~ An Extended Interaction and Commentary on The Color of Compromise
What you have before you is our thoughts on Jamar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. Who is he? A graduate of Notre Dame with an M.Div at RTS and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Mississippi. A bright guy who is focused on racial justice, religion and he argues that the white Church as a whole in America must come to grips with their collective guilt on how blacks were, and more importantly, are still treated. And what we want to do is see how well what he argues in the pages of this book fit with his belief that the white church in America has been and continues to be complicit with racism.
The argument is simple. On pg 15 he says that the book “is about revealing racism.” Specifically he seeks to pull back the curtain of how American Christians have collaborated with racism for centuries. By “American Christians” he means white Christians and that is important to remember.
Here is where we begin our departure from Mr. Tisby and it is important to know this up-front as it will color, no pun intended, our responses. Tisby makes the error of equating the visible, external church in America with Christians in general. If he were to have written, “American Church” we would be more prone to have agreement. But when he makes it “Christians” he steps from the whole to the individual and this cannot stand under any level of scrutiny. Simply put, many Christians did oppose the form of slavery practiced in America and they continue to oppose any form of racism today. But this book will not give true acknowledgement of that fact and instead chooses to make sweeping statements that bring little light to a heated topic.
It is simple enough for those who have a modicum of understanding of American history to agree that racial inequality and racially motivated actions affected the white Church. Whites were the overwhelming majority in America in its beginnings and professing to be Christian was the overwhelming norm. So, like many others, we acknowledge that but we do not therefore embrace his conclusions and solutions as the answer.
Tisby helpfully defines what he means by racism on pg 16. Referencing a Beverly Tatum he writes that it is “a system of oppression based on race.” And here we begin to see how this book will flow. It is not personal bigotry that is the issue as much as systems that are in place that are racist as well. And by making this the definition his task becomes easy for him to argue, for no longer is he showing intent by people. Now he only has to imply that some system is present to bring down oppression of some sort upon the blacks and that this is racist by nature. Without any proof he condemns “many white people” as being complicit in racism (pg 16). Behind all of this is the simple argument that any white Christian is presently guilty of past actions unless somehow we abandon the systems that he calls racist.
On page 19 he defends the value of writing this book as an attempt to “build up the body of Christ by ‘speaking the truth in love.’” Having read the book through three times we are still left with a sincere question of how much “truth” was spoken and how it built up the Church and what was loving in it. We are not whining here, we are just left asking when he actually does any of it.
This is made clear in just two paragraphs later when he sweepingly applauds the black church as being a bulwark against bigotry. It is called an “ark of safety.” He invokes liberation theology terminology by equating it with the liberation of Israel from Egypt. And that the black are the most religious demographic in the country. If one wanted to be a bit snide one could almost argue he is being a bit “afro-centric” in his assertions. He is right when he says on page 20 that “black Christians” have played a vital role in shaping the history of America and that they have much to share with the Church. But what follows on the pages is not a positive declaration of that claim but an attempt to take away any positive role that the white church has offered to the universal church.
On pages 20-21 he then does an incredibly bad thing by anticipating why some may find the book to be a hard read. He is simply brushing aside arguments as evidence of racism rather than anticipating them and giving a sound, biblical response to them. So he glibly acknowledges that some will see liberalism or Marxist ideology as the driving forces. Or that the book is really simply making a claim of being a victim. Or that the points made do not represent the real church. Mind you he never once really deals with those claims, he just knows they are coming and brushes them aside as being false. The problem, though, is that he is arguing for most, if not all of these points. He favorably quotes liberals, Marxist individuals. He brushes over the violence and evil of blacks while focusing on the violence and evil of whites. And his solutions are, by and large, the platform of liberal politics rather than biblical standards. So the reader who might approach this book with a bit of skepticism is already put on the defense to prove a negative.
It is somewhat humorous how highly he views his book. He equates it as being like having a sobering talk with your doctor about a serious disease and how radical surgery is the only option. We laughed at that for his points are not new; rather, they are a rehashing of historical realities while artificially sewing together quotes and events to create a patchwork quilt that claims to be a blanket of truth cut from one, single cloth. On page 24 he states that “progress is possible, but we must learn to discern the difference between complicit Christianity and courageous Christianity. . . . Christianity has run aground on the rocks of racism and threatens to capsize—it has lost its integrity.” But courageous Christianity is defined as embracing “racial and ethnic diversity.” So there is hope for the Church, but only if it jumps on board with him and his assertions. Anything else, is a complicit and untrustworthy entity.
So if you are wondering if we are fans of the book, we are not. It may be championed by some as a groundbreaking book but for us it left us wanting for something substantive.
From this opening chapter he then begins to take us on a broad sweep of American history and in many ways it was decent. He was necessarily broad and he knows it. In all honesty we would have liked him to be more detailed in this section. Another 100 pages of well-documented occurrences would have been helpful. We learned of a few events we did not know and they were painful to read.
Starting in 1667 he shows how it was common and natural in the minds of the citizens to see the blacks as objects, or inferior humans rather than image-bearers. And because the church and state were so closely linked, the church certainly was complicit in treating the slaves as slaves. It is interesting that he did not give any examples of them being argued as being less that human, but that they were to remain as slaves. This is not a defense, it is simply an observation. The slave was seen as an acceptable form of societal reality. But he also fails miserably in this by focusing on the whites who purchased slaves in Europe and America and making essentially no point on the fact that Africans were the providers of slaves. Again there is not a defense of this sort of slavery, but it is a simple fact of history that the slave trade finds its roots in Africans kidnaping other tribes and selling them. Something that is still very common today in Africa.
He comments but does not enlarge on the reality of how institutional Christianity drove so much of this error. It is worth remembering that this was the norm in Europe due to the grave errors of the RCC, Lutheran and Anglican Churches in practicing paedobaptism as the means to be “in Christ” and in the Church and therefore promoting institutionalized Christians rather than actual, regenerate believers. Before our paedobaptist brethren freak out, we will readily acknowledge that our Baptist brethren were quick to follow in institutionalizing Christianity, having a form of godliness but often denying its true power via the regenerating work of the Spirit. Their methodology was different but the results are still the same, just look at the bloated membership rolls in most SBC churches today. That institutionalization of the church continues to this day. And not just in white churches.
On page 37-38 he makes a point in passing that is worth noting. He gives a head nod to the missionary efforts to the African nations. But he wants us to remember that the gospel had come to the continent a long time prior, which is true. But he fails to admit that for the most part the Church in Africa failed in its evangelistic efforts. He seems to give some level of approval of the influence of Islam and tribal religions as something that should not be disregarded, which, is puzzling at best and vile at worst. But then he says something key. The failure of the missionary effort stems from the “truncated ... gospel message by failing to confront slavery. . . .” This is reading a current perspective backward onto history and it shows how slavery, in his thinking, somehow is part of the gospel message. It isn’t. If it were then the New Testament would not be telling slaves to submit to masters and masters to treat their slaves in a certain manner. But it is setting up the reader to think that slavery is, to use a TGC term, a “gospel issue.”
He then moves on to the founding of America. The historical points made are fine but they all go through the lens of slavery. Jefferson was a slave holder therefore he is bad but he is also the writer of the Declaration of Independence. Fine, true and certainly inconsistent. But, then, Jefferson was not a Christian. And frankly, many of the founding Fathers were nothing more than deists. But they were also men of their time as well. It is easy to look backward and make simple judgments from one’s own vantage point but it is not the same as when you are in the very soup of the culture you live in. This is a common error when looking at history, reading backwards our values and convictions rather than simply understanding the historical realities that existed then. It is interesting that on pg 45 he references one black man (whom he calls biracial even though he would not refer to any person claiming blackness today to be biracial rather than “black) who was pastoring an all-white church. But that is all he says. No mention that if this were true then not everyone even in the 1700's were anti-black. And that even then Christians held to all sorts of convictions regarding race.
This is part of my problem with this chapter and the book in total. He downplays positive movements and focuses only on negative even though both were exiting side by side. Add to this his propensity to make sweeping comments with no proof or footnote to back it up and it leaves a reader wondering. Examples in chapter 3 would be “black people were attracted to revival preaching because it mirrored the familiar practices of West African religions.” Or “Slaveowners still frowned upon Christianizing the enslaved.”
He also seeks to undermine the many contributions of this nation’s early pastors. So George Whitefield is a bad man. Jonathan Edwards is a bad man. Why, because they either had slaves or did not denounce it outright. Mind you that there is no way that they could do this across the board from a biblical perspective. It doesn’t matter. They were bad men just like the founders. He continues with this vein of thought throughout the chapter and it does serve to help us see how much slavery was part of the fabric of the society. On pages 53-54 he recounts a shameful event where two black pastors are treated with deep disrespect by white church trustee. I physically winced at the story and it reminded me that these are the types of stories we do need to hear to be reminded that we ought never to repeat them, no matter the context.
In interest of time the listing of shameful things done in the history of our nation and in churches is rather full for such a small book. Starting in chapter 4 he does a good job in showing that there are many examples of churches, church leaders and denominations actively suppressing the role and importance of blacks in their midst. There is little question in my mind that this is why there is such a divide even today between white and black congregations—the blacks were essentially forced to grow and establish themselves on their own rather than a wonderful integration of the two groups in Christ. I will not quibble over details that could be interpreted one way or another because the larger point is made. White churches in many areas made it a practice to demean and mistreat black brothers and sisters.
His treatment of the Civil War is simplistic and that is unfortunate. There is simply too much data that is easily accessible to anyone today that unravels the events that led up to that horror of a war. On page 71 he says that the war was about slavery and that many Christians valued slavery so much that they were willing to die over it. This is not what the war was about, though slavery had a part in the process. But it does reflect either his unwillingness to do the work of a historian or it is merely reflecting his own prejudices that are apparent throughout the book. This chapter doesn’t help much in his point as it requires you to overlook historical inaccuracies to agree with him. And this is unfortunate because still there is much that the nation should be ashamed of in this time. Tisby also speaks of the supposed curse of Ham which was a common argument given by Christians for the inferiority of the African people. He is right and these arguments continue to this day in certain quarters. Whether the individuals promoting this view are actually Christians would be a separate issue. The real problem is how the Church took a situation, specifically the owning and selling of slaves, and with the assumption that it was correct or good then went to the bible to find justification. This is wrong thinking and it is very common. We see it today with social justice and CRT. They are assumed to be good and now we go looking for proof in the bible. Or, reparations. If you want to see what we mean, just go listen to Dr. Eric Mason preaching on the plundering of the Egyptians as a basis for reparations today.
In chapter 6 he deals with the Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era. This was overall a decent chapter but like everything before it there were revealing gaps and the reality of placing guilt upon the white church as a whole what was happening in a nation. It is worth saying here that we would not try to argue that all white churches and members are free from participating in the evil of this time period, but it is far too much to simply brush guilt upon them all as if that were true as well. What we would say about this time period is how it reveals that though laws can be enacted and even wars be fought, neither of these changes hearts. That takes time and more importantly it takes the gospel. Reconstruction was a time where both black and whites were abused and cheated and murdered by profiteering Northerners who saw this as a great opportunity to enrich themselves. Yet at the same time Tisby acknowledges that this era also produced the first black US Senator and a black man for the governor of Louisiana. Perfect? Not by a long shot, but improvement? Yes!
He also acknowledges that three constitutional amendments were passed giving the black population a higher status. These too are something to be encouraged even though they too could not change hearts of those who hated blacks. What is telling is on page 96 where he makes the claim of whites supremacists using the biblical idea of “redemption” to justify racial oppression. They did and this still happens. But it also happens in the black Christian community as well and one only needs to listen to the sermons of Jeremiah White, famously known as Obama’s pastor. This is what is frustrating as we read this book. He makes statements but the implication is that this is all one-sided and also the norm. Neither are actually true and he fails to grieve over the reality of these same things occurring in parts of the Black church today. From whence do these attitudes flow? From unregenerate hearts at worse and faulty biblical knowledge at best. It is without acknowledging these things that he points out how the KKK grew, flourished and happily used Scripture to justify twisted thinking. This may play to his own crowd and to those who are non-Christian but it is unconvincing to many who are in Christ who would no more affirm the KKK as they would a Satanist.
For time’s sake we move quickly through the chapter on the complicity of the North. Many points where we sadly acknowledge things that took place and points where we disagree with his perspective. But they are all much of the same type of issues we already raised. One point to be made is something that happens repeatedly in the book. On page 123 he says, “Racial discrimination did not end after World War II.” He is right, it didn’t end. But did it not improve? In reality it did for many and as a people group but there is no acknowledgement and this weakens his argument. It is as if the only thing that will placate him is if today, immediately, all things he decries both legally, culturally, economically, educationally, politically, corporately and individually are rejected en masse that he will not speak well or with hope.
By quoting favorably men like W. E. B. De Bois and Martin Luther King Jr he does not advance his argument well. Many may disagree with us here but we stand by this. De Bois was an avowed atheist. MLK was part of the clergy but there is no evidence that he was actually a Christian. His theology borne out of his own writings show this to be abundantly clear. I (Matt Henry) longed to read quotes from godly black pastors who love Christ and love His Word. They hold the power of the gospel in their lips and they are the ones white Christians need to hear and read. But, instead, we get De Bois or MLK without any acknowledgement that they were no more part of the genuine Church in America than many of the whites he has taken pains to reveal in the book. Here is a sample quote from page 143 that illustrates this. Quoting King, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. There is no other answer.” This is simply false and reveals how King really does not understand what the gospel accomplishes. It is the gospel that works the change that brings about social change. He devotes a substantial amount of time on King and at no point gives an honest assessment of the man’s life or theology. He is right that King has become the “quotable King” on page 148. And it is my desire that one day Christians will no longer go to this man for their quotes but to true men of God.
In chapter 9 we come to the end of the 20th century. Here we see Tisby again doing what he does all along in the book up to this point. He mixes the external Church with the political systems and other points of power as if they are one and the same. So he quotes Atwater in how to get out a political message and it is full of questionable, at best, ideas and downright evil at worst. But I shrug for why would we expect anything better from an unbelieving man seeking to extend his political powerbase? And it has nothing to do with the white Christian even if during this time there was the rise of the religious right. He disingenuously asserts on page 153 that neither the Democrat or Republican have properly addressed the problems in the black communities. This is laughable as at this point in American history every single major offense he has pointed to in the prior pages are now illegal and no longer practiced as a nation. But because the black community is framed in victim terminology rather than as responsible individuals he assumes that it is the white community keeping the black community down. By page 155 he is now shifting his argument to where he now stands. Overt racism is gone but now it has gone underground and is harder to discern. As he says, “racism never goes away; it adapts.” Would it not be better to say that sin never goes away, it adapts? But by framing it in the way he does it keeps the black community in the state of victimhood and it promote racial hopelessness. If his statement is true then there will never be resolution.
He brings up again on page 157 a thread of thought that occurs throughout the book; that within the black community uprisings or revolts took place. It is interesting to note each time he does it he does not condemn in any way the revolt, even though it involved murder, rape, theft, arson, and such. We are to condemn white violence against black but the book really just shrugs at black violence against white. Instead of uprising it is really law-breaking. It is not merely “destruction of property” but it is evil violence. Until professing Christians all define these sort of actions as what they are there will never be progress. Evil is always evil no matter who does it. And to call evil “good” is to simply arrange yourself against God Himself.
In this chapter the emphasis is so strong upon the workings of political powers and the result is that his attempt to make the white church as guilty of complicity fails rather miserably in this era. His attempt to paint the Religious White as a negative force also fails to see what they were resisting in their political and social battles. They were alarmed over the rise of many false narratives and ideas regarding sexuality, ethics and ideology. The huge rise of Marxism was troubling as they had seen its effects around the world. The riots and law-breaking concerned them. And yet for Tisby this is simply complicity in racism.