Jemar Tisby arrives on the academic scene with genre-bending credentials. Rarely do scholars—let alone Christian scholars—publish and operate within media-rich movements. Tisby does. His leadership in The Witness, a black Christian collective “that engages issues of religion, race, justice, and culture,” and his co-hosting duties on the Pass the Mic podcast back up his book’s bold title declaring Christianity complicit in American racism.
So Much More Than Recognition
Nearly twenty years ago, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith conducted a survey to distill contemporary evangelicalism’s perspective on racism in the church. Their findings became the book Divided by Faith and many of their discoveries upended the majority narrative that evangelicalism played an active role in tearing down racism in America. Instead, they found that rather than dismantling racism, much of evangelicalism’s present-day effect (in 1996–2000) reinforced racist structures.
Many recent works denounce the racism in the church clearly exposed by Divided by Faith, but Tisby’s debut book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, makes explicit what Emerson and Smith summarized. The church is accountable for its role in perpetuating racism.
The canvas of racist history exposes its sinister evolution. In short, “racism never goes away; it adapts,” a point Tisby illustrates by tracing racism in America from colonialism up to the present day and by demonstrating the church’s guilt in each era. Baptism did not free a slave in the colonies; the Episcopal Convention denied St. Philip’s parish admittance in the nascent nation; Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians each split internally, portending the Civil War; Christians in an Atlanta neighborhood fought to “Keep Kirkwood [GA] White.” Tisby dubs these actions as “complicit Christianity,” which he explains, “forfeits its moral authority.”
A similar thesis threads through Carol Anderson’s White Rage. The complexity of this history, which includes unwittingly conflicted heroes like Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham, finds confirmation in the extensive research documented by Emerson and Smith. And fellow Christian voices like Aaron Layton (Dear White Christian) and Eric Mason (Woke Church) preceded The Color of Compromise by calling for shared lament, not mere acknowledgment, of centuries of injustice.
But Tisby goes a step further beckoning his readers to embrace courageous Christianity, the alternative to complicit Christianity.
Courageous Christianity For Unmaking Racism
At least ten times in The Color of Compromise, Tisby argues that racism wasn’t the required way of our world. He explains that, “one has to realize that nothing about American racism was inevitable,” “American history could have happened another way,” and therefore, “if racism can be made, it can be unmade.” Herein lies the tension Tisby refuses to let his readers escape: To achieve racial reconciliation requires white Christians to repent of their role in perpetuating its existence. This will be uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
Evangelical Christians in particular face deeply challenging struggles if they wish to participate in the solution. The evangelical theological emphasis on individualism runs tandem with an anti-structuralism that marginalizes the systemic forces of racism. Generally speaking, conservative evangelicals imagine structural change occurs through the accumulation of individual choices over long periods of time. This attitude was exemplified in the backlash against Thabiti Anyabwile’s support for justice movements. The revile of Pastor Anyabwile revealed again the evangelical reticence toward engaging unjust, and therefore unbiblical, systems (e.g., profiling), while loudly condemning unbiblical choices (e.g., abortion).
Tisby’s first chapter alone deserves a place in every Sunday school, Bible college, and seminary curriculum for its righting of many wrongly held beliefs. He offers definitions of “racism,” “prejudice,” and “white supremacy” that discard euphemisms and announce racism’s ongoing presence and previews the discomfort many will experience while encountering their complicity in the chapters to follow.
Minor weaknesses in Tisby’s approach can be explained away by his stated approach. While he only briefly mentions multi-ethnic reconciliation and breezes through strings of names or incidents that feel inserted rather than intentional, they remain tangential to his primary goal of addressing the “black-white racial divide in American Christianity.”
The Color of Compromise deserves a longer treatment, but brevity reinforces Tisby’s point: the time for talking has passed. It’s time to act. Anticipating the radical-sounding nature of the recommendations in his final chapter, Tisby notes that readers may deem them impractical or inconvenient. But what could be more inconvenient that chattel slavery?
Cover photo by Nicola Fioravanti.