present
In the face of oppression, black Americans fought to gain the exercise of the rights that they had been nominally granted and actually deprived of by contrived and terrorist means. Evangelical Christians, whose approach to this struggle is the focus of the book, were divided between outright racist antagonists, diffident moderates, and a few outright supporters of the struggle for Civil Rights. As told by Tisby, it undermines the idea held by some Christians that evangelical doctrines as held by their forefathers will automatically resolve American racial divisions. Like the Holy Spirit, the implications of good doctrines themselves can be quenched if other aspects of theology are neglected. This leads us to his recommendations for helpful ways to fight racism.
How to Faithfully Respond
Tisby lays out a series of recommendations he has developed over the years that he has been teaching on this subject. He organizes it under the acronym of A.R.C., which stands for Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment. You can read his own recommended action steps under each heading here.
I am not an authority on these matters: I am just a Christian man with an interest in dealing honestly with men and women made in the image of God. I am human and stand in need of present and future forgiveness from anyone I have a relationship with. With that said, I would like to address each of the headings his recommendations fall under.
Love calls all people (including whites) to move beyond domination, paternalism, ignorance, frustration, and fear. False assumptions melt when we face the truth. Racist slaveholders maintained their belief in black inferiority by denying them education and self-expression. Racist white supremacists maintained their fearful contempt by refusing to spend time with blacks or allow their children to be educated with black children. It turns out the beauty of divine workmanship can only be denied with effort and distance.
Follow his links. Find others to add to them. Know black thinkers, writers, and artists, particularly the Christian ones. Two I highly commend to you, though they don’t necessarily say all the same things, are Thomas Sowell and Anthony Bradley.
Let me urge white believers like myself to seek Christian relationships with black people, whether they are believers or not. To illustrate, let me quote Doug Wilson:
The current received wisdom among respectable white folks is that ethnic harmony can be achieved if only they adopt the demeanor and posture of a guilty Labrador Retriever who ate the slippers. But you cannot develop a relationship with your brother by crawling on your belly. Stand up, look your brother in the eye, and talk to him like you were both Christians.Blog post: “Minneapolis Burning and Black Privilege“
Healthy, equitable relationships across racial lines flow from humility and truth, not guilt and shame. The cross of Christ allows us to move beyond our own sin into loving communion with God and fellow creatures.
This is naturally the hardest category. He recommends that we show black brothers and sisters at least as much loyalty as many show their favorite sports teams. If others smear them, we should feel offended. We should interrupt false stereotypes with the truth. He recommends writing a poem, a blog post, or a sermon that affirms, loves, and defends our brothers and sisters. I hope this review counts toward that goal, at least somewhat.
My brother Jemar Tisby is a clear thinking and well educated man. He is better read than me in these subjects and I look forward to learning from him in the future. That said, I would like to critically engage in two areas:
Brother Tisby goes on a bit further about commitment in the book than he does in the article linked above. He thinks justice would involve reparation, which dictionary.com defines as “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” I think I agree with that, within limits.
Tisby criticizes individualistic evasions of the idea of restitution, when whites essentially say “I am not responsible for my grandfather’s actions”. I have mixed feelings about this. My own reading of Bible stories like David and the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21) is similar to that expressed in this article at the Gospel Coalition: “But I Wasn’t There“. Innocent blood seems to still cry out from the ground and we can’t leave it unacknowledged, but it isn’t a simple matter to put to rest, even if you accept the need to do so.
As Tisby references, the law of God requires restitution for things stolen, ranging from 2-5 times the amount stolen (Ex. 22). In cases where specific theft could be established, such as those outrageous cases Ta-Nehisi Coates references in his famous essay, “The Case for Reparations“, I would fully support restitution if possible. On the other hand, with regard to what some call “white affirmative action” (eg. the Homestead Act, the GI Bill, federal distortions of the housing markets, etc.), I am diffident, since I doubt they were legitimate acts of government to begin with and I don’t think we should be seeking a parity of immoral government sponsorship between the races. Though I am seeking to keep an open mind, there are always going to be philosophical differences about what would constitute a satisfactory conclusion. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, closure with history’s wrongs will probably always be imperfect and inconsistent.
The presumed meaning of economic disparities
There is more than one view of the current status of black Americans and whether they are getting a fair shake. In my reading of his “Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?“, Thomas Sowell distinguishes two phases in the Civil Rights Movement: the first was one in which blacks sought equal protection from the law; the second was one in which they sought equal outcomes from the law. Tisby seems to be onboard with thinking both are inequities requiring political remedy. Sowell, on the other hand, disputes identifying unequal outcomes as primarily or even substantially resulting from unfair discrimination and warns about the negative consequences of seeking political remedies to natural inequities between communities. I for one find him very persuasive. None of the books I have read that purport to fight against modern racism ever interact with Sowell, the very large elephant in the room. I realize it exceeds Tisby’s goals with this book, but the automatic assumption of injustice in disparities is something I want to see examined by Christians.
White Christian believers need to face our heritage of complicity with the abuse of black images of God. Even saints have feet made of clay, brothers. I believe this book is a good entry to that conversation. My hope for this conversation is that believers will be bound together in love and will be encouraged to pursue both the justice and forgiveness our Lord calls us to embody before the world.