The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Melissa Rovig Vanden Bout is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Trinity Christian College.
How shall American Christians understand our relationship to racism? There are a great many possibilities open to us, and our present time functions as a crucible for this decision. We could deny the scope or power of racism, locate it in a past beyond our reach, or defend it as justified. We could study it, conduct internal audits within our institutions, or decide that being a part of the Body includes interposing our bodies between oppressed and oppressor. We could even simply equate Christianity with racism, so as either to renounce the faith as unworthy worship or adopt the heresy that God is a white supremacist.
Enter Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. He is not the first historian to use his training in service of illuminating American Christianity’s role in slavery, Jim Crow, or the manifestations of racism in our ostensibly “color-blind” present. Nor does the book attempt an entirely new take or uniquely exhaustive survey of this theme. What drives this work and sets it apart is the author’s superlative understanding of the state of our current conversation and his deeply charitable approach in removing barriers to an honest reckoning of American Christianity’s choices to accommodate white supremacy. This depth of insight is well-matched by a concluding section that directs readers to individual and collective next steps, and which shares an inspiring vision for Christian leadership in this area. If you have been looking for Christian scholarship to aid your own understanding and witness, or are in search of a resource on racism well suited for a Christian classroom or church book group, this may be it.
Given its complex metamorphosis over time, offering a concise history of racism is a tall order, even when limited to a single nation (the United States of America) and focused on one demographic (Christians). Tisby’s book explicitly shares his decision processes with the reader: for example, defining what a historical “survey” is, and explaining his preference for representational rather than exceptional examples (the text hints wryly that the reason we know the names of the Christians who were exceptions to prevailing acceptance and support of racism is that there weren’t many of them). This habit of equipping readers with opportunities to practice the intellectual habit of discernment is part and parcel of the work.
Approaching racism through the lens of compromise and complicity is another strategic choice. In terms of the dominant culture within the U.S., we are habituated to imagining racism as static and as restricted to the field of overt action matched with consciously articulated motive. Knowing this, Tisby opens the book with an excerpt from a speech given by a young lawyer to the local all-White businessmen’s club, in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This potent address apportions responsibility not only to the bomber but to the speaker himself, his neighbors, even the church—all who, in Tisby’s words, “were complicit in allowing an environment of hatred and racism to persist” (14). Against the backdrop of a bombed church and murdered children, the author sets forth a claim that anchors the work: “the most egregious acts of racism … occur within a context of compromise” (14). From this opening account to the last page, readers are presented with the idea that rather than being primarily a matter of disparate individual acts, racism is best understood as something we create together with our combined decisions for action and inaction. It is within this broader context of compromise and even active defense of racism that the reader is challenged to become a “courageous” Christian. A Christian response to racism will require not only understanding, but the kind of understanding that leads to action, and reading this book is not a passive experience. Tisby’s expressed goal is that the church would “[see] the roots of racism” in America and “be moved to immediate and resolute antiracist action” (16), for “if racism can be made, it can be unmade” (39).
The opening chapters document the process of what the author calls the “construction” of race in early colonial America, introducing readers to the way racial divisions and social distinctions worked, highlighting distinct steps from the indentured servitude of free Europeans and Africans in early years, moving closer and closer to what would become chattel slavery and the “one-drop” rule. Later chapters sketch the role of racism through religious shifts like the Great Awakening and political watersheds like the formulation of the Constitution and the Civil War all the way up to the Black Lives Matter movement.1 At each juncture Tisby shows readers that our particular path towards slavery, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration was not a historical inevitability. It was not written in stone that America must become a place built by the coerced labor of trafficked Africans and their descendants, locked in a perpetual slavery for two and a half centuries. For example, if renowned Methodist leader George Whitfield had not decided to compromise his belief that the abuse visited on enslaved people was sinful, some of our history might be otherwise. Instead, concerned about the prospects of a pet charity and willing to regard the presence of Black Americans as a potential threat to White people like himself, he lobbied Georgia’s political leaders to change the designation of Georgia’s founding as a free territory in order to facilitate his ability to buy more slaves and thereby ensure continued financial safety of his Christian orphanage (47-48).
Tisby’s survey of the history of American Christian accommodation to racism is utterly convincing. Consider, for instance, the way community and religious leaders responded to slave owners’ fears regarding whether baptism would impinge upon slavery. Faced with pressure from slaveholders and concerns that baptism would potentially indicate full equality as between co-heirs to God’s Kingdom, the Virginia Assembly issued a decision rendering baptism moot in relation to the legal status of slaves. European missionaries, along with White colonial and American religious leaders, redacted the gospel message offered to enslaved Africans and Indigenous groups in an attempt to make spiritual equality amenable to physical oppression.
No one whose history education provided them with grotesquely sanitized versions of the slave trade and associated horrors will easily forget either Tisby’s spare, piercing descriptions or the burning authority of the direct testimonies he shares. Likewise, the sections on the Civil War with its leadup and aftermath offer an important corrective to Lost Cause mythology, which Tisby traces through its various iterations. Abundant documentation makes it impossible for the reader to escape the realization that the Christian faith was intimately bound up in defending slavery, segregation, lynching, and other manifestations of white supremacy. Tisby outlines overt theological defenses of these practices and shows readers the pattern of Christian institutions choosing to treat the dignity and value of Black lives as an area perpetually open for compromise. Readers will note that when Tisby writes about American Christianity, he focuses almost exclusively on Protestant traditions; this is in keeping with his decision to focus on broad and representative patterns in history. Arguably, it also serves to highlight for readers a number of connections to current claims about racism. Influential traditions like Evangelical and Baptist denominations and related sources (ordained clergy, publishing houses, media companies, and educational institutions) dominate our current cultural conversations and serve, for better and for worse, as proxies for American Christendom. Those interested in the history of American Catholicism or specific Protestant traditions will want to explore additional resources.
Subsequent chapters complicate the popular narrative which imagines the South the sole locus of racist animosity and the North an oasis of equality. Tisby summarizes opposition from predominantly White churches to the approach and scope of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, including a particularly poignant analysis of Billy Graham as an example of the “white moderate” of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Readers will encounter a perspective on recent history that might be as foreign to them as events much further removed in time, including contemporaneous perceptions of Dr. King among White Christians, an analysis of the Black Power movement, the rise of the religious right as a locus of political power, and the role of the IRS in desegregating Christian schools. Though antipathy to the Black Lives Matter movement functions as a sort of shibboleth in some Christian quarters, Tisby gives the genesis and broader context for the movement so necessary for understanding it, and asks the hard questions about Christian responses to affirming that, yes, Black lives matter.
For Tisby, history is a continuum intimately connected to today and a source of insight and reflection that can (and should) influence our actions. In his hands, a faithful account of history includes testifying to God’s presence as well as grieving sin, the better on the one hand to help us expect God’s continued redemption, and on the other to help guide our choices. On any given page the reader will find evidence of love of the church, love of God, and love of truth. This is not mere personal approbation of the author, but an attempt to capture the method of the work. The modes Tisby employs in his writing are themselves a refutation of the sorts of excuses offered as to why White Christians should not strive to come to terms with racism, why we should not treat racism both as pressing and as impinging upon our identity as Christ followers. The argument and strategies are all of a piece. Tisby contends that one clear through line of American history is the story of American Christians’ decisions to compromise their faith in order to protect white supremacy, that this choice is not an exception but the rule, and that we can reject such compromise and choose instead to be courageous.
In service to this goal, the work eschews a debate approach, which in this kind of accessible introduction to a contested area of scholarship can tend to cement bad faith responses, further hardening positions and encouraging an oppositional mindset. A debate approach is most helpful when audience members possess a basic understanding to undergird their engagement, and also when the point of debate hinges on reason, not on unexamined biases or feelings of fear and guilt. Drawing from his expertise in navigating and facilitating such understanding of racism among Christians, Tisby chooses to name, describe, and narrate for his readers a way around a number of barriers they may be facing. These barriers are not merely hazards which might complicate readers’ entry into the text; they also function as constant companions as we read and respond to it. In characteristically direct but charitable fashion, Tisby’s first chapter offers as a section heading, “Why The Color of Compromise May Be Hard to Read.” In it, he simply names the ways that many of us attempt to inoculate ourselves against the work necessary if we are to come to grips with this history of complicity. Among them are the usual suspects: importing a simplistic partisan political lens, invoking “cultural Marxism,” characterizing social justice as antithetical to Christianity, and so on. In a disarming move, Tisby offers the historical record detailed in his book as the totality of his own response to these claims, though he directs curious readers to further resources in a footnote. He writes:
Other books more pointedly respond to the ways people attempt to explain away or deflect claims of racism. In this book the stories themselves tell the tale of racial oppression. It is up to the reader to determine whether the weight of historical evidence proves that the American church has been complicit with racism. (21)
Because the book is written not only to those who are defensive when talking about racism but also to those to whom this history is new and in direct conflict with what they have been taught, this section includes guidance on how to endure the emotional process of coming to grips with American Christianity’s complicity in racism. And finally, because this book is written to all American Christians rather than to White American Christians, Tisby speaks directly to readers for whom the central claim of the book is not news, who have long known that American Christianity is tangled up with white supremacy. To these readers he offers affirmation and a profoundly Christian vision of God’s action and desire with regard to justice. Uniting these several vectors of his intended audience is a repeated call to action, to action motivated by and directed to a Christian vision of the good.
Anyone who has facilitated discussion about racism in a diverse group of people—whether in the classroom, in a church fellowship hall, over Thanksgiving dinner, or on social media—will recognize the patterns and groups Tisby appeals to. Truly, he has understood and loved his audience. A good teacher, he accepts no excuses, but he offers this deep and abiding kindness: he will walk readers from all of these starting points through this difficult history. He offers this hopeful assessment: that because the ugly truth is not simply immutable fact but something that was constructed, it is thus something that can be deconstructed. The charity exhibited here is humbling. Readers who are already persuaded that anti-racism is a necessary aspect of Christianity may be impatient with Tisby’s forbearance, but will be equally relieved that he does not minimize or placate. This work assumes rather than defends the position that an authentic Christianity is essentially and necessarily opposed to horrors like lynching and to the everyday brutality of racial profiling, and does not devote time to arguing that to accommodate such horrors is to wrong the Gospel. This choice might be credited as a basic position of trust and hospitality from Tisby toward his readers, given that the work’s intended audience is his fellow Christians (this is a Zondervan imprint). In other contexts and for other audiences, such a defense might be necessary.
The one omission to the work’s exquisitely balanced framework might be a missed opportunity to share with readers the rich theology and praxis of historically Black church traditions in our modern context. Readers might be forgiven for not having learned from this text to regard the Black church as a present source for more than helpful practices of lament and celebration, valuable as they are. Tisby’s early celebration of the Christian faith of enslaved Africans notes the way the worship and teaching of enslaved Africans preserved authentic Christian teaching on justice and the dignity of all in the face of white supremacy, a theme that Tisby highlights again in the context of the undeniable role the Black church and Black leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement. By contrast, the chapter which sketches the current role of Black clergy in anti-racism and broader justice efforts is comparatively thin. Readers might have benefitted from, for example, an introduction to Rev. Traci Blackmon’s leadership in protests at Ferguson and again at Charlottesville, or to Rev. William Barber’s work in the Moral Mondays movement and the renewed Poor People’s Campaign.
The book is also perhaps unduly focused on men as agents of change. Though excellent in themselves, accounts of Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks must stand in for a great many other women’s histories; a more representative number of women are mentioned as agents in modern accounts of social movements. Beyond those examples, when women are mentioned they are more likely to serve as a class of passive sufferers (victims of systemic rape under slavery) or scapegoats (Hillary Clinton is reduced to a caricature; the role of sexism in that caricature is elided). For example, Tisby has Harriet Jacobs speak in her own voice to describe the cruel dilemma of her “choice” between rape by a White slave owner or sexual relations with a free White man, in hopes that the latter would provide relative levels of protection for her and any children she might then bear. This inclusion is both heartrending and illustrative of the point Tisby is communicating to his readers. However, Jacobs is not only a person who had a terrible choice between things others would do to her. She was also a person who tricked a slave owner by hiding in a tiny attic for seven years, made a dangerous escape to the North even though she was in poor health, tracked down her children, and courageously testified to the wrongs she endured. Alternately, the inclusion of Jacobs’s story in this book could have served as a springboard for a section on White women’s role in slavery, since Jacobs’s autobiography (the source for Tisby’s quote) is addressed directly to White women as a plea to oppose slavery upon the basis of shared motherhood and womanhood.2
Educators and scholars may appreciate the difficulty Tisby faces in helping American Christians understand reality as something composed not only of individual actors and actions, but also of systems, institutions, and cultural paradigms. How does he make visible to readers what may be invisible to them, especially considering the way their worldview (as American Christians) is likely to prioritize individualism? One strategy he employs is to highlight for readers not only the actions of individuals at a given turning point in history, but also the deliberations, rationalizations, and ensuing choices of institutions, particularly of Christian religious institutions. The history of the Civil War is thus not only about Dred Scott and Abraham Lincoln, but also about various states, industry interests, and Christian denominations. The most potent iteration of this carefully developed scaffolding is in the final chapters, in which readers are encouraged to respond to the history they have encountered not only as individuals but also as members of communities, and to imagine along with changes they might adopt for themselves (here Tisby offers eminently doable suggestions) what sort of difference our groups might make. If he has not forborne to grapple with the ways whole denominations have at times chosen complicity or even outright support for racism, he also foretells the redemptive power and scope of a church that dedicates itself to setting things right. Shall we have a year of jubilee? What form should Biblical reparations take to address the exclusion of Black students from Christian schools? The energy of the creative vision offered in the penultimate section is invigorating.
In sum, The Color of Compromise offers an accessible, thoughtful, and explicitly Christian resource to readers who wish to understand the history of American Christianity’s relationship to racism, and who desire a guide as they move from understanding that history to participating in ongoing redemptive action. Christian scholars should also consider how Jemar Tisby’s work could aid them in their larger role as intellectuals within and without the broader Christian community. As recording artist Lecrae writes in his introduction, “Education should lead to informed action, and informed action should lead to liberation, justice, and repair.” In plain words, my fellow educators and scholars, this is our vocation.
Cite this article
- For a deeper exploration of this history, see Ibram X. Kendi’s recent and exhaustive Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation, 2016) and Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
- Readers interested in the rest of Jacobs’ story and the sorts of resistance practiced by enslaved women will want to read Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, eds. Richard Yarborough and Francis Smith Foster (New York: Norton, 2019). Those interested in White women’s active role in slavery should locate Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ recent They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).