A Sharper Historical Picture
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby is a historical survey that examines the interconnectedness between American history and the American Christian church by exploring its complicity in maintaining racism throughout the centuries. As a theologically trained historian, Tisby assumes the arduous task of simultaneously retelling both histories concisely – while discussing key historical moments and figures that reveal the interplay between the Church and State. Tisby’s side by side approach pulls back the curtain on an American history that has been remembered in the brighter lights of history’s victorious story tellers. The retelling of history normally takes on the values and agenda of the story teller’s interpretation yielding a blurry picture, but the historical picture sharpens when more perspectives are included. Tisby recounts American history as a Black historian highlights that “representation matters” when telling the story of race in America.
Tisby’s two-fold goal is to tell “the truth about racism in the American church in order to facilitate authentic human solidarity” (15). For Tisby, ‘human solidarity’ is expressed through Christ remaking the church so it can truly be a “house for all nations” (24), a family that is unified and displays distinct actions demonstrating reconciliation. Tisby’s desire is that a true understanding of this complicity leads white Christians to respond with a “necessary urgency” that demonstrates “immediate and resolute antiracist action” (15, 16). The first half of his 218-page book – which covers American history from the pre-colonial era through the Jim Crow era – clearly identifies the blatant intertwining of racism and the church. The second half presents the harder task of tracing the ways racism “adapts” by demonstrating complicity from the 20th century through the contemporary moment. Tisby’s survey is well constructed, wide in scope and rich with specific examples of complicity, but his efforts to demonstrate the church’s complicity in the 20th century proved to be a weakness for the book – considering its target audience.
Tisby’s Constructive Truth Telling
Tisby examines historical facts that may not be known to the public at large because they do not fit the triumphalist narrative of American history. For example, the Declaration of Independence originally included a clause denouncing the transatlantic slavery but was later removed “due to the objections of delegates from Georgia and South Carolina as well as some northern states that benefited from slavery” (p.42). Removing this clause demonstrates that the nation’s forefathers, who were themselves seeking freedom, lived in tension regarding the freedom of their black neighbors. Ultimately, the sin of racism and greed won over the love of neighbor. Tisby also shares historical details about the Civil War era that demonstrates how America’s largest Protestant denominations split over slavery, which is a testament to how Christians viewed the imago Dei in black people. He summarizes the Northern and Southern denominational splits saying, “Southern Christians devised increasingly complex theological arguments to argue for the existence of slavery, and in the process, southern Christians moved from viewing slavery as something permitted to something positive” (p. 80). These specific narrations of American and church history illuminate the folds of history that have been largely ignored.
Tisby does not share these devastating realities to induce self-wallowing guilt among white Christians. His stated goal is to accurately reflect a sharper picture of history that leads to healing through repentance and action. Tisby’s historical account calls for direct action that is in harmony with the Christian life marked by repentance. Tisby’s emphasis on action is not to eclipse Jesus work on the cross, but to reflect it. He writes, “On the cross when Christ said, ‘It is finished’ he meant it…If peace has been achieved between God and human beings, surely we can have greater peace between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds” (23). The believer who has identified with Christ first, understands that peering into the traumatic corners of history is a step toward healing – visible by repentance and action.
The Problem of Tracking Racism
Tisby’s difficulty in this historical survey is clearly tracking racism’s shift over time, namely articulating systemic racism. Tisby himself attempts to address in the beginning of the book. “Racist attitudes produced different actions in 1619 than they did in 1919 or 2020…history demonstrates that racism never goes away; it just adapts” (19). This reality is not lost on the scores of black people who have lived in America. But this reality is the most difficult to illuminate to his target audience – White Christians. If white Christians approach this book with a nascent understanding of the Church’s complicity with racism throughout history, they are not likely to readily acknowledge systemic racism – the seemingly invisible vestiges of legalized slavery and segregation. After recounting the Church’s complicity in the Antebellum period through the Civil Rights era of the early to mid 1960s, Tisby could have provided a clearer picture for understanding how systems remain even when people who created them have long passed.
For example, Tisby tracks the rise of the religious right, and later Moral Majority, beginning with their desire to maintain segregation which in turn motivated their political choices. While Christians participated in these political mobilizations, these actions were not explicitly regulated to the Church. These systems (educational and political) have been steeped in racism adversely affecting people of color, therefore Tisby magnifying the interconnectedness of churches in this political movement within this portion of the book would have strengthened his argument as a whole. Tisby also connects the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO with the apathetic Christian response to #blacklivesmatter lament. A better treatment of Brown’s death in the scope of systemic racism could have examined the systemic realities bearing on Brown’s life and his environment (Ferguson, MO, police community relations, etc.) prior to his death. Tisby then could have traced a clearer argument that the Christians lack of response to the general flourishing of black lives as fellow image bearers and the lament of #blacklivesmatter requires direct action. Therefore, inaction in this cases could be more clearly seen as complicity with systems that have historically disparaged people of color.
Acts in Keeping with Repentance
Tisby concludes with a strong emphasis on actions that meet the urgency of the moment. Tisby acknowledges various denominations have already put forth resolutions and public confessions repenting for sins against black brothers and sisters. He specifically notes how the SBC made such a resolution on its 150th anniversary repenting for racism and asking for forgiveness for being a slaveholding denomination in the past. The lay church member who was not aware of these retrospective statements may have found them superfluous at the time, but the context Tisby shares concerning the Church’s complicity with racism exemplifies these steps as necessary for reconciliation efforts.
The action steps Tisby offers and expounds upon in the book’s final chapter are essential for his argument because at times it was the inaction of the American church that testified to the church’s complicity. Even though there are institutional suggestions to combat systems of racism (the element he treats the least), the list is substantial enough to provide healthy conversation on best ways to demonstrate acts that keep in step with repentance. This is the constructive aspect of truthful historical reflection.
Overall, The Color of Compromise accurately asserts that American Christians must reckon with the sins of the past because accurate reflection upon the past leads to productive healing. Christians should be historians who have the responsibility to reflect rightly upon the past as agents of restorative Kingdom work. The Color of Compromise is a helpful work because viewing the Church’s complicity with racism – while at times disturbing – is the truth necessary to catalyze productive steps forward. In pushing back on racism, sorrow that leads to repentance displays concerted actions to reflect a restored relationship with God and neighbor, leading to what Tisby calls “courageous Christianity.”